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Harley Culture

“There’s no other real American motorcycle,” says James Biber in a Wall Street Journal piece by Ann Landi (9/10/08). James is referring to Harley-Davidson and he may be a little biased, given that his firm, Pentagram Architects, designed the Harley-Davidson museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But he doesn’t hold back: “The real competition is the fake Harleys made in Japan, like Yamahas and Suzukis, but they’re just not the same,” he says. In any case, James made sure that the building his firm designed fully reflected Harley’s image.

“The louvers on the towers recall the engine,” he explains. “But the big metaphor is really that the bar and shield, sitting in an open tower, is like an engine sitting in the frame of a bike. It’s the jewel in the frame, and the cross-bracings on the outside of the buildings are literally the structural bracing.” Says James: “This place could not feel the slightest bit pretentious, or too modern or too retro.” The museum tells Harley’s story, which began in 1903, the same year “the first Ford rolled off the assembly line … and the Wright Brothers took their maiden flight.”

Harley was founded by William Harley and two Davidson brothers — Walter and Arthur, and later a third brother, William. The design turning point didn’t come until the Depression “when the founders hesitantly introduced color and Art Deco designs.” The museum also chronicles Harleys and women, beatniks, hippies and movies. Wild custom bikes, like the 13-foot, dual-engine, King Kong Harley are on display, along with a garage where mechanics work on bikes. The Harley Museum opened in July, cost $75 million to build, and expects 300,000 visitors per year. ~ Tim Manners, editor