Harley-Davidson’s 110th party salutes a lifestyle, brand

bill-davidsonFor Bill Davidson, the party began months ago in Auckland, New Zealand. Then it moved to South Africa and Brazil before landing in Italy, where Pope Francis offered his blessing at the Vatican.

The Pope’s benediction acknowledged the thousands of Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders who showed up en masse at St. Peter’s Square. The move gained worldwide media attention.

Soon festivities rev up at home, in Milwaukee, where the Harley-Davidson Motor Company hosts a four-day party to observe its 110th anniversary. The Labor Day weekend blast is a massive bike show and parade of leather-coated pride, a music fest and a homecoming.

You don’t have to ride to attend and fit in. Compatibility is more about attitude.

Events salute a lifestyle as much as a brand and a sense of community more than individual products. It is hard to tell which came first – the earthy, free-spirited Harley lifestyle or the company’s savvy business strategy that stays true to it and breeds loyalty.

“Emotion is a part of our brand, clothing, lifestyle,” explains Bill, great-grandson of company co-founder William A. Davidson and vice president of the Harley-Davidson Museum. He acknowledges this business is one part motorcycles and one part entertainment.

Fading are the Hollywood stereotypes of “Easy Rider” druggies: People with at least $10,000 to spare for a set of Harley wheels aren’t prone to chronic irresponsible or self-destruction.

Harley clubs “started as clean-cut, almost militaristic-looking groups,” notes Kristen Jones, senior curator at the five-year-old Harley museum. Archival photos show them standing in formation, doing stunts and competing in best-dressed contests (some wore bow ties, white gloves).

The staggering wealth of artifacts is a part of what makes the museum unusual. “So few companies in the world have saved their history to this extent,” says Kristen, formerly with the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “We’re like a learning library,” and only 10 percent of holdings are on display.

Now visitors want to share their own treasures, too, which the curator says further enriches the museum’s cultural history and personalizes the product line. Newer acquisitions include a Harley swept 4,000 miles into sea (in a storage container) during Japan’s 2011 tsunami.

“I’m not a techie or a rider,” Kristen reveals, “but if I can explain (the acquisitions) in a digestible way, I’ve done my job.” The museum, she says, “is really about the people who make the products, literally and figuratively.”

Bill Davidson hears fans’ stories wherever he rides and “I’m so proud to meet customers on a one-to-one level.” From Milwaukee to Milan, “no matter where I go, everyone is equal” in a Harley crowd, and he says loyalty exists because of the personal passions behind the motorcycle name.

His own Harley memories date back to preschool, when he rode to work with his dad in a sidecar. There was snow on the ground, and a year later the boy was learning to ride during a family outing near Cave of the Mounds.

“We had the camper, the family dog, friends,” Bill recalls. What survives is an 8mm film of him wobbling around a farm field on a mini bike that weekend.

But he also will not forget the strain of a New Year’s Eve family dinner in the 1980s, “hours from filing for bankruptcy, waiting to hear if more financing could be secured.” The road to worldwide recognition has not been smooth.

“We have an iconic brand that’s very intriguing to riders and non-riders,” Bill believes. “I think our history is an amazing story, and people are proud of a company that’s a survivor.”

There’s not a Mr. Honda or a Mr. Suzuki, he notes, with a similar story to tell.

Harley-Davidson fans celebrate the company’s 110th anniversary in Milwaukee from Aug. 29 to Sept. 1. The party starts with Bike Night at the Harley-Davidson Museum (this weekly and informal Thursday gathering of Harley riders happens all year but starts during the day on Aug. 29).

Sixty bands – Aerosmith to ZZ Top – are booked Aug. 29 to Sept. 1 at the Maier Festival Park (lakefront Summerfest grounds). Hours are 5-11:30 p.m. Aug. 29; noon to 11:30 p.m. Aug. 30-31. Cost of a three-day ticket starts at $95, or $79 for two days. Expect an additional charge for Marcus Amphitheatre headliners (Toby Keith, Aug. 29; Aerosmith, Aug. 30; and Kid Rock, Aug. 31).

Some events are open only to Harley motorcycle owners and their guests. For details: h-dmuseum.com/110.

Making the road trip to Milwaukee but concerned about access to lodging while there or en route? Check out availability (and travel distances) at the Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association’s special page for the event: wisconsinlodging.org/harley.

House of Harley, one of the state’s largest motorcycle dealerships, will close a part of Milwaukee’s Layton Avenue (between 60th and 64th streets) from Aug. 26 to Sept. 2 to present free music, organized rides ($25 to participate) and other anniversary events.

For details about the events and dealership, 6221 W. Layton Ave., Milwaukee: houseofharley.com, 877-518-4643.

The Harley-Davidson Museum, 400 W. Canal St., Milwaukee, opens at 9 a.m. daily. Admission is $18 for adults, $10 for ages 5-17. Children under age 5 and museum members get in free.

Kristen Jones, the museum’s senior curator, says only 20 percent of those who take the self-guided tour own a Harley.

Gearheads can eye contemporary to antique motorcycles, beginning with the 1903 Serial Number One (which gets almost-sacred attention), but other areas of the museum present Harleys as studies in art, history, engineering, advertising and design.

There are areas to mount stationery bikes and experience the motion involved with riding and balancing. Kids get their own play area, complete with miniature vehicles and attire.

For details: h-d-museum.com, 414-287-2789. Expect free outdoor music and custom bike shows during Labor Day weekend.

The company also offers free, 30-minute tours of its Powertrain factory in Menomonee Falls on Mondays; the more extensive Steel Toe Tour costs $38. Learn more online or at 877-883-1450.