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Destination: Pennsylvania

Hog Heaven

Harley-Davidson Fans Visit Factory to See How It All Begins


YORK, Penn. — The No. 1 tourist attraction here is not an art museum. It is not an aquarium or an historic mansion or a picturesque waterfall.

What visitors to York County, Pennsylvania, most want to see is a factory.

That's right, a factory. A noisy, bustling--let's be brutally honest about it--ugly factory.

So, of course, they flock to it, as pilgrims might to a religious shrine, 78,000-strong last year, from every corner of the United States and from around the globe.

To be sure, this factory is not a religious shrine. It is, however, a certified--not to mention rarefied--piece of Americana. For here, and nowhere else, the Harley-Davidson motorcycle is assembled.

The Harley-Davidson . . .

Surely no other contemporary manufacturer so completely conjures the romance of the motorcycle. Its name evokes images of the mythical, fiercely independent, biker/rebel, the quintessential American film hero of the 1950s and '60s embodied by a leather-clad Marlon Brando or James Dean.

In one way at least, Harley has become the anthropomorphized version of that fabled image of the American loner. Whereas more than 150 American companies made motorcycles in the early part of the century, at its end, Harley-Davidson is the only one left.

A little more than a decade ago, Harley was in danger of toppling into bankruptcy, but it righted itself and is now enjoying the best of times, dominating the market for big bikes.

Demand for Harleys far outstrips supply. If you marched into your local Harley dealer today to order a brand-new motorcycle, you would have to wait at least a year before it rolled off the assembly line in York.

To pass the time, though, you are more than welcome to visit York and watch other people's Harleys being assembled. Which is what thousands of tourists are doing. For free.

The factory tour actually begins with a prelude: the Harley-Davidson Museum, which, for history buffs and motorcycle aficionados, will be the most interesting part of the 2 1/2-hour visit to Harley.

The museum contains a couple dozen antique motorcycles and traces the 93-year-long history of Harley-Davidson, a company born in a backyard in Milwaukee.

In 1903, you learn, William Harley and three Davidson brothers--William, Walter and Arthur--built three motorcycles in the Davidsons' backyard. Bearing little resemblance to today's muscular, chrome-heavy motorcycles, their first creations were essentially motorized bicycles with pedals.

Only a miniature version of the 1903 Harley is on display in the museum. (One of the originals is at the Harley headquarters, which is still in Milwaukee.)

The oldest, full-sized Harley in the York museum is the very similar 1906 model, which looks like the bike Miss Gulch rides in the "Wizard of Oz," with the addition of a big motor. In 1906, the museum guide tells us, Harley-Davidson produced one of these a week, and they sold for $200 apiece.

The tour progresses chronologically from there, as the motorcycles grow bigger, sleeker and sexier. You see the coming of the floorboards, balloon tires, headlights and speedometers, all the way up to today's most fully outfitted models, which come complete with cruise control, a CD player, an intercom and a selling price of about $17,000. (One day soon, telephone and fax machines also will be available.)

You see the first police motorcycles from 1923 and the olive-colored models from both world wars (after World War II, they were sold for $25 on the San Diego docks).

You see a 1958 green-and-white Duo-Glide of the type Elvis Presley owned (only his were lipstick red) and a Softail owned by Malcolm Forbes, a motorcycle enthusiast.

You see Sportsters, Knuckleheads, Flatheads, Pan Heads and Fat Boys--names that are evocative for Harley fans.

When the museum tour ends, you are handed eye-protectors, because now you are ready to enter Harley's cathedral, the factory where today's models are produced at a rate of about 485 a day.

It is inexplicably satisfying to watch an intricate piece of equipment swiftly assembled, like witnessing a human birth from conception, but all of it taking place in the space of an hour or two.


At the Harley plant, two classic assembly lines are staffed by workers, each of whom essentially has one assigned task as the gestating motorcycles, hung from conveyor belts, move by.

A third line uses a team approach, in which a three-person crew assembles the motorcycle from beginning to end. Interestingly, the teams are able to build a motorcycle faster than the conventional assembly lines. From beginning to end, the teams need about 45 minutes to finish a bike, compared with 1 hour 40 minutes for one of the assembly lines and 2 1/2 hours for the other.

Although the bikes are mass-produced, they emerge from the different assembly lines in many different variations because of all the different colors and models. As you watch them arrive fully formed at the end of the line, it is hard not to be struck by their unblemished beauty.

It is also hard not to see yourself in leather, astride one of them.

The Harley-Davidson Motor Company is located 30 miles south of Harrisburg at 1425 Eden Rd, York, PA., just off Route 30, the state's southeastern thoroughfare that takes visitors through Amish country to Gettysburg. Factory and museum tours, which are free, are conducted Mon.-Fri. at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Museum tours are conducted Saturdays at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. (NOTE: The factory closes to the public from June 26 to July 28 while 1997 motorcycle models are being assembled. Factory tours resume July 29.) For detailed recorded information about tours, call (717) 848-1177, Ext. 5900.

For more information on other things to see and do in York, call the York County Convention & Visitors' Bureau at (800) 673-2429.

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