Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

What takes two and a half hours to make, costs at least sixteen thousand dollars to purchase, is assembled in a former military and bowling equipment facility in York, Pennsylvania, and bears the nick­name “Milwaukee Iron”?

“What” is a motorcycle. More precisely, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Created in 1903 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and revered as the quintessential American motorcycle, the bike claims strong ties to the Keystone State. What was begun in a tiny wooden shed in America’s Dairyland by William S. Harley (1880-1943) and brothers Arthur (1881-1950) and Walter C. Davidson (1876-1942), joined in 1907 by their older brother William A. Davidson (1870-1937), has become much more than a mode of transportation. It’s a legend. It’s an icon. It’s a way of life. And although staunch loyalists celebrate the “Made in Milwaukee”tradition, the general consensus is that without its Pennsylvania association, Harley-Davidson Motor Company would have followed in the footsteps of another well-known manufacturer, Indian Motocycle Manufacturing Company, of Springfield. Massachusetts, which ceased operations in 1953. (A new breed of Indian Motorcycles has been introduced by entrepreneurs who acquired the company’s trademark in an thirty-million dollar merger in 1998.)

By the age of fifteen, William S. Harley was at work in a bicycle factory in North Milwaukee and later found employment as a draftsman with another manufacturer where his childhood friend Arthur David­son was employed as a pattern maker. An old German draftsman, who knew of motorcycle construction in Europe, interested the young men in designing gasoline engines for “taking the pedal out of pedalcycling.” In 1901, Harley and David­son made patterns for a single-cylinder engine, which Harley had designed for use on bicycles. They eventually built a rudimentary carburetor, which they nicknamed the “tomato can.”

The following year an enthusiastic Arthur Davidson wrote to his older brother Walter a machinist employed by the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad at its Parsons, Kansas, shops, telling tell him of the exciting project. His curiosity aroused, Walter Davidson returned to Milwaukee to see the new machine – intending he had to first help finish building it! Won over by the prototype’s possibilities, Wal­ter returned to Milwaukee to work in the shops of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad and to take part in the venture. In 1903, he made the first road test of the completed model. (An outstanding motorcyclist of his day, he continued to road test new models for the following
twenty-five years.)

Of the flaws in their “powered bicy­cle,” the loss of power ascending hills was the most significant. William Harley and the Davidson brothers returned to the proverbial drawing board.

Harley designed a more powerful engine, for which he and Arthur David­son made patterns. The cycle climbed hills more easily, but the frame strength – or lack thereof – became apparent and the trio replaced the light diamond-type frame with a full loop type with large diameter tubing, generously proportioned steering head and frame joints, and triple fork crown. They built three machines in 1904, and five in 1905. Walter Davidson, who by then had left the railroad shops, hired a helper, then another, until six were working side by side in the little shop. “We saw that we were going to need more room,” he later recalled, “and so we purchased one lot on a piece of land where the present big factory building is located, and we built a larger wooden shed. After we had the framework up, the railroad surveyors notified us that we were encroaching on their company’s right-of-way. So we got about eight or ten fellows, picked up the entire shop and moved it back about a foot and a half so that we were safe.” The larger plant enabled the company to manufacture fifty motorcycles in 1906. Pressing office work prompted Arthur Davidson to give up pattern making and set up a sales department. The year 1907, a milestone for the fledgling enterprise, saw incorporation of the concern, production triple to more than one hundred and fifty machines, William Davidson join the firm, and the release of company’s first catalogue. And if these developments were not sufficiently promising, several communities purchased Harley-Davidson motorcycles for police patrol and traffic control.

Demand began to outstrip production, and the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company again tripled its output – to four hundred and fifty motorcycles, built by thirty-five employees, in 1908. In its April 1908 issue, Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review took note of the company. “Of the latter day motorcycles, none so quickly earned a reputation as the Harley-Davidson. It is a machine the very appearance of which suggests sub­stantiability and power, and its performance has borne out its appearance.”

By 1909, production spiraled to one thousand machines, taxing the factory to meet the burgeoning demand, which the owners ameliorated by installing auto­mated machinery. This equipment transformed the modest shop into a modern plant.

And for decades, would-be purchasers dwarfed available inventory.

From the teens through the mid sixties-through the Great Depression and two World Wars-Harley-Davidson kept expanding. Due in part to considerable production costs and redesign expenses, Harley­-Davidson Motor Company went public in 1965. It quickly became evident, however, that the funds raised by the public stock offering were not ade­quate to sustain the company and, three years later, a sporting goods manufacturer, American Machine and Foundry (AMF), offered to purchase Harley­-Davidson from its stockholders. AMF proposed exchanging one and a half shares of its common stock for each share of Harley­-Davidson. On November 14, 1968, William H. Davidson, son of William A. Davidson and company president from 1942 until 1971, wrote the board of directors announcing the purchase. As a result, the company was spared a hostile takeover by Bangor Punta Corporation, a conglomerate headquartered in Greenwich, Connecticut, that specialized in corporate raiding. AMF literally saved the Harley­-Davidson Motor Company from being dismantled and sold off piecemeal.

Company officials immediately realized that one of their most pressing tasks was to update and improve Harley-Davidson’s production facilities. AMF owned an idle military and bowling equipment facility in York and spent millions to convert it into a motorcycle final-assembly facility that would boost production. The new arrangement allowed the Milwaukee plant to build the engines and ship them to York.

Initially, no plans were in place to manage two plants separated by seven hundred miles. Ray Tritten, a manufac­turing specialist who had been successful in turning around AMF in 1970, confronted a new challenge: make Harley-David­son profitable. Tritten did all the work to link the engine and transmission facility in Milwaukee to the assembly plant in York. In February 1973, the first bike, a Sportster, rolled off the York assembly line. In just three years, from 1970 until 1973, the company’s production skyrock­eted from nearly twenty-nine thousand to more than seventy thousand bikes.

“The conversion was a brilliant idea,” says Martin Jack Rosenblum, historian for the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. “At the time there definitely was friction because Harley-Davidsons for sixty-some years were completely made in Milwau­kee. Obviously there were emotional issues, but it was a good business decision. Our facility here [in Milwaukee] was very outdated. Without the York facility, our future would have been questionable even with AMF, because we needed a modern production facility. Without the York facility, we wouldn’t have been able to improve and ramp up production and make new products in quantity.”

AMF succeeded in making Harley-­Davidson motorcycles in quantity, able to produce seventy-five thousand motorcycles a year by 1975, reflecting a peak period for motorcycle popularity. But there arose questions about quality. Complaints about the build of motorcycles, particularly about oil leaks and electrical problems, dogged the company, and although its dealers remained loyal, many dealers needed to make improvements to the new machines before placing them in their showrooms.

“AMF saved Harley­-Davidson, but on the other hand, the AMF people did not all fully comprehend the idea of Harley-Davidson culture and how to effectively satisfy the individual Harley-Davidson motorcyclist and how to effectively support the dealer network,” continues Rosenblum. “They just didn’t connect with the rider in the way that the management did when it was just Harley-Davidson and the way they were able to after the buy-back. The rider felt disenfranchised, quality being the number one issue. It was a rough period of time; the competition was horrendous. The Japanese were making tremendous inroads, and their quality was unbeatable. Ultimately, Harley-Davidson rose to the occasion and did the right thing.”

On Thursday, February 26, 1981, thirteen employees – several executives representing Harley-Davidson and a few from American Machine and Foundry-signed a letter of intent to purchase Harley­-Davidson Motor Company from AMF. On Tuesday, June 23, in a huge media event in York, the purchase became official. Harley-Davidson signed the papers with AMF officials transferring Harley-David­son from an AMF-owned corporation to a privately held company. It was one of the greatest publicity episodes in the AMF and Harley-Davidson history. “The Eagle Soars Alone” became the rallying cry for management and motorcyclists alike.

During the event, Harley introduced its new rubber-mounted FXR model, and a new frame design for the Sportster that is still used today. News reporters and industry writers rode the bikes around the test track in York and then accompanied executives on a three-day trip to Milwaukee for more celebratory events. The tour, which stopped at dealerships along the way, culminated in an exuberant finale at the corporate headquarters in Milwaukee.

Not much later, three major changes further ensured the continued success of Harley-Davidson. In 1982, the Materials As Needed (MAN) application was introduced to the production process, which generally meant that parts and raw mate­rials were purchased and built as required, dramatically lowering production costs and improving quality. In 1984, after seven years in development, Harley­-Davidson unveiled the 1340cc “oil tight” Evolution engine on five models, including an all-new Softail with the trend set­ting design of concealing the rear shock absorbents.

Since then, Harley-Davidson Motor Company has introduced two new engines. The Twin Cam 88 1450cc was fitted in the Dynas and Touring bikes in 1999 models and installed in the Soft­ails in 2000 as the Twin Cam 88B.The Revolution 1130cc engine was introduced in summer 2001 in Harley’s first-ever water-cooled motorcycle, the V-Rod. Engines are still manufactured in Milwaukee and shipped by Harley­-Davidson’s trucking fleet to the assembly plants.

Today, Harley-David­son’s York Motorcycle Final Assembly Plant produces more than twenty-five models in its general product line, including the new 2002 V-Rod. The Sportster line had been moved to its own three hundred and thirty thousand square foot assembly plant in Kansas City in 1998. The York plant also builds limited-production models and police models. The company-wide production goal for 2001 is two hundred and thirty-one thousand motorcycles.

With more than a million square feet and thirty-two hundred employees, the York plant is the largest Harley-Davidson facility. On an average day, York builds approximately seven hundred motorcycles, with engines shipped to the plant daily. There are three assembly lines in York, one for each of the three families of bikes assembled there – Softails, Dynas, and Touring. Harley-Davidson is relocating its Dyna assembly line this spring to the Kansas City plant with production expected to be fully under way in the sec­ond quarter of 2002. The move will enable Harley-Davidson to expand the York plant in order to increase output and deliver more new motorcycles.

On the Softail line, a new bike rolls off the line every two minutes. On the Dyna line, three-person teams assemble the motorcycles, which come off the line every two and a half minutes. A Touring model is completed every three minutes. It takes approximately two-and-a-half hours to build the Softail and Touring models and about forty-five minutes to build a Dyna. Ninety percent of the bike’s components are made in the United States with the rest, mostly electrical equipment and wheel castings, imported.

The cold press area uses approximately thirty tons of sheet steel in the course of a day, stamping out gas tanks, fenders, and oil tanks. A hot press produces the kick­stands, which need to be strong enough to support the combined weight of bike and rider. All of the dies are manufactured in the building. The tanks are welded and tested for leaks, then polished and painted. A robot polishes the tanks in seven minutes-thirty-five minutes less than what it would take a human.

In 1991, Harley­-Davidson installed a thirty-one-million-dollar, state-of-the-art paint facility at the York factory, which became fully operational the following year. The tanks and fenders are powder coated at 650 degrees and covered with a clear coat. A robot applies the solid coats, but all lettering and pin striping are done by hand. The plant stocks a three-day supply of tanks and fenders. In addition, approximately thirty thousand chrome parts are manufactured daily, most of which are on a bike within twenty-four hours.

The frame and electrical harness are coupled before the framework starts down the assembly line on J-hooks. After the frame and engine are mated, a vehicle identification number (VIN) is stamped onto the frame to match the number on the engine. Each of the plant’s three assembly lines is set up a little differently. For instance, the Touring line has twenty-four stations. The bikes move down the line while the employees remain at the same station. Every two and a half hours a Touring bike is completed. On the Dyna assembly line, a team of three workers stays with the bike from beginning to end. Every two and a half minutes, a signal prompts the team to move to the next station.

All motorcycles coming off the assembly lines enter the roll test area where, for three to four miles, they run through every gear and are checked at speeds up to seventy miles an hour. If a bike passes, it goes to shipping. If it fails, it is returned to the problem area. In addition, each year approximately two hundred motorcycles are randomly selected to be reviewed in an audit department and tested on a track. Harley-Davidson ships to thirteen hundred dealerships around the world. About twenty-five percent of the traditional motorcycle shipments are exported.

The Custom Vehicles Operation (CVO), known internally as “Switch­blade,” also produces a limited number of specially designed motorcycles each year. These bikes, which are assembled by hand, are highly sought after. Each CVO model has unusual paint and accessories. The 2002 Screamin’ Eagle Road King, for instance, is painted a custom purple with silver flames and has a cus­tom leather seat with natural stingray inserts. It also comes with performance upgrades and a number of chrome accessories. The manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) for the Screamin’ Eagle Road King is twenty-five thousand dollars; the MSRP for a standard Road King is a mere sixteen thousand dollars.

Such excellence and quality demand highly specialized training, and plant employees complete a six-week training program on developing interpersonal skills and team building at the York County School of Technology. Because pride in turning out Harley-Davidson motorcycles runs exceptionally high, the York plant experiences very little worker turnover. Many of the employees are motorcycle riders themselves, and the company boasts its own Employee Riders Association.

Long before the local convention and visitors bureau began touting York County as the “Factory Tour Capital of the World,” Harley-Davidson had been welcoming visitors to its York Motorcycle Final Assembly Plant. (Area companies offering tours today include Frito-Lay and the Wolfgang Candy Company, York; Martin’s Potato Chips and the Pfaltzgraff Company, Thomasville; and Family Heir­loom Weavers, Red Lion.) The Harley­-Davidson Motor Company launched its tours in summer 1973, shortly after the first bike rolled off the newly converted assembly line. Four years later, the York facility unveiled the Rodney C. Gott Museum, named in honor of the AMF president, a fervent Harley-Davidson devotee, and the principal proponent of AMF’s acquisition of Harley­-Davidson. The museum’s collection of motorcycles chronicles the company’s nearly full century of history. In October 2000, the collection was moved to the corporate headquarters in Milwaukee in preparation for the opening of a much larger museum during the company’s one hundredth anniversary event slated for 2003. York’s tour center is currently undergoing major renovations, and a new manufacturing display will open in May 2002.

Factory tours, offered weekdays, begin in the Tour Center where a knowledgeable guide welcomes visitors. After viewing a brief orientation film, participants are led to the shop floor for a one-mile tour of the manufacturing assembly. Visitors are afforded a close look at the parts manufacturing process and the final assembly of the Dyna, Softail, and Touring motorcycles. At the end of the tour, visitors can sit on various models in the display area.

Each autumn the York Motor­cycle Final Assembly Plant hosts an open house, drawing motorcyclists from all over the country to enjoy demo rides, factory tours, vendors, and entertainment, as well as the York Bike Nite in down­town York. In 2001, fifty thousand motorcyclists attended. Proceeds raised by the event, which includes a motorcycle raffle, benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

To celebrate its centennial, Harley-Davidson Motor Company will kick off a year-long celebration in July 2002 with a an Open Road Tour that will visit cities throughout the world. This “rolling birthday party,” as company officials call it, will circle the globe, stopping at a series of festivals. The tour begins in North America, then moves to Mexico before jumping continents to Australia and Japan. It will conclude with major events in Europe in summer 2003. Each stop will have a local flavor that highlights each location’s interpretation of the Harley-Davidson experience. Riders and well-wishers will convene at Milwaukee August 28-30, 2003, for a gala one hundredth “birthday party,” expected to draw as many as a quarter-million celebrants.

Since 1903, Harley-Davidson has been building motorcycles and creating a legend. Riders are proud of their American-made machines and the sense of freedom that comes with it. Since 1968, Pennsylvania has contributed mightily to this American dream. As the Harley-Davidson Motor Company observes its centennial, both management and motorcyclists observe a milestone that would not be possible without this connection to Pennsylvania and the industriousness of Pennsylvanians.


The Harley-Davidson Motor Company’s plant is located on Eden Road, off Interstate 83 (Route 30/Arsenal Road). Tours are offered Monday through Friday at 9:30 A.M., 10:30 A.M., 12:30 P.M. and 1:30 P.M. Walk-in visitors are welcome. Groups of ten or more are asked to make reservations by telephoning the Tour Center at (717) 852-6590. Children must be at least twelve years of age to enter the plant. Closed toe shoes are required, and cameras are not permitted in the plant. Visitors are encouraged to telephone in advance of their visit as modifications to the tours can occur. The toll-free information line is (877) 746-7937. The plant tour is wheelchair accessible.


For Further Reading

Hendry, Maurice D. Harley-Davidson. New York: Ballantine Books Inc., 1972.

Joans, Barbara. Bike Lust: Harleys, Women, and American Society. Milwau­kee: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001.

Oliver, Smith Hempstone, and Donald H. Berkebile. The Smithsonian Collection of Automobiles and Motorcycles. Washing­ton, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1968.

____. Wheels and Wheeling: The Smithsonian Cycle Collection. Washing­ton, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1974.

Wright, David K. The Harley-Davidson Motor Company: An Official Ninety-Year History. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks Interna­tional, 1993.


Kimberly Barlag, of Columbus, Ohio, is editor of the north edition of Thunder Press, based in Westerville, Ohio, a publication for Harley-Davidson and American motorcycle enthusiasts. A motorcycle rider for nine years, she is the coordinator of the third “American Motorcy­clist Association Women and Motorcy­cling Conference,” which will be held June 29-July 3, 2002, in West Virginia. When she is not rid­ing or writing, or enjoying the companionship of her dog Karma, she is either attending kickboxing class or reading a good hook.