Thursday, January 20, 2011

A different kind of 'dresser' emerges in Milwaukee...

Last summer, I visited the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee. One of the staff told me that they'd recently had a VIP visitor – Arthur H. Davidson, the ninety-something year-old son of company founder Arthur Davidson – who regaled the curators with a story that his father and mother had been almost exactly the same size. In fact, Arthur Davidson fit perfectly into her clothes. In fact, he wore her clothes to parties, where he sat on men's laps, flirted, and kissed them on the cheek...

Arthur Davidson (far left) at Cedar Lake, WI

“Times were different back then,” the museum guy chuckled. “Can you imagine a modern industrialist doing that?” Actually, what I can't imagine is Harley-Davidson's customers wrapping their heads around it. Talk about going viral on YouTube.

Suffice it to say that, while the museum has a room devoted to all of the different Harley motors, I don't expect a room devoted to the Davidson trannies any time soon.

The Motor Company was flush with cash when the museum was commissioned, but around the time of the opening, Willie G. told museum staff, “We’re so lucky we started this project when we did…” had it known that a major recession was about to cut the U.S. motorcycle market in half, the company never would’ve blown $75 million on a new home for its collection.

Jim Fricke is the curator. Although he had a bike as a kid, he’s not a lifelong motorcycle guy. He got into the museum business as an ex-punk rocker who was hired by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen to create the Experience Music Project in Seattle. Fricke brought an outsider's perspective to the museum, with the goal of placing the history of Harley-Davidson in the larger cultural context. So for example when the Harley-Davidson Knucklehead introduced a streamlined look in 1936, Fricke paired it with other examples of art deco design.

The result is the most comprehensive museum of American motorcycle history I've ever been in, even if – despite the decades in which Harley was defined largely by it’s rivalry with Indian – there's not a single bike from the wigwam on display. I guess that history really is written by the winners; if Indian had been the sole survivor among U.S. brands, their museum might not include any Harleys. Nor is there a 750-Four or a Gold Wing. Despite the impact Honda had on the U.S. market, its absence won't be noted by most of the visitors I saw; judging from their tattoos and sawed-off jackets, they all already think, ‘if it ain’t Harley, it ain’t shit.’
The ill-fated Nova project – a collaboration between Harley and Porsche that came close to seeing a water-cooled V-twin, -four, and –six reach production, is given some prominence in the museum. But about a dozen ex-Duhamel, -Picotte, and -Russell VR1000 superbikes are stored out of sight in an area on the top floor that’s off-limits to the public. I got the feeling the Nova models were displayed to give the brethren of the bar-and-shield a little frisson; look how close we came to abandoning, ‘potato-potato.’ But the VR1000 was downplayed because it was too hard to spin as anything but a failure.
More than any other company, Harley’s wrapped itself in the American flag, so the museum’s parochialism is consistent. America’s hog-ridin’ mainstream is resolutely isolationist (or at least happy to leave international travel to its military.) As a nation, America is able to reconcile ideas that would be deemed mutually exclusive anywhere else. So nearly two-thirds of Americans literally believe that the earth is about 5,000 years old, and was formed over a period of six days as described in the Book of Genesis. And at the same time, the U.S. has by far the world’s largest porn industry.

That’s another way Harley is a microcosm of America; it’s the favoured bike of both cops and Hells Angels. And then there’s Evel Knievel; half Captain America, half outlaw. A few sticklers will remember that before Evel ever rode Harleys, he performed on Hondas, Nortons, Triumphs, and even Laverdas (admittedly re-badged as ‘American Eagles.’) But in the public mind, he’s on a Harley. Although the company paid him some money, most of its support took the form of selling him bikes for a dollar apiece.

When I visited the museum last summer, they were about to open ‘True Evel,’ a major retrospective of his life. So, up in the archives, the curator and his assistants were busy cataloguing and sprucing up hundreds of items that would soon be on display. They’d accumulated an amazing cross section of Evel memorabilia – literally a cross section in some cases, as they had many of his x-rays!

It was all very serious; I had to put on white cotton gloves to hold Evel’s jeweled cane. But they were still bemused by the man they’d gotten to know while compiling the show.

“He was part Hell’s Angel and part Elvis,” I mused as I fingered his caped white jump suit. Fricke’s assistant countered, “More like part Liberace.” I knew better than to even ask them if I could put on the cape and run through the museum saying, “Vroom, vroom.” Besides, the predominantly burly, bearded and tattooed visitors would’ve found that behavior more than a little gay.

But it would have been right up Arthur Davidson’s alley. 

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