Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Black History Month

Talk Back 118

OK, on the face of it, you may well ask what the hell does Black History Month have to do with Choppers? I know the majority of you probably roll your eyes every time you see that phrase, maybe even question what the reaction would be to a ‘white’ history month, although it could be argued, that 99% of the history books are Euro-centric.
Anyway, I got an invite from Harley-Davidson to attend a tour they were putting on for journalists, to get attention for their Black History Month exhibit in the Harley Davidson museum.
If you’ve never been out to the museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I can highly recommend a look around the many exhibits there. For some reason, in the early 1900s, they decided to start keeping one of every bike they produced, and every different model year after that. The result is a staggering collection of pristine vintage bikes that are 100% accurate, as most of them have never been restored. If that 1936 Knuckle isn’t the way you think it should be... you are wrong.
The other journalists attending were not even motorcycle press, they wrote for ethnic magazines, such as Ebony, and other African-American publications I (for some reason) have never heard of. So, I was like the token white guy of the group (although there was another, a writer for “Urban Baggers” out of Spearfish SD), but I got along well with them all, and I was a useful resource, since they had very little knowledge about motorcycles in general.
The first day was torturous, we were ferried out to a dealership and ‘treated’ to the sales spiel, most of which I allowed to slip by until he proclaimed that EVERYONE, sooner or later, ended up on a bagger. Nope, not this guy. They let us play on a bike on the dyno, so I at least had some fun pegging the speedo on it.
The next day was the museum tour, which is always cool, it’s worth going just to check out the statue by Jeff Decker outside the building. Randy Smith’s .45 Magnum us still there too, the real HD board trackers are super cool. Sugar Bear was there with his killer Panhead “Gorjus”, and no matter how you spell it, that bike is unbelievable, and pretty much still as he built it in 1969.
The BHM exhibit featured a drag bike built by “PeeWee”, one of the “Defiant Ones” MC out of LA. What was even cooler was that he was at the museum, as well as his grandson. It’s always cool to meet the ‘real deal’ from back in the day, I don’t care what color you are, a lifelong passion for bikes makes you OK in my book. The other part of the exhibit covered the first African-American owner of an HD dealership. William Johnson ran one from 1964-1970. Interesting when you consider that during segregation, black people were discouraged from buying new HDs.
Day three was easily the best for me, we were bussed to Menominee Falls where the Pilgrim Road factory sits. It is here that all the engines and transmissions (except for the V-Rod) are built. It’s not just an assembly plant, raw castings are shipped in and machined into useable parts and then put together. It’s an interesting mix between robots and people, and fascinating to see the whole process from raw castings, to completed powertrains. A couple of things jumped out at me, such as the mainshaft castings for the six speed big twins. All the gears are cast along with the shaft, the splines and gear teeth are all cut into it and the ends get heat treated for strength. Cool stuff, but what if a gear chips a tooth? Yep, gotta replace the whole damn thing! I guess I didn’t realize the crankshafts were pressed together like that either, there’s no way to replace the crankpin on a Twin Cam engine, hell, you can’t replace a rod! The flywheels, shafts and rods are all crammed together in one operation that will require junking the whole thing should one part fail. They don’t even balance the flywheels any more, they do make sure they are tracking straight at least.
I didn’t see any, but I guess they still make the Evo engine there, although they told me that the Evo remanufacturing program is carried out at S&S these days... which has a hint of irony about it. All in all, I liked the tour and realized a whole lot more of the entire drivetrain is made in the USA that I would have thought.
In the afternoon, the other journalists went home, and I had lunch with Sugar Bear and the museum curator. It’s always good to get the behind the scenes stories to these things. Afterwards, we went over to the corporate offices at Juneau Ave to visit a friend of Sugar Bear’s and to get a sort of mini tour of the office building. We were walking by the CEO’s office (Keith Wandell) and he saw us and called us in. For the next hour, we had an informal chat that was quite interesting. This is the first time I’ve actually met the CEO of any large corporation, so I had no basis for comparison I guess, but he was a very sharp man with a keen sense of the ‘big picture’ without the self-importance you would assign to someone like that if you just heard about him offhand.
The next morning I flew out of the frigid Wisconsin air back to the frigid Michigan air just in time to wrap this issue up before heading off to the Indianapolis V-Twin show, a full report of which you can expect next issue!

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