Motorcycle: Faces Places - Harley-Davidson Factories
Date: Sunday, October 31 @ 13:49:26 UTC
Topic: Motorcycle, Motorcycles, Motor Cycle
Harley - Davidson Factories
William S. Harley and the Davidson brothers first went into production in 1904 in a shed hastily thrown up in the Davidson backyard, bearing the grand legend "Harley Davidson Motor Co." on its humble wooden door. These days, the location of the famous shed, 38th and Highland Boulevard, is owned by a company producing something else for which Milwaukee is famous — the huge Miller Brewing Company.
• JUNEAU AVENUE
The founders took on their first employee in 1905, and moved into their first building on the present Juneau Avenue site twelve months later (although the road was then called Chestnut Street). In that year another five workers joined the Harley bandwagon as production soared to 50 motorcycles. Progress was relentless — and punishing. Walter Davidson later described how "we worked every day Sunday included, until at least 10:00.1 remember it was an event when we quit work on Christmas night at 8:00 to attend a family reunion." So it continued: 1907 — around 150 machines built, including the first police Harleys; 1908 — 18 employees and production tripled again to 450 units. By this time, manufacturing was in Harley-Davidson's first brick building, with a floor area of 2,380sq ft (220sq metres).
Such was the pressure to grow and get new bikes through the door that workers recall "putting machinery in place and starting production before the cement was dry". From 1907 to 1914, the Harley facility at least doubled in size every single year. At the outbreak of war in Europe, 1,574 employees built more than 16,000 machines in a factory of almost 300,000sq ft (28,000sq metres). With no exaggeration, the Milwaukee Journal described the company's breakneck progress as a "modern miracle".
Wartime pressure for space became so intense that the company once threw up a 2,400sq ft (220sq metre) brick building, only to tear it down and build something even bigger six months later. Buildings were leased on a temporary basis all over Milwaukee. Even Prohibition came to the company's aid, in a manner far more benign than Al Capone's. When breweries became idle, Harley-Davidson stepped in to rent the Pabst Brewing Company as storage space for Harley parts.
The post-war boom helped Harley-Davidson become, briefly at least, the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, pumping machines out of its huge, six-storey plant on Juneau Avenue, offering more than half a million square feet (50,000sq metres) of floor space on its completion in April 1919. The distinction lasted only until the Depression of 1920, when annual sales collapsed from more than 28,000 to just 10,202. America's economy recovered from this slump but motorcycle sales somehow did not. It was 1942 before Harley sales again exceeded 1920 levels. Under these cir*****stances, the last thing Milwaukee needed was more plant. Since its conversion to offices and warehousing in 1973, there has been no manufacturing at Harley's most evocative address: 3700 West Juneau Avenue, Milwaukee. Instead, the old site — and the grand old building — houses H-D's corporate headquarters and training departments.
• CAPITOL DRIVE
No sooner had Harley sales begun to recover from the Depression of the 1930s (sales slid to a pitiful 3,703 bikes in 1933) than Pearl Harbor was bombed and the United States entered the war. Towards the end of the 1940s, the company was looking to expand again as markets recovered. At the end of 1948, Harley moved into its first new address for 42 years, in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa. Thus, Capitol Drive, a single-story building of more than 260,000sq ft (24,000sq metres) which had previously housed the A. 0. Smith propeller plant, became Harley-Davidson's second manufacturing centre. In anticipation of a boom in post-war demand for motorcycles (and the opposite for aircraft propellers), the factory had been bought for $1.5 million two years earlier. Harley dealers — introduced to the new facility in a night-time "mystery tour" — weren't the only ones impressed.
Within a year, production was at an all-time high, although tougher times lay ahead. Also, less auspiciously (for V-twin die-hards, at least), November 1947 marked the debut of the 1.7 horsepower Model S 125cc single — a two-stroke Harley, heaven forbid. This was based on the same German DKW RT125 design as the BSA Bantam (and later Yamaha's very first model, the YA1 "Red Dragonfly") - and not least on the expectation that demobbed GI's would buy almost anything with wheels.
It was to be decades before the potential of Capitol Drive was fully realized, however. From today's viewpoint, it's difficult to envisage the trials cash-starved Harley-Davidson faced after that first burst of post-war optimism. During the 1950s, Harley sales were totally outstripped by British imports. From 31,000 units in 1948, sales never exceeded 17,250 again until 1965 — and for most of that time they were nearer 12,000. Paradoxically, matters only began to improve when the mass arrival of Japanese motorcycles stimulated wider interest in two-wheelers. Sales averaged around 30,000 for the remainder of the 1960s, rising to 70,000 by the mid-1970s.
This latter upturn in sales was due largely to AMF's heavy investment in manufacturing space, much of which is still in use today. The biggest single purchase was a $4.5 million monster for machining five-speed cases. Prior to this, Juneau Avenue had been a model of inefficiency, with part-assembled machines wheeled about and moved from shop to shop in lifts. Engine assembly moved from Juneau Avenue to Capitol Drive in 1971, although Harley-Davidson headquarters continued to undertake engine painting and the assembly of XR race engines for some years, the last actual manufacturing at the original site.
The addition of a modern facade means the Capitol Drive site no longer looks like a war-time propeller plant, but behind the facade the old factory now makes "small powertrains" for final assembly at Buell and the new Sportster plant in Kansas City. The facility also houses Harley's official Visitor Center, as well as a new customer engine reconditioning plant which is quite unique among volume motorcycle manufacturers.
With the exception of the original wooden sheds, Harley-Davidson has never abandoned one of its permanent sites on American soil. Overseas, however, it is a different story. Milwaukee's Italian connection arose out of a desire to diversify into smaller, cheaper models, in order to hoist itself out of the financial mire of the 1950s. In 1960, Harley bought half of Aermacchi's two-wheeler division, based in Varese, Italy. The purchase was seen as a more sensible means of expanding the Harley-Davidson range than actually trying to develop new, cheaper models from scratch. In September 1960, the first Italian Harley emerged. This was the 250 cc four-stroke Sprint, although two-strokes later predominated. (Although a stinkwheel Harley may sound like an offence against nature, lightweight two-strokes were produced in Milwaukee from 1947 until 1965.)
The joint venture didn't quite work out as hoped, but it did give Milwaukee its first and only world road race titles, with Walter Villa taking three 250 cc and one 350 cc crowns between 1974 and 1976, all on two stroke twins. Roadster production was dogged by such absurdities as fitting American-made cables and controls to bikes built in Italy (where they made such things quite well).
Fundamentally, however Varese couldn't compete with Japan. In June 1978, John A Davidson announced the closure of the project. The factory was bought by Cagiva which was producing 40,000 machines per year within less than three years.
In 1972, AMF's massive plant in York, Pennsylvania, lay almost idle. This coincided, after two decades in the doldrums, with Harley-Davidson's dire need for more manufacturing capacity and, not least, with one of Milwaukee's periodic upsurges in union militancy. York was refurbished and motorcycle final assembly took over. The first "York" Harley rolled off the lines in February 1973. Capitol Drive would now build only engines and transmissions. York remains Harley's largest production facility, although production is less diverse than it once was. After buy-out, York continued to manufacture military hardware — the casings on some of the bombs dropped over Iraq during the Gulf War were made at York - as well as IBM circuit boards. These peripheral activities have now ceased.
In common with the rest of the company, the plant at York has received massive investment in recent years - not the least of which was a new paint shop to unplug what was once the biggest production bottleneck.
With the transfer of Sportster production to Kansas, York now concentrates on building Big Twins on four lines — three for customs and one for heavyweight tourers
• TOMAHAWK, WISCONSIN
About 250 miles (402 km) north-west of Milwaukee lies the old Tomahawk boat company plant, of which Harley-Davidson bought a 60 per cent share in 1962. The 35,000sq ft (3,250sq metre) plant was purchased principally to make Servi-Car three-wheeler and golf-cart bodies (for which Harley-Davidson once controlled a third of the American market). It has since specialized in the manufacture of fairings, saddlebags, windshields and sidecars.
Like pretty much everywhere else in the Harley-Davidson empire, Tomahawk was r ecently expanded after an extension of 14,250sq ft (l,300sq metres) was completed in 1997.
• KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI
The brand-new $85 million plant in Kansas
City is the jewel in Harley's manufacturing crown. The first machines rolled off the line at the 330,000sq ft (30,000sq metre) factory in 1998. Kansas builds all Sportster models.
Kansas is the nearest Hog-building comes to state-of-the art. Expressions like "evolutionary turning point" and "ergonomically-friendly production lines" roll off corporate tongues as easily as "unique labour-management joint leadership philosophy".
There was a time when "Milwaukee" meant just one thing - Juneau Avenue. Capitol Drive then opened to confuse the issue. Now there are six facilities in the Milwaukee area.
The Product Development Center (PDC) is where future H-D models are created. It is immediately behind the Capitol Drive engine factory measuring 213,000sq ft (20,000sq metres), was completed in 1997 at a cost of $40 million. In 1997, a new Big Twin powerline plant was opened in nearby Menomonee Falls, and a new P&A Distribution Centre at Franklin, outside Milwaukee.
Pilgrim Road now produces all Evo and Twin Cam engines, before final assembly at York. Buells are built a half-hour's drive to the south-west, in East Troy, Wisconsin.
Harley-Davidson hasn't witnessed such expansion since the First World War. Production for 1998 totalled 148,000 machines compared to just 62,000 at the start of the 1990s. Thanks to the impetus provided by Kansas, production is planned to increase even further in the near future.
All of this is a very long way away from that little wooden shed where it all began.
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