A full-throttle anniversary party

Harley-Davidson roars into town with musical stars along for the ride

Cover Story

August 15, 2002|By Kevin Eck | Kevin Eck,SUN STAFF

It was way back in 1903 that 21-year-old William Harley and 20-year-old Arthur Davidson constructed a motorcycle in a 10-foot-by-15-foot wooden shed in Milwaukee. That was the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle made available to the public, and, despite those humble beginnings, the world has never been the same.

Harley-Davidson has become an American symbol with worldwide appeal, and has made an indelible mark on pop culture, influencing music, movies and fashion.

As Harley-Davidson closes in on its centennial birthday, the motorcycle company has created the Harley-Davidson 100th Anniversary Open Road Tour, a yearlong series of festivals. The tour makes it way to Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course tomorrow and stays through Sunday.

The huge event (more than 50 acres) features everything from multimedia exhibits to motorcycle drill teams to a tap-dance troupe. There also will be more than a dozen big-name musical acts performing, including Bob Dylan, Hootie & the Blowfish, Billy Idol, Ted Nugent, the Neville Brothers, Allison Krauss and Southside Johnny.

"We said, `How do we take the passion that Harley-Davidson has for motorcycling and let people around the world share in the celebration with us?' " said Steve Piehl, the company's director of communications. "And the Open Road Tour is what we came up with. This is what we call taking the party to the people."

The 100th-anniversary festivals also are a testament to the company's perseverance and resiliency. Harley-Davidson had fallen on hard times in the early 1980s and was on the brink of bankruptcy in 1985 before rebounding to become the successful entity it is today.

"Harley-Davidson is one of the top recognized brands in the world. It's right up there with Coca-Cola and McDonald's," Piehl said. "When you think of a motorcycle, the image that comes to people's minds is that of a Harley-Davidson." (He's forgetting about Honda and Yamaha owners, of course, but his job is to promote Harleys.)

Baltimore is the second stop on the 10-city world tour, and is just one of four U.S. venues to play host to the event in 2002. Harley-Davidson selected Charm City because of its close proximity to Washington and Philadelphia, and because the East Coast is a hotbed of Harley-Davidson owners.

The tour opened last month in Atlanta, and will travel to Dallas and Los Angeles, domestically, and to Canada, Mexico, Australia, Japan, Spain and Germany, internationally.

Once the tour rolls to a stop in the summer of 2003, the anniversary festivities will culminate in a three-day event in Milwaukee, the home base of Harley-Davidson.

Although Harley-Davidson has become a symbol of rebelliousness, these rebels are not without a cause. A portion of the proceeds from the tour will go to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, for which Harley-Davidson has raised more than $40 million over the past 23 years.

Naturally, the Open Road Tour is expected to attract thousands of Harley-Davidson owners, but those who weren't born to be wild also are invited. Children of all ages are welcome, too, and kids 13 and under, accompanied by an adult, are admitted free of charge.

"We know for anybody that is a Harley rider, this is a once-in- a-lifetime opportunity," Piehl said. "But we want it to be an all-inclusive celebration for anybody who's either interested in Harleys or just wants to see some great entertainment. That's why we chose a broad variety of musical acts. Some of the entertainers are known Harley enthusiasts, but that wasn't a prerequisite."

And for those nonriders who may have reservations about mingling with throngs of bikers, fear not. The typical Harley-Davidson owner does not fit the Hell's Angels stereotype. He or she is, in fact, part of the upper middle class, on average.

The core of the festival will be three 20,000-square-foot exhibits - all in air-conditioned tents - entitled The Journey, The Machine and The Culture.

The Journey allows visitors to experience the history of Harley- Davidson through a series of multimedia and historic displays, including original artifacts and reproductions of vintage products and material from past marketing campaigns.

There's even a re-creation of the original shed where the company was born. Visitors will be encouraged to share stories about their personal experiences with Harley-Davidson in story booths.

The Machine exhibit features a display of select motorcycles from the Harley-Davidson archive, many of which have never been seen by the general public, including a 1907 model. Also included in this exhibit are motorcycles owned by rock stars such as Elvis Presley and Jon Bon Jovi.

Alongside the motorcycles, The Machine exhibit will focus on the engines that have powered the bikes, and the Harley- Davidson styling department's 100 favorite tank graphics.

The Culture exhibit examines the impact of Harley-Davidson on pop culture. There will be a film presentation about Harley- Davidson's role in movies, as well as a section showcasing the company's role in music.

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