In 1903, the year the Wright brothers made aviation history with their first flight, a couple of Milwaukee friends got their own little invention rolling.
William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson, two young men looking for an easier way to get around town, attached a single-cylinder engine to a modified bicycle frame. In the century since that first minimalist Harley-Davidson motorcycle was built in Davidson's shed, the manufacturing process has become somewhat more sophisticated.
That process -- a noisy mix of manual labor, steel presses, robotic wizardry and snakelike assembly lines -- is open to visitors at Harley-Davidson's main manufacturing plant in York, Pa. The free tour, which lasts about an hour, is designed to appeal to anyone interested in modern manufacturing, although motorcycle enthusiasts, particularly Harley fans, probably will find more meaning in the session.
It takes 100 minutes for workers to assemble a Harley. A typical bike contains 1,400 parts, most of which are pieced together before reaching the 46-station assembly line.
Bike frames, dangling like cow carcasses from meat hooks, move slowly along the line as workers bolt on the chrome forks, engines, gas tanks, wheels and other parts. At the end, each bike is taken to a testing area, hooked up to monitors and given a test run before being packed for shipping.
The assembly areas are surrounded by sectioned-off areas where parts are manufactured, pieced together, painted or polished. Throughout the plant, large presses, some two stories tall, turn flat sheets of elasticized steel into fenders, gas tanks and oil tanks.
Over the years, some processes have been streamlined with robotics that cut and polish metal parts faster and more accurately than when employees did the work. But the workers at the unionized plant don't lose their jobs. They are reassigned to other positions, and maybe save a few fingers in the process.
"Robotics have actually taken a lot of injuries out of the picture," said Bob McElroy, the plant's tour leader. "And if we get a robot to take over your job, we'll retrain you."
Opened in 1973, the York plant produces 800 Harleys a day. Harley-Davidson, which also has manufacturing plants in Wisconsin and Missouri, made a company record 291,000 bikes in 2003 and has set a goal of 317,000 for this year.
Some customers can buy Harleys off showroom floors, but many have to wait three to six months for the company to fill their orders, said McElroy, who plans to trade in his 2002 Harley Road Glide for an '04 Ultra Classic when it is built, perhaps next month.
The waiting -- which has been as long as two years -- is part of the allure and a credit to the company's marketing savvy.
"We have the technology to flood the market if we want," McElroy said. "We could make 500,000 a year."
Instead, Harley succeeds in part by playing hard to get, making just enough motorcycles to barely meet demand.
"They are not trying to be something for everyone," said Yvonne Martin, assistant professor in the management and business department at Messiah College near Harrisburg. "They want to stand out in the mind of the consumer for something."
While food aficionados probably would not savor a tour of a hot dog or sausage plant, the Harley-making process does nothing to detract from the bike's mystique.
Asked if he was surprised by anything he saw on the tour, Balvin Brinsfield of Vienna, Md., said, "Yes, the whole plant's very clean. It's very impressive."
Tours begin at regular intervals between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Admission is free. Tickets are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. Closed-toe shoes are required. Children under 12 are not permitted on the tour. An adult must accompany visitors under 18. Visitors over 18 must show ID. For more information, call 877-883-1450.
Places to eat
San Carlo's/The Hop (333 Arsenal Road, York, 717-854-2028): Reasonably priced American food, just down road from the Harley-Davidson plant.
Roosevelt Tavern (400 W. Philadelphia St., York, 717-854-7725): Casual dining featuring prime rib, steaks and seafood. Four blocks from downtown.
The Left Bank Restaurant and Bar (120 N. George St., York, 717-843-8010): High-end entrees in historic downtown building.
Other places to visit
Martin's Potato Chips plant (5847 Lincoln Highway, Thomasville, Pa., 800-272-4477): No fee, but reservations required. Plant tours last 45 minutes and are held from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Thursday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Historical Society Museum (250 E. Market St., York): See examples of transportation, artwork and artifacts from York's past. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday. Admission, $6 adults, $5 seniors, college students, children over 12. Children 11 and under admitted free. Call the York County Heritage Trust at 717-848-1587.