Vroom, Vroom

By Laura Stassi Jeffrey
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Adesire to escape boring commutes and do some father-son bonding before our oldest leaves for college has led to a lot of talk in our house about motorcycles. So when we find ourselves in York, Pa., one day with time to spare before a family wedding, my husband, two teenagers and I all make our way to Harley-Davidson Vehicle Operations. The motorcycle company's largest manufacturing facility, only a few miles from York's historic downtown, allows visitors to learn about an American icon, sit on some sweet rides and tour the factory.

The history of Harley-Davidson Motor Co. is rooted in Milwaukee. At the turn of the 20th century, two guys there named Bill Harley and Arthur Davidson famously invented a motorized bicycle. Their company grew, and a vehicle that was used primarily for racing soon became an efficient and inexpensive means of transportation for the U.S. military during two world wars and, later, a baby boomer symbol of youth, freedom and independence.

The York facility does not figure into Harley-Davidson history until 1973, when American Machine and Foundry (AMF), which had purchased Harley-Davidson in 1969, brought motorcycle assembly operations to a plant AMF owned in York. Today, that tiny building, which once made bowling pins, has grown into a manufacturing facility that encompasses more than 230 acres and 1.5 million square feet.

The factory tour begins inside the Vaughn L. Beals Tour Center with a 15-minute movie highlighting the company's history. Beals was the corporate VP who led 12 other executives in buying Harley-Davidson from AMF in 1981. As we learn from the movie, the AMF years are considered dark ones. AMF, the movie says, slashed the workforce, and quality declined. So, too, did sales (Japanese motorcycles were deemed the better buy), and Harley-Davidson almost went under. With AMF's exit, Harley-Davidson says it was able to build a loyal following by reemphasizing quality, tooting the made-in-America horn and turning back to retro designs.

After the movie, we don safety goggles as well as headsets and follow our guide into the huge factory. Here is where about 3,000 people (almost half of Harley-Davidson's production force) work around the clock Monday through Friday. Thanks to the headsets, we can hear our tour guide above the din as we walk through the factory single file.

Our guide describes what we are seeing: machine fabrication of such parts as gas tanks and fenders; workers preparing parts to be chromed or painted; the assembly lines where the Touring and Softail models are built. We also see bikes roll off the line and get put on simulators, where workers test them at speeds over 65 mph before they are crated and shipped to their new homes.

Harley also offers factory tours at its plants in Wauwatosa and Tomahawk, Wis., and Kansas City, Mo. In York, the factory will be open for self-guided tours on Thursday, Friday and Saturday during its 24th annual open house. As many as 10,000 people are expected to attend the three-day event. A parade of Harleys on Friday Bike Night begins at the York Expo Center -- it's sponsored by the company and run by the York Harley Owner Association -- but everything else takes place at Vehicle Operations.

I figured the Harley factory tour would send my husband and kids into hog heaven, so to speak, but I, too, enjoy the experience. Although the idea of riding a motorcycle makes me very nervous, I cannot deny that Harleys are beautifully designed objects. I also appreciate that the tour offers a glimpse into the lives of people who make their living in manufacturing, something rare in our town of paper pushers and talking heads.

After the tour, we have time before the wedding to wander through the tour center's gift shop, check out the period-photo exhibit and test-sit various models of Harleys parked on the showroom floor.

They all look mighty fine, but one bike in particular catches my eye. It is a copper and black FLHTCU Ultra Classic Electra Glide 105th-anniversary edition with a sidecar.

While my husband and kids take turns hopping behind the wheel, I climb into the sidecar. It is here, as I close my eyes and imagine being the passenger of a motorcycle riding down an open country road, that I embrace my inner Easy Rider.

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