Feeling the Thunder on a Harley-Davidson Factory Tour in Kansas City, Missouri

Harley Motorcycles in Kansas City

Harley-Davidson Focuses on Motorcycles Not Cars (photo credit: Chuck Eirschele, c 2013)

A long line of gleaming motorcycles and six flags greeted us at the front door of the Harley-Davidson Vehicle & Powertrain Operations Factory in Kansas City, Missouri. I felt odd traveling all this way to get my first tour of a company that, like me, called Milwaukee, Wisconsin its hometown. Where I grew up, Harley-Davidson was a common fixture,  its “Made-in-America” moniker infused into the local ambience.

Sitting on a bench inside the Tour Center tugging a pair of black rubber shoe-covers over my sandals, I reflected on my relationship with the motorcycle. I have ridden many kinds of motorized bikes over paved and unpaved surfaces in my life, but no matter how bumpy, riding a motorcycle always was fun — and even better when it was a thundering Harley.

In Your Bucket Because . . .

  • You love to ride, drive, or just look at motorcycles.
  • You are interested in the crafting of Made in America Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
  • Good for: Families. Children over the age of 12 may take the factory tour; everyone is welcome in the Tour Center.
Night Rod Special Motorcycle

Night Rod Special Stands at Powertrain Demonstration Board (photo credit: Chuck Eirschele, c 2013)

Seeing How a Harley is Built

The tour started with a video, which played footage of past Harley-Davidson events, including a grainy reliving of the founders and their first prototype in 1903. The voice told of Juneau Avenue, an old narrow street in Milwaukee, where the first factory stood and where corporate headquarters has remained. The Wisconsin towns of Menomonee Falls and Tomahawk, where I also had spent time, brought back memories of rolling wheels. The story of the expansion to York, Pennsylvania and Kansas City, Missouri filled out the tale of taking the success of the Harley brand into the twenty-first century.

Workers at the Kansas City location are responsible for building each motorcycle from fabrication and finishing through final assembly and quality checks. The factory was built in 1998, and rests on a 358,000 square feet chunk of land.

Each person on our tour was armed with goggles to protect our eyes and pins for our shirts so “no one mistakenly puts you to work,” my tour guide quipped. Through our headphones, we could hear the guide talk about the factory process above the normal clanking and banging sounds.

Our group followed a single-file yellow stripped crosswalk painted on the concrete floor. The model series built here include the Sportster®, Dyna®, and VRSC™, which use a liquid cooled powertrain system. I walked by tall racks of Harley parts laid in neat rows. We had been warned not to touch anything as oil from our skin could contaminate the metal surfaces.

I saw a long-nosed robot working in a square steel cage, seemingly by its self. Across the way, a man welding snapped the front of his helmet down over his face as the flame of his torch came back to life. We crossed under painted frames dangling from cages pushing along the ceiling. A man pedaled past us on a three-wheeled bicycle with a wire basket clamped to his handlebars. Our guide explained that he is one of Harley’s mechanics.

A towering figure stood at an assembly station. He had a long beard of reddish hair and tattoos that peeked out from under his shirt. Our guide pointed out the red, blue and green lights that were flashing at each station to time each assembler. Before I realized it, the red-bearded guy was done and gone.

Legendary Made in America Company Pride

Glide Series Harleys

Harley-Davidson Touring Bikes Include the Glide Series (photo credit: Chuck Eirschele, c 2013)

After our tour, I caught up to my husband who was sitting astride one Harley after another, trying each out. The thunderous sound of the engine was absent but the shine of the chrome and my husband’s smile were bright.

The classic Harley sound comes from a patented design of a V-twin engine, which has a 45° angle between cylinders. Each machine produces that unique motorcycle thunder the discerning ear associates with the Harley-Davidson brand.

The flags outside the front doors waved us good-bye. They are quintessential Harley-Davidson, found at each of the company’s locations; they boost the brand with the Made-in-America label. The company and its riders on their motorcycles participate in a flurry of holiday and memorial celebrations and fundraising events each year.

The United States flag stands the tallest; I’ve often seen it whipping in the wind off the fenders of Harleys. My memories of 4th of July parades and anniversary celebrations in Milwaukee included hearing the thunder of motorcycles, three lanes of freeway covered with bikes coming at me from down below as I stood on the viaduct they rode under.

The POW-MIA flag is hung under the stars and stripes; it is carried by many riders, often veterans, who use their time to bring attention to the soldiers who have not come home from war. The Missouri flag is in honor of this facility’s home state. Lower, the  Harley-Davidson emblem flies on a separate standard. On a pole alone is a flag of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers — a union banner; for many of the workers, this flag speaks to the Made-in-America workmanship.

Practicalities

  • Reservations for tours are made in advance and free tickets are given out on a first come, first served basis at the time of the tour.
  • Tours and routes may change based on factory production schedules. Check online for up-to-date information.
  • Motorcycles in the Tour Center are bolted to the floor; now is your chance to sit on one. Go ahead, you know you want to.
  • Wear fully enclosed low-heeled shoes to avoid the rubber shoe-covers experience.
  • Cameras are not allowed on the factory floor, but you can take photos in the Tour Center. Lockers are available to secure your camera while on the tour.

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