Harley-Davidson Museum Bridges Art and Engineering

Harley-Davidson motorcycles have long been admired for their striking designs, a tradition that stretches back decades. Contrary to popular belief, the founders, Messrs. Harley and Davidson, weren't solely focused on functionality when they tinkered in their tool shed back in 1903.

Ann Sinfield, curator at the Harley-Davidson Museum, asserts this point with an exhibition titled "Creating a Legend: Art & Engineering at Harley-Davidson." Beginning with the rugged Model 6 Single from 1910, the exhibit showcases how early Harley-Davidson catalogs not only highlighted engineering advancements but also emphasized design elements, such as the continuous loop frame of the Model 6 and the integration of the tool kit.

The inspiration for "Creating a Legend" stemmed from the donation of wildlife sketches by William S. Harley, one of the company's cofounders, revealing his unexpected artistic side as a member of the Men's Sketch Club of Milwaukee. This prompted an exploration of Harley-Davidson's dual identity as both an engineering powerhouse and a champion of design.

Despite not establishing a design department until 1963, Harley-Davidson's commitment to design excellence endured. The exhibit highlights milestones such as Brook Stevens' influence on the FL Hydra Glide in 1949, a machine characterized by its American confidence and reminiscent of Stevens' designs for Studebaker.

Willie G. Davidson, an apprentice of Stevens, returned to Harley-Davidson in 1963 as the company's first design director, leaving an indelible mark on its aesthetic. His involvement extended beyond motorcycles to include everything from letterhead to T-shirt designs. The eclectic 1971 FX Super Glide, influenced by Davidson's cross-country rides and conversations with riders, exemplifies his dedication to custom design.

"Creating a Legend" delves into the design process, showcasing the importance of physical models in shaping ideas. Despite technological advancements like virtual reality, Harley-Davidson remains rooted in tangible experiences, with pen, paper, and clay sculptor's tools remaining integral to the design process.

Collaboration is key to Harley-Davidson's design philosophy, with teams across marketing, engineering, manufacturing, and design engaging in ongoing dialogue to refine the final product. A highlight of the exhibit is a mockup of the 2021 Sportster S, providing insight into the iterative nature of the design process before production begins.