You won’t find turkey dinners and buckled hats at Harley’s Pilgrim Road plant. What you will come across are powertrains by the bushel. Why? Because this is where the engine and powertrain in your V-Twin or Sportster come from. It’s a far cry from Harley’s original “factory,” which is a lot closer to what you’d expect from a traditional pilgrim. The only thing separating the first factory from a shotgun shack was an actual shotgun. William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson used the shed made by Arthur’s dad, William, to develop their single cylinder engines and bicycle frames. William was a cabinetmaker for the Milwaukee Road Railway shops and used the 10x15-foot woodshed as his personal shop. Come 1903, Arthur and William took over the shed over as their new and first motorcycle factory. The factory stood on the Davidson lot that is now the site of the Miller Brewing Co. headquarters on the corner of 38th Street and Highland Avenue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
As business grew, so did the shed. It had to in order to accommodate more workers and equipment. In 1906, operations were moved to a second wood-construction building on what is now the MoCo’s current Juneau Avenue site. It wasn’t enough; due to the massive amount of bikes that were being sold, H-D needed a much more substantial facility. The main wedge-shaped building at Juneau Avenue was constructed in stages between 1910 and 1913. By 1966, this second factory had an addition on the side facing the railroad tracks to the north. The main Juneau Avenue building was used at least partially for motorcycle and parts production as recently as 1973 when motorcycle assembly operations moved to York, PA.
Which brings us to the birth of the Pilgrim Road digs. Located in Menomonee Falls, Milwaukee, the Pilgrim Road facility was sired in 1979 by the small-engine manufacturer, Briggs & Stratton, another historic Milwaukee company. Harley-Davidson bought the 850,000 square foot building (the same area as 15 football fields) from Briggs in 1996.
Perhaps most importantly, though, the Pilgrim Road facility represents the modernization of an American classic. Not of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle, but of the American factory.
Take, for example, the company’s changed stance on employee fitness. When John Lowry worked at the factory years ago, there wasn’t much in the way of gym equipment to keep employees healthy (and working). In fact, there was an underlying concern that too much time on the gym equipment would cut into work hours. Now though, Pilgrim Road and Harley’s other factories have fitness centers with loads of equipment, including treadmills, spin bikes, elliptical machines, weight machines and equipment designed to prevent on-the-job injuries. John Lowry, who’s now a general manager at Pilgrim Road, can pick from 42 fitness classes a week, athletic trainers, and physical therapists to keep him running as smooth as the powertrains that roll off the line every day. The company says on-the-job injuries have dropped dramatically, partly from the attention given to fitness and preventive health care in the past few years.
Not only are the good people who work at the place healthier, so is the plant itself. Take a tour of the joint and you’ll run across collecting bins full of metal scrap, chips from the machining operations, and rejected parts. All of this metal is recycled. Here’s a breakdown of what Pilgrim Road recycled in 2010 alone: 6 million pounds of ferrous metals (steel), nearly 2 million pounds of non-ferrous metals (aluminum), and 92 tons of paper and cardboard. Moreover, the cutting oil used on many of the machining operations is filtered and reclaimed to boot.
Hell, they even recover lost heat. In 2006, the heat treating facility was fitted with new recuperative burners that recover waste heat that was previously exhausted up the flu. Now, that heat pre-heats incoming combustion air. Bottom line: this reduced natural gas consumption over three years by more than 110 million cubic feet, and eliminated 6,644 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
If you really want to know how modern Pilgrim Road is, stop by and take a tour for yourself. Harley’s standard factory tour is free and gives you a view of the assembly line and designated machining areas. Shell out a few bucks, though, and you can get the Pilgrim Road Steel Toe Tour package where you’ll go behind-the-scenes through areas previously unseen by the public, including the Engine Room. You’ll be required to wear safety glasses and steel toe protection, which are provided, so it must be cool. A shuttle will take you from the Museum to Pilgrim Road, where you’ll get an up-close-and-personal view of the assembly line, powder coat process, cold testing, and steel and aluminum machining. The Steel Toe Tour Admission includes one tour ticket, one Museum ticket, transportation to and from the Museum to the plant, commemorative pin, and a group photo.
If you do take the Pilgrim Road tour, picture that first 10x15-foot shed back in 1903 in your mind. It’ll give you not just an accurate image of how far Harley-Davidson has come as a company, it will show you how far America has come as a country.
For More Information:
The Steel Toe Tour, (877) 883-1450,