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Riding High

Wait Two Years for a New Harley-Davidson? That's How Long It Can Take to Get Delivery on America's Motorcycle Wait Two Years for a New Harley-Davidson? That's How Long It Can Take to Get Delivery on America's Motorcycle
Mark Vaughan
From the Print Edition:
Ron Perelman, Spring 95

(continued from page 1)

York, Pennsylvania. Inside the 1 million-square-foot Harley-Davidson assembly plant on a cold November morning, workers are busy turning out the first of that day's 395 finished bikes. To a visitor on a private tour, it all seems deceptively smooth. The raw materials come in at one end of the plant, the completed motorcycles go out at the other. Between its Milwaukee engine and transmission plants and its York facilities, Harley produces more than 50 percent of the parts needed to make its products. The majority of the rest are also made in the United States.

"Ours is an American product, period," explains Harley-Davidson's CEO Richard Teerlink. "We go offshore for a part for only one of two reasons: either that part is simply not available domestically or what is available does not meet our quality standards. Price is not an issue. We will pay a premium for a U.S.-made part."

At the York plant, stamping machines take sheets of metal and turn them into fenders and other parts. Precision-welding robots close seamless joints. Despite the automation, much of the work is still done by hand; tinkers tap out metal parts to form precise curves, grinders smooth the curves into almost perfectly flat surfaces. Raw components disappear into the adjacent state-of-the-art paint shop and return via a conveyor belt, shining in one or more of Harley's distinctive colors. At another station, workers assemble hubs and spokes into finished wheels. The pace is steady but deliberately unhurried. This is especially true on the main assembly lines, where workers take their time adding components, testing torques, gauging tolerances.

"For us, quality is key," says Lynn Sweet, communications manager at the York plant and tour guide for the day. "Anyone on the line can stop production at any time. If there's a problem with a part, or if there's a parts shortage, it doesn't get passed on to be dealt with later. Production comes to a halt, and the problem is fixed."

One of the most striking things about the Harley assembly plant is the sense of order that prevails there. Some 2,100 people work three shifts producing parts and finished bikes. Yet everything seems to be stacked neatly in its place. There are no stray components, no debris, no trash. On this day only one assembly line, the 1340 "big twin" line, is operating, turning out the heavy machines that comprise four-fifths of Harley's models. As the shiny, new motorcycles roll off the end of the line, they are given a vigorous testing: starter, engine performance, emissions, brakes, lights, turn signals, horn, name it, it's tested.

In a small building behind the main plant, the final steps in quality control take place. Here, the half-dozen members of the company's Quality Audit Team carefully inspect a randomly selected portion of the finished bikes, measuring assembly, function and performance against a set of standards. "If we detect a problem that relates to parts quality or assembly, we get back to the line and either see that it is resolved immediately or shut down operations until it can be solved," says supervisor Ron Alexander. "In the old days, you'd have caught hell for doing something like that; now we'd catch hell for not doing it."

* * *

At Harley-Davidson, the "old days" go all the way back to 1901, when William S. Harley and Arthur and Walter Davidson set out to design and make a motorized bicycle. By 1903, the young men from Milwaukee, all barely in their 20s, had formed the Harley-Davidson Motor Company and turned out their first motorcycle, a 25-cubic-inch motor on top of a bicycle-like frame that had a top speed of 25 mph. In 1908, a new model powered by a 35-cubic-inch engine with a top speed of 40 mph was created. Harley-Davidson's total production for that year was just two bikes. But by 1908, the company was pumping out 450 motorcycles a year. The workforce had expanded from four partners and one employee in 1905 to 35 employees by 1909, according to Harley-Davidson archivist Marty Rosenbloom.

In 1909, Bill Harley designed the first of the company's distinctive V-twin engines. The V-twin, with a displacement of 49.5 cubic inches, a seven-horsepower kick and a top speed of nearly 60 mph, became the prototype of all Harley-Davidson engines to follow. By 1920, just 11 years after the V-twin made its debut, Harley-Davidson had become the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, producing more than 25,000 motorcycles and 16,000 sidecars a year, with 2,000 dealerships in 67 countries.

Despite the nearly fatal blow of the Great Depression (between 1929 and 1933 sales dropped by more than 80 percent), the company managed to sputter along until the Second World War, when military contracts helped boost sales back to early-1920s levels. The postwar slump hit rival Indian Motorcycle Company harder than it did the Milwaukee company, and in 1953 Indian closed its plant doors for the last time, leaving Harley-Davidson as the only major U.S. motorcycle manufacturer. By the early 1960s, Harley virtually owned the U.S. heavyweight motorcycle market, with sales soaring from about 10,000 units in 1961 to more than 30,000 in 1966.

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