YORK, Pa.--Take the world's most iconic motorcycles. And take industrial geekiness at its best. Mix the two. And what you get is what I'm looking at: the production lines of the 2011 model year Harley-Davidson touring, Softtail and "trike" motorcycles.
I've come here as part of Road Trip 2010 knowing that there are few ways more popular among those who travel the highways of America than Harleys. When planning this visit, I had in mind the motorcycle version of the story and photo package I did on the Corvette assembly plant in Bowling Green, Ky., on Road Trip 2008. And looking out at this production floor, I am not at all disappointed.
The only complication is that the timing of my arrival here in York is about three weeks before Harley's annual dealers show in Las Vegas, and those hundreds of people have yet to lay their own eyes on the 2011 bikes--so because offering my readers photographs of the production line was so important to me, I agreed to let Harley take the pictures, at my direction, and hold on to them until the dealers were let in on what the new year's models had in store.
And that's where we are now.
As any Harley aficionado probably knows, the company has several factories besides York: Kansas City, Mo., where motorcycles are assembled, and two in Wisconsin, where power trains are made.
This is new to me because, I admit, I'm not someone steeped in the Harley mystique. But I know that mystique when I see it--after all, I've traveled tens of thousands of miles around the United States and I've certainly seen my share of people riding the famous bikes.
Here in York, anyway, it's all about three things: fabrication, assembly, and painting. That means huge, powerful presses that pound sheets of steel into things like fenders, gas tanks, and many other parts; putting those parts together so that what comes off the line looks something like a Harley-Davidson; and finally, painting those almost-Harleys and having them emerge as the real deal.
And it's quite impressive, these different elements. For example, the 400-ton progressive die press that we've walked by can be configured to make 22 different parts. Or a robot on the line can pick up a piece of sheet steel, lay it on a table and pound out a front fender in just 29 seconds.
The rear fenders, on the other hand, are done manually on a deep draw hydraulic press--because they're done with heavier gauge metal--and are then passed on to a carbon dioxide laser that focuses a concentrated beam on the steel and trims out all the little holes that are required.
One of the fun things about this visit is seeing all the little pieces that go into making a Harley. In one place, it's a huge bin full of foot plates. In another, it's the production of the "jiffy stands," or kick stands, done by putting bars into induction ovens, where they are shaped in just 11 seconds at 1,950 degrees Fahrenheit.
And it's the hollow steel tubes--the forks--that have to be individually X-rayed to ensure that they have no cracks.
It takes the workers here about two hours to put together one of the seven models of motorcycles they make. But the process that has been practiced here for years is about to change. The York factory is consolidating, and changes are coming. Instead of, for example, bikes being elevated and suspended, in the near future, Harleys made here will be brought through the factory on magnetic strips that can easily be changed in order to modify the line.
Still, for now, the old process governs, and it all begins with a two-piece frame and the stamping on of a vehicle identification number. Next comes the powertrain--just the first major element of a total of 1,300 parts that go on a Harley. Next up is the rear-end of a bike's frame, onto which goes the fender, the luggage carrier, the tail lights, and so on.
Once a Harley is finished--it needs to be painted before it's done, of course--it goes to final inspection, where they check its speed by riding the bike on rollers, as well as its operation in all six of its gears.
The general public is always welcome on tours in York, but one thing I got to see that most don't is the production line for the "trikes," the increasingly popular three-wheeled Harleys. These have grown massively in popularity in recent years, and the company is now making a new line of trikes instead of simply retrofitting two-wheelers.
All in all, the process isn't that complicated. It's certainly not a complex as making a Corvette. But it's no less exciting watching these machines go from a collection of disparate parts to something that can take someone on the adventure of a lifetime.
I may not be a motorcycle rider myself, but I certainly understand adventure. And coming here to watch other people's fantasies made real is a big part of mine.
For the next week, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American Northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.