Harley-Davidson Product Development Center | Behind Closed Doors

Gresh Gets a Finger Inside the Machine

By Joe Gresh, Photography by Harley-Davidson

Through some munificent twist of fate, I was among a select group of moto-journalists invited to go inside the belly of Harley-Davidson’s top-secret Product Development Center located in Milwaukee. Never heard of it? PDC, as everyone in denim calls it, is the engineering and stylistic hub of all things single crankpin and 45 degrees between centerlines. It was quite a feather in my cap to be there, except I don’t wear caps so I put the feather behind my ear like a greaser’s coffin nail.

Built in 1997, the PDC is located just north of the old Capitol Drive powertrain assembly facilty (empty now, and for rent cheap!). The PDC sits on ex-snowmobile testing grounds purchased by Harley-Davidson way back when the first Sportsters were released to combat the British invasion. Legend has it there’s still snowmobile trails in the woods.

Before going into the PDC, we were required to sign a form agreeing not to rat out anything good we saw, including the odd pre-production motorcycle we may accidently bump into. These media restrictions would seem to negate any reason to invite us in the first place, but I try to look at the junket glass as half full. Anyway, Harley’s handlers needn’t have worried about me scooping late-breaking product: I can’t make sense of H-D’s motorcycle range to save my life.

Once inside, our motorcycle gear was stored in the reception area and a stern PDC office-dominatrix covered our cell phone camera lenses with red duct tape. Having clearly established herself as the alpha female, she brusquely strapped us into rubberized, steel-toe overshoes. Then she recited a series of dos and don’ts. The more she scolded us, the warmer the reception room became, and the harder it was to stay focused on motorcycle design. Nervous sweat seemed to please her.

Released from our bonds, we sat while Paul Wiers, Vice President of Engineering, and Ray Drea, Vice President of Styling, gave a presentation explaining the step-by-step birth of a new Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The two speakers were at the logical design extremes: one an engineer, the other an artist. I think I heard Michael Jackson’s “Ebony and Ivory” playing softly in the background. Wiers and Drea told us that new motorcycle designs come from many sources: Harley keeps a dab hand in bike shows, customer demographics, and sales charts, always looking for ways to fill ever-more tightly focused product niches.

How it works is like this, though we didn’t actually see it happening and will have to take our Harley sources at their word: Engineering and Styling, along with Market Research and Product Planning, present a project charter and business plan to a committee for approval. Translation: They want to build a new motorcycle. Once approved, the project goes into prepping the ground, pre-development and execution. It’s very logical and methodical. So terribly Midwestern.

We learned that running prototypes are built at the PDC after the inevitable mockup and scrutinizing phase. There’s even a secure place to test ride motorcycles around here somewhere. More thorough testing is performed at Harley’s Arizona proving ground, just outside the town of…oh, sorry, can’t say. The VPs went on to explain how they, along with the other 549 people at the PDC, work together to make each other’s vision a reality. Sounds like corporate shtick, but my impression was that these guys are sincere about building the best motorcycle they can.

The question and answer period that followed the presentation was a struggle. I don’t know enough about motorcycle product development to even know what to ask and the other journalists weren’t doing much better. I’m trying to think of something not-stupid to say when Aaron Frank leans over and whispers, “Where the @#&@ is your @#&@ note pad, you @#&@?”

Dead air makes me uncomfortable, so I asked the speakers how a crazy motorcycle like the Forty-Eight gets the go signal. I can’t remember the exact answer, on account of forgetting my note pad, but I can tell you it was not, “because Bob said to.”

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