Harley-Davidson Product Development Center | Behind Closed Doors

Gresh Gets a Finger Inside the Machine

By Joe Gresh, Photography by Harley-Davidson

After the presentation we were led down nondescript, industrial-strength hallways punctuated at intervals by groups of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, posed as though standing around water-coolers skylarking and discussing sports scores or the previous night’s TV talent shows. I’m thinking the cool stuff like 200-horsepower, V-8 sport tourers were cleared out well in advance of our vanguard. Plainclothes Motor Company employees ran sweep to prevent stragglers from poking into The Forbidden Door or pocketing a turkey wrap from the beautiful company canteen.

Since most everything in the PDC is off limits to everyone but the most connected insiders, Harley’s sound room was the main event. The floor of the sound room is isolated from ground vibration. Deep, grey, V-shaped foam blocks cover flat surfaces and an in-floor exhaust-vacuum system allows H-D to tune the potato-potato cadence of its motorcycles without stray audio input. Walking into the room from the harsh-sounding gypsum-board hall brings a sense of peace. Voices hush. The walls of the room absorb sonic waves like the stomach lining of some sort of giant, mechanical Acoustidon.

In the sound room, instead of the motorcycle riding past a microphone, the test bike is tied down on a set of rollers. The room has a series of microphones spaced every foot or so on either side of the bike. By electronically sequencing the mics, the sound room can simulate the motorcycle moving at different speeds. Using this tool, the motorcycle’s audio signature can be massaged to meet the customer’s expectations of a soulful V-twin rumble while still squeaking past government sound regulations.

Kind of funny since the first thing any self-respecting Hog buyer does is saw off the excellent mufflers and hammer on a set of staggered straight pipes using bailing wire and a large rock. Okay, that’s a cheap shot, but deep down you know it’s not far off the truth. The Harley engineers bear it stoically.

Being invited into the inner workings of Harley’s PDC was nice and all but the Mo-Co was so secretive (or maybe just conservative) we really didn’t get to see anything startling. Which makes for an excellent segue into the next tour we were taken on: the Harley-Davidson Accessory Catalog Skunk Works.

Located in a bland, unmarked rent-a-warehouse outside Milwaukee, the Accessory group is in charge of Harley’s ever-growing Shiny Bits division. The crew we met there were polar opposites of buttoned-down company men.

Each year the accessory group gathers to photograph, plan and layout Harley’s two-inch-thick parts catalog. They don’t just shoot the photos for the catalog, they designed a lot of the blingy products and unique-for-any-manufacturer services found within. This joint is where the action is. Speaking with the A team, a fierce entrepreneurial attitude permeates the lingo, giving the Skunk Works the selfless, all hands-on-deck feeling of a family-owned business.

The Accessory division is pushing the leading edge of H-D’s styling far, far forward and for a company who lives and dies by styling, getting shoved in that direction is a good thing. The relatively small accessory team is justifiably proud of its ability to generate big profits for the mother ship. The difference is palatable: Corporate is doing its job, Accessory is on a mission.

Inside the warehouse, the crew built several photo studios and was busy shooting videos and stills of the latest products when we stopped by. Lots of fun things are going on here. The accessory group is behind Harley’s H-D1 online design system. H-D1 offers a customer the ability to see how different parts and color combinations look on a motorcycle mock-up of their design.

The best part of H-D1 is that when you finish playing around on the computer with your dream bike, H-D will build the motorcycle for you! And, unlike that time you extended the flatty forks on your Schwinn Stingray using two-foot lengths of three-quarter inch EMT electrical conduit, the resulting motorcycle won’t kill you from shoddy construction techniques. H-D1 gives the bucks-up H-D buyer that sense of creative accomplishment heretofore reserved for those talented few who can actually build a motorcycle.

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