“There is a love affair going on here,” says Harley ambassador Willie G. Davidson of the Harley 110th birthday celebrations.
He’s right. The Harley 110th anniversary celebrations in Milwaukee are more like a 1960s love-in where everyone is in love with their Harley.
And the soundtrack to this love-in comes courtesy of thundering exhausts and the music of some 60 bands, headlined by American country music star Tony Keith last night, Aerosmith tonight and Kid Rock tomorrow night.
The journey to Milwaukee started a year ago in Tibet and has been around the world since, with a special Harley commemorative jacket accumulating patches from many countries including Australia.
Harley chief marketing officer Mark-Hans Richer pulled off the coup of having Pope Francis bless the bikes and the jacket when it passed through Rome.
A Vatican press release proclaimed, “For these two days, god rides a Harley.”
Company president Keith Wandell says any company in the world “would be hard pressed to get that kind of reception” (from the Pope).
“It speaks to the strength of our brand.”
So does the fact that as many as 160,000 Harley devotees have made the pilgrimage to Milwaukee for the big party.
“You can’t imagine any other product where so many people turn up to celebrate your birthday,” says Harley Australia boss Peter Nochar.
“This is the world coming to Milwaukee.”
Hundreds of Aussie riders have flown in or ridden in to take part, a point noted by Harley Museum VP Bill Davidson.
The great grandson of company founder William A. Davidson also says that a dozen Belgians have shipped over their World War II Harleys for the ride to their spiritual home.
As riders approached the city on Thursday, residents held up “Welcome Harley riders” signs on overpasses and eagerly waved to the bikers.
In the city, most stores have posters and traditional Harley black and orange decorations.
There are street parties in almost every block and all cafes, restaurants and bars are full of riders in their H-D regalia.
Riders have also taken a further pilgrimage out to the massive Harley engine and transmission plant in Pilgrim for factory tours.
They have also filled the “carparks” around the Harley Museum where they pore over old and new models and even the rusted wreck of a Harley washed up on the shores of California months after the Japan tsunami.
But most of all, they are down by the lake for the Summerfest of food, drink and rock music.
The evident affection for the brand and the riders’ zest for life is simply infectious.
If you’re not doing anything in five years, come back for the 115th. Mark-Hans says plans are already underway.