For the first time, Willie G. Davidson offers a look at the collection that inspired his legendary Harley-Davidson designs.
In the painting a thunderstorm is breaking over the rugged Wisconsin prairie, and you can feel the saw grass bending low before the force of the oncoming wind. “This is one of my favorites—I’ve always been inspired by the Wisconsin landscape,” says the artist, leading the way past a wall adorned with more of his works. There is an abandoned pickup truck rusting in a patch of weeds. A fishing boat bobbing at anchor. A still life. A barn. A tractor plowing a field. The subjects in these and countless others are commonplace, but the brushwork is deft and the colors are vibrant. “I like to wash a big area on my paintings and then drop in the color,” he continues. “The result is an action between the paint and the wet surface that I think is just exciting.”
Watercolors are not the artist’s only medium; he also works in three dimensions, creating shapes bright with chrome, bristling with cooling fins, and evoking the rumble of motors. “I think of them as rolling sculpture,” he says with a grin.
So does the rest of the world. For decades, William Godfrey Davidson—better known to his fans around the world as Willie G.—was the senior vice president and chief styling officer of Harley-Davidson Motor Co. and the creator of some of the most exciting machines on the road, examples of which gleam in virtually every room of the massive, rustically timbered home Davidson shares with his wife, Nancy. Everywhere there are sleek café racers, touring bikes, sportbikes, highway cruisers, Low Riders, lightweight bikes, and macho Fat Boys with solid disks for wheels. “A lot of guys would put these in a barn somewhere,” he says. “I like to live with them.”
Interspersed with the motorcycles is the Davidsons’ spectacular collection of Americana and folk art: nostalgic prints, antique dolls, brightly painted carousel animals, toy cars, prints from bygone ad campaigns, American Indian artifacts, saddles, ancient pottery, motorcycle club pins, movie posters, and studded black leather biker jackets, vests, and kidney belts. There is also a Native American canoe long enough to accommodate a dozen warriors and a totem pole from the Pacific Northwest, giving the cavernous Davidson residence the feel of a natural history museum. “This place has evolved over a long period of time,” Davidson says. “We’re now at the point where we’re running out of space.”
Of course, it takes a lot of space to fully tell the Harley-Davidson story. It is not just about motorcycles; it is about society, style, and the American passion for the road.
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Twenty-five years ago, Harley-Davidson made a major cultural transition. No longer the brutish outlaw ride of the 1950s, Harleys became the favorite toys of baby boomer financiers and socialites, and the brand’s enthusiasts were raising millions of dollars for numerous charities.
At the time, Davidson was already assembling his collection of memorabilia, but he had plans for a much more ambitious home for his treasures in the countryside outside Milwaukee. The way he described it, it would be nothing short of a museum. “We finished the place 20 years ago,” he says, “but you know what? Nobody but a few personal friends and family have ever seen the house or what’s inside. And now you.”
However flattering, this is about to change. From June 13 to September 7, Harley-Davidson plans to honor its chief styling officer emeritus with an exhibit entitled Willie G. Davidson: Artist, Designer, Leader, Legend. Highlights of the show, to take place at the Harley-Davidson Museum in downtown Milwaukee, will include many of these historical artifacts and artworks, which have influenced Davidson’s designs over the years. The widespread excitement swirling about this event is understandable, given his work’s place in the pantheon of American design and style.
“You know,” Davidson once said, “if all we wanted to do was build a motorcycle that was fast and that’s economical and reliable, then we’d do it. And we’d have a motorcycle that looked like all the others. But a motorcycle should move you when you see it.”
To be sure, Davidson’s creations succeed on this score. Nothing else looks like a hog, as the big bikes are affectionately known. What other ride has the voluptuous curve of its fenders, the muscular heft of its shock absorbers, the rakish sweep of its handlebars, or the finely sculpted contours of its V-twin engine? Nothing else possesses the mystique of a Harley. The big bikes have fueled such cinematic classics as Easy Rider and Electra Glide in Blue, and who could forget Wild Hogs and Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man? And what else could the Terminator ride but a Harley?
The appeal of the Harley aesthetic transcends borders. In Paris, far from the American heartland, Sportsters and Electra Glides cluster in the most exclusive arrondissements. In China, reports Jim Rice, road captain for the Shanghai chapter of the Harley Owners Group and CEO of the distiller Sichuan Swellfun Co., his 900-pound Electra Glide Ultra draws more admiring stares from the locals than his Bentley does.
The corporate logo itself is a mantra, the initials HD transforming the most ordinary belt buckle or bracelet into a personal relic. In their homes the faithful surround themselves with the totems of their passion. They recline on Harley easy chairs and couches while sipping the eponymous brew from mugs bearing the bike maker’s shield. They sport Harley tattoos and send the company pictures of their children. Ford made a Harley-Davidson pickup truck for $50,000 and Fisher-Price sells a $150 battery-powered Harley-Davidson Rocker trike appropriate for children 18 months to 4 years of age.
The charismatic patriarch of this far-flung tribe is the son of former president William H. Davidson and grandson of Harley-Davidson cofounder William A. Davidson. But Willie G.’s stature in the world of motorcycles transcends pedigree. He is the real deal, the überbiker who wrested the company from the corporate owners American Machine and Foundry Co.—a company best known for bowling balls!—and restored it to its mission of making the boldest and baddest bikes on the road.
“He’s like Elvis,”’ says Jim Fricke, curatorial director of the Harley-Davidson Museum. “When word gets around that Willie G.’s at a biker event, he’s mobbed. We have to be careful because if we don’t control the crowds he’ll spend hours autographing helmets, T-shirts, bikes, or whatever else is handy, and he loves talking about Harleys. It’s like he has a personal relationship with every single Harley owner.”
And who’s to say he doesn’t? Yet Davidson is not exactly what you might expect from a cult figure. At 81, he appears fit and lean in Irish tweed cap, vest, and jeans but is devoid of the stereotypical biker’s swagger. Rather, he has the air of a retired art history professor. Which is understandable given his onetime calling. “I had the gene early on,” he says. “I was always drawing. I wasn’t planning to go into the motorcycle business or to enter the family firm. I expected to become an art teacher.”
He began studying fine arts at the University of Wisconsin and realized he wanted to create things people actually used—furniture, appliances, outboard motors, cars, or even motorcycles. He transferred to the Art Center school in Los Angeles (now the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.). Upon graduation in 1957, though, his artistic talents went untapped at his father’s company. “There was no design department,” Davidson says. “The styling had always been the result of engineering.”
Not until 1963 did the company decide it needed a styling director, and Davidson—by then a seasoned designer who had worked on the classic Lincoln Continental—finally fulfilled his destiny with a job at Harley-Davidson. The era of rolling sculpture was on its way.
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No company is more conscious of its heritage than Harley-Davidson, whose corporate museum, sprawling over 20 acres of Milwaukee waterfront, holds more than 450 motorcycles dating back to Serial Number One from 1903, the sire of all Harleys to come, and includes at least one motor-cycle from each production year. Given this sense of legacy, it is no wonder that Davidson decided to build his present-day home as a museum. Even so, he admits, the place owes more to serendipity than calculation. “You don’t create a place like this with a checkbook,” he says. “It has to just happen.”
The house is huge, but just how huge he cannot say. “Nancy, how many rooms are there?”
She shrugs and Davidson answers. “I guess we don’t know.”
The property is set on 10 acres at the edge of a 15-acre lake, and stepping inside, Davidson’s affection for tradition and craftsmanship becomes immediately apparent. The doors are framed in rough-hewn logs and affixed with wooden pegs rather than nails. A brightly painted, winged totem pole rises 20 feet from the floor by the doorway. “It’s from Seattle, I found it in Illinois, and brought it home on the back of a truck,” Davidson explains. “Other people have scrapbooks. I have my collection.”
The canoe is balanced on beams high over one of the display rooms. An antique motorcycle circa 1913 is mounted by the entrance to the kitchen. “It’s unrestored,” he says. “I keep it that way because I like the patina you only get with age. Most people don’t understand patina but it gives things character.”
The effects of age can, for Davidson, ennoble even the most commonplace items. “Look at this piece,” he says, leading the way into a sunroom with a panoramic view of the surrounding forest. “It’s just a concrete garden sculpture of a couple sitting beneath an umbrella but you can see the ravages of time and weather on it. So it becomes an artifact. If it were restored it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.”
He and Nancy pored over shelter magazines when they were building their new home, he says, and it was educational. “You can see true character in some homes. Others are just full of stuff from the mall.”
Some of the spaces are devoted to American Indian art and paraphernalia and his own interpretations of Native Americana. “I have a great fondness for American Indian art,” he says, pointing to his watercolor rendering of a Sioux war shirt. “I also collect work by artists like Charles Fast Horse, a Lakota Sioux, and I like Allan Houser, an Apache, and Dan Namingha, a Hopi. I don’t know who did this,” he says, picking up a pot covered in geometric designs. “But it’s pre-Columbian. It’s got lots of patina.” “And look at this,” says Nancy, holding up a pair of women’s moccasins. “Look at the elaborate beadwork. You can tell it’s for religious ceremonies.”
Another of Davidson’s favorites is an intricately beaded Indian saddle. “It’s an antique but you have to appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship in this piece,” he says. “I’m in awe of the work produced by ancient artists. They didn’t possess the tools we have but they created breathtaking work.”
Moving farther down a hall into another space he points out expressions of biking culture—assorted kidney belts to ward off the effects of bone-shaking rides cross-country, vests studded with hundreds of biker club pins, and fringed black leather jackets. His collection ramped up once the house was completed. “We started accumulating bigger pieces like this wooden statue of a horse, the carousel animals, and miniature cars.”
One especially interesting piece is a midget racer from the late 1930s powered by an 89 cu in Harley-Davidson engine and retrofitted for water cooling. Davidson believes it was driven by Bill Vukovich Sr., who later became famous in Indy car racing. “A very rare piece,” he says. “It wasn’t uncommon for people in the 1930s to use Harley-Davidson engines to power cars.” Another rarity is a skeletal racing bike made for competing on boardwalk tracks in the early 1920s.
Other highlights of both Davidson’s private collection and this summer’s public exhibit are, of course, the motorcycles whose development he has overseen over the years. Café racers, Knuckleheads, Softails, Fat Boys, Electra Glides, Dyna Glides, Sportsters, and assorted V-twins. The differences between the designs are sometimes nuanced, but the aesthetic underlying every piece in Davidson’s collection is a sense of authenticity and freedom.
“At biker events people always wanted to see what I was riding because it might signal what the next year’s bikes would look like,” Davidson says. “The exhibit is intended to show how our motorcycles have developed over the years and what the company stands for. It will have 75 of my paintings, and some of our landmark bikes. Most importantly I hope it gives people an idea of the life I’ve led with Nancy.”
“But remember,” says Nancy with a laugh. “We’re not hoarders, we’re collectors.”
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On June 13, the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee (harley-davidson.com) will debut Willie G. Davidson: Artist, Designer, Leader, Legend, an exhibit of Davidson’s distinctive two-wheeled creations as well as inspirational pieces from his personal collection of artwork and Americana. Here is a look at five of Davidson’s landmark motorcycle designs. “It’s what a bike looks like that flips my trigger,” he says. “The motors on many of our bikes are the same but we can create a whole new model by changing the fenders, the wheels, the windshield or headlight nacelle, the design of the exhaust pipes, or the cooling fins.”
1971 Super Glide
In the 1960s, bike owners wanted rides that expressed their individuality. Inspired by street trends, Davidson sketched out a new bike that combined the 1,212 cc motor and frame of the company’s standard Electra Glide with the front end from the Sportster. He added a fiberglass seat-and-tail section and wide, bold graphics. The new machine, released in 1971 as the Super Glide, was the company’s first “factory custom.” It was not an instant success, and the “boat-tail” rear was too radical for most American buyers, but it went on to spawn a long line of spin-offs.
1977 Low Rider
The Low Rider had alloy wheels front and rear, two disc brakes on the front wheel, extended forks with a dramatic rake, and a low, 26-inch seat height. Unlike the Super Glide, the Low Rider was an instant hit: It outsold all other Harley-Davidson models in its first full year of production.
That same year saw another Willie G. design—a café racer—roll out. Inspired by the racing trend in Europe, the new bike was mean and moody. Almost every part of it was pure black: the bikini fairing, the fuel tank, the tapered flat-track-style seat unit, the side panels, and even the exhaust pipes. It was unlike anything the company had ever built and boasted a top speed of 110 mph. XLCR models from 1977 to 1979 have become collector favorites.
Davidson was inspired to create the bike named for the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D. Taking its chromatic cue from the XLCR, the Sturgis was an all-black Low Rider with a thin orange stripe around its wheels and polished fins on a black base. The history of this bike begins with a scrawl on a paper bag, which will be part of the museum’s summer exhibit. As Davidson explains, “I was on my way home from Sturgis when the idea for the bike hit me so I stopped and drew it up.”
1990 Fat Boy
The Fat Boy almost instantaneously attained legendary status among Harley fans. With its big 1,340 cc engine, its popularity is based on an unmistakably American presence with a heavy-duty footprint. Its signature traits are a set of solid cast-aluminum wheels, a beefy front fork, and a wide-bodied fuel tank. Part of the Softail family of cruisers, the Fat Boy’s engine is mounted directly to the frame, with nothing to suppress the sense of power or vibration. It was the perfect match for Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.