The Harley-Davidson steel toe tour offers motorcycle enthusiasts – as well as those who just like to see how things work – the chance to take a behind-the-scenes look at the Pilgrim Road Powertrain Operations facility in Menomonee Falls.
The tour experience, which meets and leaves from the Harley-Davidson Museum, is about three hours. The tour of the plant is 1 1/2 hours plus about 20 minutes of travel time to and from the facility via shuttle.
The Pilgrim Road facility manufactures all of the powertrains – the engine and the transmission – built into Touring, Softail and Dyna models. The powertains are then sent to the final assembly plants in York, Pa., and Kansas City, Mo.
"Powertrains are the heart and soul of the Harley," says Jewel Olson, a Harley-Davidson tour guide.
We tagged along on the steel toe tour last week with 18 other people. The tour group meets in the museum lobby and then boards the bus. Once on the bus, we filled out safety forms and were issued a pair of steel toes to slip over our shoes. (Closed-toe shoes must be worn on the tour.)
Olson spoke to the group for most of the 20-minute ride to the facility. She asked everyone where they were from and we were surprised to be in the minority of Milwaukeeans. Our tour mates were from Australia, Texas, Alaska, Florida, California, Oregon and Iowa.
The bus ride also features a five-minute video about Harley-Davidson's history.
Olson went over the safety rules and evacuation procedures. The most important rules are to stay within the yellow lines when touring the plant and keep phones concealed. Photos are prohibited and if security sees anyone expose their cell phone they will assume the person is taking photos and must escort them out of the plant.
Above all, don’t touch anything inside the facility.
"You are going to walk by materials that are scalding hot, razor sharp and treated with chemicals," says Olson.
The facility's parking lot features three parking areas: one for cars (or "cages," as riders call them), one for Harleys and one for non-Harley motorcycles which is much farther from the door.
Once in the lobby, where there is a souvenir / T-shirt vending machine and a novelty penny "squisher," we are told we can only use the restroom before and after the tour and must be accompanied by a guide. We are also issued safety glasses, an ear plug and an ear speaker so we can hear the tour guide in the loud factory.
The group is divided into two, and half go with Olson while the rest of us are introduced to veteran tour guide, Michelle Sweigart, who has been on the job for 12 years.
The 849,000-square foot facility is open around the clock, with three eight-hour shifts of 900 unionized workers. Dozens of "robots," some massive, are also a part of the production process.
The plant is filled with activity. People working on machines, riding by on bicycles, driving forklift trucks and other motorized vehicles. Most of the employees wear Harley-Davidson T-shirts even though it is not a requirement of the job.
"We have a lot of pride in our company," says Sweigart.
Olson mentioned during the bus ride that Harley-Davidson is a "dress down" company and that even the office workers and executives wear T-shirts and jeans to work.
"If you see someone in a shirt and tie, they’re a visitor," she says.
The tour covers operations in the entire plant and includes an incredible amount of technical information balanced out with company statistics and stories.
Sweigart’s knowledge and ability to break down very detailed information into understandable language is incredible. She often credited her father and husband for teaching her so much about motorcycles, but she clearly has a knack for retention and presentation.
There are several hands-on stations throughout the facility to further illustrate the transformation of raw materials into usable bike parts.
Overall, the tour is long but interesting. I most enjoyed observing the workers rather than the machines and was particularly impressed with the number of women employees, some doing very physically demanding jobs.
Harley-Davidson riders and fans will undoubtedly appreciate the tour the most, but those who simply enjoy witnessing a process and being in the midst of a lively, focused environment – complete with flying sparks and loud clanks – will also find the experience worthwhile.
The cost of the Harley-Davidson steel toe tour is $32 for museum members and $38 for non-members. The price includes a ticket to the museum which can be used the same day or within a year of issue. Tour-goers also get a commemorative pin and a group photo inside the facility.
The tours are offered Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. Tour-goers must be 12 or older. Reservations are required.
Molly Snyder grew up on Milwaukee's East Side and today, she lives in the Walker's Point neighborhood with her partner and two sons.
As a full time senior writer, editorial manager and self-described experience junkie, Molly has written thousands of articles about Milwaukee (and a few about New Orleans, Detroit, Indianapolis, Boston and various vacation spots in Wisconsin) that range in subject from where to get the best cup of coffee to an in-depth profile on the survivors of the iconic Norman apartment building that burned down in the '90s.
She also once got a colonic just to report on it, but that's enough on that.
Always told she had a "radio voice," Molly found herself as a regular contributor on FM102, 97WMYX and 1130WISN with her childhood radio favorite, Gene Mueller.
Molly's poetry, essays and articles appeared in many publications including USA Today, The Writer, The Sun Magazine and more. She has a collection of poetry, "Topless," and is slowly writing a memoir.
In 2009, Molly won a Milwaukee Press Club Award. She served as the Narrator / writer-in-residence at the Pfister Hotel from 2013-2014. She is also a story slam-winning storyteller who has performed with The Moth, Ex Fabula and Risk!
When she's not writing, interviewing or mom-ing, Molly teaches tarot card classes, gardens, sits in bars drinking Miller products and dreams of being in a punk band again.