$38 well spent: Harley-Davidson’s Steel Toe Tour

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Testing an 'audit' bike
Motorcycle on the assembly line on Harley's York plant | Harley-Davidson photos
Motorcycle on the assembly line on Harley’s York plant | Harley-Davidson photos

In addition of collecting cars, I am a classic motorcycle collector. While I love my classic bikes, they are not without their issues.

A few months ago I went out to my shop to fire up one of my old bikes. I tried the Norton Commando and it would not start. Next, I tried my Triumph, same story. Finally I got on my BMW and even it would not run properly. To say I was disappointed is an understatement.

Happily, there is a bike you can buy today that offers many of the things that a classic motorcycle offers both in looks and sound, yet is reliable and can be used as a daily rider with ease. That bike is the Harley-Davidson.

That day after none of my classic bikes would not start or run properly, I went to the local Harley dealer and found the bike I wanted, a Softail Deluxe. It looks straight out of the 1950s but features electronic ignition, fuel injection and every other modern mechanical convenience you might want. It is also an amazing piece of American-made machinery, with build quality to rival the best new bikes of Europe and Japan. It also has a level of detail offered by no other motorcycle I can think of.

I have been so impressed that I decided to take a detour while on my way to the recent Carlisle Import and Performance Nationals to take a tour of the Harley-Davidson assembly plant in York, Pennsylvania.

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There are two different tours that you can take. One is a free tour, offered Monday and Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. The one-hour tour is open to as many as 30 people, starts with a film about the history of the company, and then goes into the plant to see where bodywork is being pressed out, components checked, and bikes assembled and tested on the rolling road inside the factory.

There also is the Steel Toe Tour. This one requires advanced reservations and is offered Monday through Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. The tour costs $38 (but includes a discount coupon for exclusive assembly plant merchandise. Each Steel Toe Tour is limited to 8 people.

The tour lasts between 90 minutes and 2 hours and includes the paint shop, vehicle audit testing, paint finishing and every other part of the factory. Oh, and to take this tour, you have to wear steel toe shoe covers.

I learned quite a lot while on the tour. First, that the people who make these bikes love what they do, no matter if they are pressing out tanks and fenders or work in paint finishing. The most highly praised job is working in testing on the rolling road test simulator. These jobs come up rarely. Basically, these are people who are paid to ride Harleys.

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Testing an 'audit' bike
Testing an ‘audit’ bike

Next I learned a bit of a secret. Bikes of all models are randomly picked out of the line and given a complete audit test. These bikes are ridden, completely disassembled, tested and measured for everything from fit and finish to rideability. They then are reassembled and get another riding test. After successfully passing that test, they are sent to dealers. These audit bikes are the most extensively tested bikes to leave the factory and some of the best the company turns out. The key to finding one at your local dealer is to look for a bike that is brand new but has miles on it. It is either a demo, you can ask your dealer if it is, or an audit bike. If you can find one and like the color, buy it.

The third and most important thing I learned was how long it takes from order to delivery. Including paint, engine assembly, vehicle assembly, and testing, it takes 14 days to build a single Harley. No wonder I am impressed by the quality of mine.

Tours are offered at three Harley assembly plants. York produced build Softails, touring bikes and trikes. Vehicle and powertrain operations and the Sportster, Dyna and Street models are produced in Kansas City Missouri . Powertrain Operations also are done in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, where the big twin is produced.

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For more information, visit the tour website.

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Andy Reid's first car, purchased at age 15, was a 1968 Fiat 124 coupe. His second, obtained by spending his college savings fund, was a 1966 Ferrari 330 GT 2+2. Since then, he has owned more than 150 cars—none of them normal or reasonable—as well as numerous classic motorcycles and scooters. A veteran of film, television, advertising and helping to launch a few Internet-based companies, Reid was a columnist for Classic Motorsports magazine for 12 years and has written for several other publications. He is considered an expert in European sports and luxury cars and is a respected concours judge. He lives in Canton, Connecticut.

1 COMMENT

  1. Remember though, Hardley D was one of the FIRST companies to sell out to the Clinton China trade act in the early 1990’s. well over 90% of the accessories, spares, springer front ends, and ” live free” chromed add ons were made by the commies. I enjoyed walking around in their showrooms and looking at all of the wares and then find an item ( rare) made in the USA and say loudly ” Look I found something actually made in America !!” The baby boomers and salesmen would give me dirty looks when explaining the truth.