Harley-Davidson Turns 100

— If you live in the Midwest, that rumble you hear outside your window these days is probably coming from a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

There are approximately 300,000 bikers converging on Milwaukee this weekend because the company and its famous motorcycles are turning 100 years old. It will be one big birthday bash.

In Wisconsin this week, we spotted bikes with license plates from all over this country, plus a couple from Canada, Mexico and Europe. What's the big deal?

"To live the American dream," said Marco Almaraz from Dallas. "That's my main thing. Just to live the American dream."

Almaraz and his friend Frank Yanez were just two of thousands making their way to Milwaukee from the Southwest.

"I saved all my vacation just for this trip," said Yanez.

Cruising along Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a pack of Brooklyn Harleys was heading for Milwaukee, too.

John Verderosa was perched on his Harley and taking in a view of the Straits of Mackinac. "This bike has got 85,000 miles on it," he said.

Verderosa's wife, Grace, was on her own Harley and loving it.

"When I ride through a field of wildflowers, I smell it. When you're in a car, you see it and think it's really pretty," she said. "When I ride by something like this, I feel like a part of it."

Sometimes too much a part of it. Bo Stearns from Texas said he'd picked more than one bug out of his teeth after a ride. "You don't realize how much a grasshopper weighs until it hits you" when you're going 65 mph, he said.

‘One Big Family’

When they get to Milwaukee, the bikers will be treated this weekend to several nightly concerts featuring rock acts such as Kansas, Peter Frampton and REO Speedwagon. But even without the entertainment, just being with fellow bikers is the "thing."

"Everybody's like family," said John Verderosa. "It's like one big family."

And Harley-Davidson is exultant.

"Without the dedication of the riders to Harley, Harley wouldn't be here today," said company executive Matt Levatich.

Harley Fever: More Than Motorcycles

Indeed, Harley-Davidson almost went bankrupt back in the 1970s, victimized by cheaper Japanese imported bikes and an outlaw image that hurt sales even more. Today, while Honda still sells more bikes, Harley has unquestionably rebounded. Business for the century-old company is better than ever.

There are now 1,300 Harley dealerships in this country, employing more than 7,000 workers. Last year the company had sales of $4.1 billion and a profit of $580 million.

At Uke's Harley-Davidson in Kenosha, Wis., about 25 percent of the profits come from things that have nothing to do with motorcycles. Clothes, yes, but garter belts? Wedding rings? Boxer shorts? You can find all of them up front in Keith Ulicki's store.

"This has been steady growth since 1986," he said, "this is just incredible."

But it's not all about profits. Part of the reason for having the celebration is to raise money along the way: money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Since 1980, the company has raised more than $40 million and hopes that during the 100th anniversary celebration, another $5 million can be contributed to the search for a cure.

Harleys may be an acquired taste for some, but in their supporters, they arouse a passion that is impossible to describe.

"If I have to explain it," said Grace Verderosa, "you wouldn't understand."