Itís said that four wheels move the body, but two wheels move the soul. I didnít really get that until recently, when I took Harley-Davidsonís Steel Toe Tour of its 650,000-square-foot Vehicle Operations Plant in York, Pa.
Harley-Davidson employs state-of-the-art robotics and approximately 1,000 union workers in a streamlined process that turns out Touring, Softail, CVO and Trike models on a single integrated assembly line and produces certain parts — frames, fuel tanks and fenders — for the famed motorcycle maker.
About three months ago, they introduced the Steel Toe Tour as a direct result of its ongoing dialog between company and riders. Bikers have traditionally loved the factoryís free one-hour tour, but they craved a more in-depth look at the manufacturing process. They wanted to witness firsthand the art of US-made steel being stamped, pressed, forged, formed, welded and dressed into the stuff of their dreams.
The Steel Toe Tour is not for the faint of heart: It lasts a full two hours instead of one, involves a $35 admission fee and takes visitors right out to the middle of the factory floor. Youíd be hard-pressed to find a better tour experience, a bigger dose of pride in American craftsmanship or a more interesting slice-of-life — all in well under three hours of the nationís capital.
Small groups are outfitted in the requisite boots, protective eyewear and Hi-Vis vests before being led past the perimeter and into another world, where the sights, sounds and smells of manufacturing surround. A laser-wielding robot takes aim to cut front fenders and drill bolt holes with great precision, resembling a scene from Tony Starkís basement. But more commonly the endeavor is a well-executed ballet of man and machine, with the line between the two often blurring.
Nowhere is this more evident than with the welding of the Touring frame. A human operator preps a 1,000-pound fixture and sends it into a gigantic cell, where robotic helpers are at-the-ready. The tight team of six welds and moves the fixture in a shower of sparks, completing 264 linear inches of welding in four minutes flat.
After itís returned to the human welder for inspection and touch-up, the frame and tail section go back to the cell to be placed on an exit conveyor. Frames are then loaded on to a battery-powered automatic guided cart, which follows a magnetized strip on the floor and cues up for painting.
Particularly fascinating is a lesson on the powder-coating process, in which negatively charged paint powder is sprayed onto positively charged parts and then baked at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes, much like a cinnamon bun. Human touch-up artists take a trip through the wind tunnel — you can, too — and suit up to prevent dust and lint from getting in the finished work.
Videos along the tour explain parts of the process you canít see, but thereís plenty to take in, all the same. Sparks fly, engines rev and the smell of paint lingers in the air. Bruce Springsteen provides the soundtrack from a distant work station, competing with the din and just barely winning. As far as tours go, it really doesnít get much better than this.
A motorcycle is technically born in the USA when it gets stamped with a VIN, and then it enters the assembly line for the final journey. Remember the automated guided carts? The York plant employs a sizeable fleet and assigns one to carry each motorcycle on its entire trip through assembly. With all those driverless vehicles running around the floor, itís imperative that visitors stay together, listen to the tour guide and obey the red-light-green light system on the factory floor.
When the tour is over, youíll wonder where the two hours have gone. Even if youíre not particularly into all things automotive, thereís a certain level of patriotic pride in touring a real live manufacturing facility that, while highly mechanized, has still managed to keep its heart and soul.
Elaine Jean is a writer with an incurable case of wanderlust. She and husband/photographer Paul are roaming the planet, starting in the Mid-Atlantic region. Learn more about this and other day trips at www.roamingtheplanet.com.