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For some Harley buyers, all roads lead to Milwaukee

Posted: may 11, 2010 |(45) Comments

The Journal Sentinel’s Rick Barrett is the proprietor of this blog for Harley enthusiasts and anyone else interested in the motorcycle industry and culture.

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Edward Stewart, from Odessa, Texas, traveled more than 2,000 miles to buy a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in Milwaukee.

Brooke Stiltner is coming this summer from Eagle River, Alaska.

These may seem like long road trips to buy a motorcycle, but some people insist on getting their bikes not far from the shed where bill Harley and Arthur Davidson launched their business in 1903.

Stewart flew in last fall to buy a 2009 Electra Glide Classic from the Milwaukee Harley-Davidson dealership. he stayed a night at the Iron Horse Hotel, visited the Harley museum, and toured the factory on Capitol Drive. the dealership paid for everything, including his airfare, limousine service and dinner at a local tavern.

While here, Stewart bought the $19,000 motorcycle, which he named Pearl. it was his first Harley, and he felt an emotional pull to come and see where the company’s story began.

“Absolutely. I wanted to buy her from Milwaukee,” Stewart said. “This was a birthday present to myself.”

The Electra Glide’s engine and transmission were made here, but the bike was assembled at Harley-Davidson’s factory in York, Pa. some motorcyclists have taken a detour through York as part of their trip to buy a Harley in Milwaukee.

And there are people who travel to Goteborg, Sweden, to buy their Volvo automobile and to Bowling Green, Ky., to buy a Corvette and tour the factory there.

Stewart said he would have come to Milwaukee to purchase a Harley even if the dealership had not paid for his trip.

“For me, it was living out a dream,” he said. “I had to do something like this.”

After touring the engine factory, he also knows when “Pearl” was born: Oct. 2, 2008 was the date stamped on her.

And, yes, he will have a birthday party for the bike this fall.

The link

For many people, Milwaukee and Harley-Davidson are inseparable. Yet determined to slash costs, Harley recently said its Wisconsin factories could be in jeopardy if measures meant to cut $54 million a year in costs aren’t successful.

It would be hard to imagine the iconic V-twin engines not being made at the Pilgrim Road plant, Stiltner said.

In June, she and a friend are flying in to buy a 2010 Heritage Softail Classic and a CVO Custom touring cycle from Milwaukee Harley-Davidson.

They will also tour the museum, the factory on Pilgrim Road, and see all things Harley before riding their new bikes home.

Stiltner could not find the motorcycle she wanted in Alaska. her choices, for the specific model and color she wanted, were bikes in Washington, California, Wisconsin and Mississippi.

She chose Wisconsin partly because it’s the home of Harley-Davidson, but mostly because she liked the dealership.

“The dealership in Washington did not have that warm, fuzzy feeling to it,” Stiltner said.

She and 37 other bikers from Alaska rode to Milwaukee for Harley-Davidson’s 105th anniversary party in 2008. That experience helped convince Stiltner, a charter member of the Harley-Davidson Museum, to return and buy her 2010 bike in Milwaukee.

The connection, she said, tugs at her heart strings.

The average age of a Harley rider is about 46, compared with mid-30s for other motorcyclists.

For many riders, coming to Milwaukee on a bike born and bred here is part of their midlife game plan.

That was the case for Terry and Veronica Duncan of Suffolk, Va., who rode their 2003 Ultra Classic to Milwaukee for the 105th anniversary.

Veronica had just retired from the U.S. Postal Service, following a military career.

“It was now or maybe never,” she said.

To Thiensville

Last week, Tracy Bauman flew here from Jefferson City, Mo., to buy a new Harley. it was the second time in two years he purchased a bike from Suburban Harley-Davidson, in Thiensville.

The Milwaukee area has more Harley dealerships than many urban areas of its size. where he is from, Bauman said, it’s not easy to find a dealer with as many new bikes to choose from.

“And I like the way they do business here,” he said. “You can tell when you are around people who are genuine motorcycle enthusiasts and aren’t just trying to make a buck. I also enjoyed the (560 mile) ride home. Once you get away from the cities, it’s all good.”

It’s probably not cheaper to buy a new Harley in Milwaukee, although you may be able to negotiate a better price because there are more area dealerships to choose from.

Milwaukee Harley-Davidson, the only dealership in the city, will pay a customer’s one-way airfare here if they buy a bike from them. They also pay for a stay at the Iron Horse Hotel, tickets to the Harley-Davidson Museum, limousine service from the airport, and other perks such as dinner.

Altogether, it costs the dealership more than $1,000, depending on the airfare – which in Stewart’s case cost $222.

In exchange, the out-of-town buyer pays full price for any new bike.

The profit margin would be “pretty skinny” on a $7,900 Sportster, but hopefully those buyers would come back when they’re ready for a more expensive motorcycle, said Chaz Hastings, owner of the dealership on Milwaukee’s north side.

Milwaukee Harley-Davidson aims to sell about 20 bikes a year through its fly-and-buy program.

The dealership recovers part of the cost by selling chrome accessories, biker clothing and other things often purchased with a new motorcycle.

The number of bikes sold through the program isn’t large enough to hurt dealerships in other states, Hastings said.

Out-of-town buyers get a guided bike tour of rural southern Wisconsin. They also get a mapped route for their ride home.

Stewart got lost three times returning home but said he enjoyed every moment of the seven-day trip.

“If I had not got lost, I would have missed some beautiful scenery,” he said. “I had a great journey home.”

For some Harley buyers, all roads lead to Milwaukee