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Kansas City Harley-Davidson Assembly Plant Open House

Written by  September 30, 2004

Remember Mr. Rogers singing, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood …Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won't you be my neighbor?” It certainly was a beautiful couple of days Friday and Saturday, September 10th and 11th for this year’s Open House at the Harley-Davidson Final Assembly plant in Platte County, Missouri. For the Kansas City neighborhood who coaxed the motor company nearly ten years ago to place their plant here, this party was a wonderful success; the sun shined brightly, people showed up in droves, the plant opened wide its doors and current and future customers roared in and out on brand new demo bikes made available for the event. The occasion was also coordinated with Platte City residents who planned their Second Annual Platte City End of the Trail Rally and Street Dance during the same weekend.

Harley-Davidson, as the world’s leading manufacturer of 650cc and above motorcycles, has two final assembly plants in the country, each of which holds an annual open house. These very special toy factories are the envy of the industry and many in the Kansas City metro area are unaware of the role this facility plays in maintaining that industry lead. The Kansas City facility is responsible for the assembly of all Sportsters, V-Rods and Dynas, while in York, Pennsylvania all Touring and Softail models are built. During 2003, the combined production of these facilities exceeded 291,000 motorcycles and through mid 2004, another 151,000 plus had been produced. Regional motorcycle enthusiasts or metro area cagers, if you’re the least bit interested in motorcycles of any make or model and you’ve never visited the facility or participated in this annual celebration of sharing, you’ve missed out on some good old fashioned hospitality you simply can’t find anywhere. If you’re the least bit curious about how these beauties are built, a few visits to the factory will certainly stir your curiosity.

Consider just for a second, how would you feel about lending one of your most precious possessions to a complete stranger, or in this case, how about several hundred strangers? Available to try out during the Open House were 45 fueled up and shined up, brand new Harley-Davidsons. All you needed was a valid motorcycle license; they even supplied the helmets if you didn’t bring yours! There were Sportsters and Dynas; Softails and the beautiful new Deluxes and Springers. There were also Road Kings, Electra Glides and Road Glides. For the sport bike crowd, there were V-Rods and Buells. Finally, there were two fan favorites from the '05 line: the Screamin’ Eagle Fat Boy and Electra Glide. And to help you try them out were friendly, outgoing and genuinely appreciative motor company employees from all over the country.

Regional and home office personnel travel in to support these big parties and to get in touch with their devoted public. There was Kate from Dealer Support and Chris from Product Licensing, both from the Milwaukee area, working in rider registration. There was Jim, from Strategic Planning, assisting in demo ride support for the tour bikes. There was also George, a machinist from the Capital Drive plant (where the Sportster motors are built) who was assisting with the Sportster Demos. There were many other employees, all with the same goals in mind - share their experience and knowledge with an inquisitive and brand loyal public as well as introduce their new products in a way most other manufacturers only dream about.

This was my third Open House and each has been a treat. Co-worker Ash and I had planned for this over a month in advance. We arrived at 7:40 a.m. Friday morning and immediately got in line for registration. By the time it officially opened at nearly 9 a.m., the line stretched back across the lot and numbered in the low hundreds. My primary objective for the day was to hop on a new Custom Vehicle Operations (CVO) 103 inch Screamin’ Eagle Electra Glide. But after registration, I was distracted when an opportunity to immediately hop on a V-Rod presented itself.

I’d ridden the V-Rod last year and was jones’n for an acceleration fix. Boy howdy, did I get what I was looking for! V-Rod and Buell demos provide you with lead and tail riders in a small group with a bit longer route than is available for the other bikes. Upon first straddling a V-Rod, you notice the longer wheelbase and the balanced, forward set up. Fire it up and you’ll recognize how fast it raps, amazing for an 1130cc twin! Once you get out in the open, you soon recognize that their power band starts where your big twin ends and you wonder “how fast could I be going if I were to keep this pace up through fifth?” These are nimble, light feeling cruisers that can stop incredibly well and are an absolute treat to ride. I’d love to have one, but I’m confident that since I’m lacking the discipline to not go fast all the time, I’d be personally funding many local school districts and shortly be in the selected insurance group!

After testing out the V-Rod, I came back to find that several other riders had the same objective as me; to test ride the Screamin’ Eagle 103 inch bikes. As I got in line, I asked Michelle, Customer Service Rep from Milwaukee, to specifically put my name down for the big bore tour machine. While waiting, I spent my time chatting with fellow enthusiasts in line for their chance to try on these new machines. Most had ridden a Harley before, but many had not. As each rider returned from their demo, others wanted feedback of the test ride just completed. Departing riders cheerfully obliged to share their experiences, while displaying grins that could not have been removed with a chisel and hammer.

As I stood there, admiring the experience of it all, I watched the two tone candy teal/dark teal custom Electra Glide roll in several times, get a new rider, then roll back out. Anticipation for my turn grew with each return. I listened time and time again to the unique sound from these motors, a lower tone with a deeper, heavier rumble. When my turn finally came, I took my place on the firm, but cushioned, plush seat. Once on board, the gleaming chrome controls and customized, heavily accessorized Ultra certainly makes you feel like a King. The unique paint scheme is striking a presence in itself! As I rolled out of the lot, the bike handled very well despite its Herculean size. It was ready to get out on the interstate and go. Problem was the demo route did not include any interstate and was better suited for most of the other bikes. So, I just took my time on the designated path, accelerating and decelerating to get a feel for the extra power. I wound the throttle up and down while the breeze in my face off of the shorty windshield was refreshing. Turning up the stereo system on these cruising behemoths provided very crisp sound in spite of the surrounding wind noise. After I finished my test ride, I reluctantly returned the machine to the next anxious rider and my attention then turned to touring the assembly plant.

On Friday, the plant was a bustle of energy and in full production. Passing through it during assembly is an experience all to itself. It is here where dreams are being built as employees turn raw materials and palletized groups of specifically positioned parts into polished and painted rolling works of art. There is constant activity; fork lifts moving in and out, beeping their horns to ensure they don’t run over us rubber-necker’s gandering about. In the fabrication side of the facility, sheet metal is being stamped, laser cut, welded together and surface finished while across the way, robotic welding of frame components is taking place. Overhead is a moving track of hanging parts awaiting their turn in painting. Taking this all in, you gain appreciation for why Harley-Davidson is the industry leader. The experience and wisdom this company has gained and employed during its century plus of manufacturing is evident in every direction, and every nook and cranny visible.

Moving into the adjacent assembly area, there are three large U-shaped production lines, one each for model manufactured. These lines are surrounded with materials stacked floor to ceiling, and inventory movement is constant. There are pallets of pre-built motors and transmissions waiting placement into their designated frames; an impressive sight when you first encounter them. There are also sub-assembly processes that build the V-Rod motor, create laced wheels, install and balance tires, build front ends and foot and hand controls to name a few. At the beginning of each U-line, naked frames are placed on a moving pedestal whose height can be air adjusted at each workstation depending on the specific step being performed. After a series of continuously refined build stages, the initially empty frame has now been assembled into a complete bike. Coming off the line, each is individually fired up and ridden on large rollers inside chambers that muffle the noise and collect the exhaust. Test riders roll through the gears and test out the lights, horns, brakes and moving components. They are then rolled out and lined up on the floor, awaiting crating and shipping to the dealer who most likely sold each machine in the months prior to its assembly.

This is merely a synopsis of the many steps and stages in the assembly process. Each of which has been modified and updated from their inception to improve efficiencies and keep the products rolling. The evolution of their assembly processes is largely based on the input of those doing the work. In today’s business environment, it’s rare to see such participation, ingenuity and commitment from the workers on the front line being incorporated throughout the build process.

As my day finished on Friday, it was obvious I would need to return on Saturday to take more of this goodness in. The following morning, with the sun still shining bright and the air slightly cool, I rode back out and spent some time talking to workers both in and out of the plant. Since this was Saturday the 11th, at 9 a.m., the National Anthem was played and all present paused in silent memory of those lost three years before. The 9/11 recognition was accompanied by two military jets that performed multiple fly-overs, demonstrating awesome speed and power with each pass.

There were more people present on the second day and many with children who were just as interested in these bikes as us big kids. For me, this was much more of a casual return visit, with one exception; I took advantage of the opportunity to ride the recently redesigned Sportster. The demo line for these machines was somewhat shorter than the others. My experience on the bright yellow '05 1200 Roadster left me with a very positive opinion - Wahoo! This recent redesign was a complete success. During the '04 model year, all Sportsters saw significant change: engine output, frame size and gas tank capacity were all increased and the motor was rubber mounted. The subsequent increase in power in a stiffer frame with vibration isolation makes them a whole new player as the powerful little brother in the big twin line-up. Increased sales of these redesigned bikes is clearly a credit to their redesign.

The success of this year’s Open House already has me anticipating next year’s and certainly has stirred my curiosity about what changes we can expect from the Motor Company between now and then. It also has me very excited about the opportunity to do an upcoming series of articles that Cycle Connections will be doing with one of Kansas City’s finest neighbors. Growing up, I would never have imagined Mr. Rogers trading in his sweater and slippers for a doo-rag, leathers and riding boots, but he always did reach out to the kid in us. And when you shake it all out, our bikes are just very special toys that help us remember as we grow older, what it was like being a kid.

Story and photos by Nic