Wheels Through Time
Maggie Valley, North Carolina
The risk with a museum about motorcycles -- or any specialized passion, for that matter -- is that it may cater exclusively to gearheads at the expense of the general public.
Wheels Through Time, however, is anything but exclusionary. Its collection of one-of-a-kind vehicles, basket case barn finds, and hand-crafted motorized inventions is the personal vision of Dale Walksler, a former Harley-Davidson dealer.
Artifacts displayed at Wheels Through Time include an airplane built by a 17-year-old, and a supersonic-looking car-of-the-future designed by a retired GM engineer -- both powered by motorcycle engines. There's a similarly-souped-up ice sled that ran hooch during Prohibition, and a motorized mine car found sixty years after the mine collapsed in the 1930s. "The guy that was on it was still on it," said Matt Walksler, Dale's son, a temptingly ghoulish image that made us want to study the machine's seat for horror stains. Matt co-runs the museum with his dad, and shares his enthusiasm.
Lighting sets the right dramatic mood. A decor of vintage items -- tires, fenders, gas tanks, shocks, springs, wheel rims, exhaust pipes -- creates the illusion that the museum is inside a giant barn-of-bounty or circa-1920 garage, filled with treasures. Many of the machines have been purposely left as scuffed and rusty as the day they were found. Showroom dummies, dressed as everything from motorcycle cops to biker chicks, provide human faces for the displays.
"When it comes to American motorcycles, there's no collection like this anywhere," said Matt. "These machines all have attitude and great stories." We asked what story was behind the prosthetic human leg attached to a 1928 Altoona Hillclimber. Matt said that the leg belonged to the owner of a 1908 Indian, which was found in an attic and is displayed elsewhere in the museum. "The leg moves around," said Matt. "That's my sock."
This casual, hands-on approach is another plus for Wheels Through Time. All of its hundreds of machines have been restored by Dale to running condition, and Dale and Matt often throttle up their valuable exhibits for visitors. A waft of spent fuel and motor oil fills the 38,000-square-foot museum. Concrete floors provide a road-like riding surface.
To novices, the museum's earliest machines -- elongated bicycles with bolted-on engines and fuel tanks -- look incredibly dangerous and very uncomfortable. Yet Dale and Matt ride them all the time; the Walkslers have been known to take visitors for spins around the museum in a vintage sidecar. Dale rode a 1918 Harley in the 2008 presidential inaugural parade. He rode a 1917 Henderson, cross-country, California to New York, in only six days. His only advice afterward: wear corduroy pants.
The world's most mysterious motorcycle -- the 1916 Traub -- is the star of the museum's one-of-a-kind exhibit, high praise when you consider that Wheels Through Time has dozens of one-of-a-kind machines. Leapin' Leena, parked in a back corner, was built in 1950 with an off-center front wheel that turned it into a bucking bronco. "The last time I rode that bike it caught fire," said Matt. A second floor gallery displays The Coke Machine, a Harley chopper customized into a visual tribute to its owner's favorite beverage. Its display includes a letter from Coke's legal division asking its well-meaning owner to please park it somewhere out of sight.
Part of the museum's allure is its location in Maggie Valley, the heart of a motorcycle-riding region of winding roads and mountain vistas. "The riding here is second to none," said Matt, adding that bikers who visit include a sizeable number of doctors and lawyers and retirees.
When the museum does get an occasional motorcycle-nervous visitor, Matt plops them in the sidecar and takes them for a ride. "By the time we've done a half-mile," he said, "they've got a smile on their face and they're not thinking about anything except the next time they get to do it."