The tagline on the Harley and the Davidsons DVD/Blu-ray combo pack promised I’d learn the story behind the name. As a self-proclaimed history buff, I thought “Okay, I’ll give this one a shot.” I’ve never owned a Harley-Davidson motorcycle but some of my friends and relatives have. Knowing very little about the company’s founding story, I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting. However, the television miniseries that ran on the Discovery Channel last fall holds far more than initially meets the eye.
Told in three fast-paced chapters (“Amazing Machine,” “Race to the Top” and “Legacy”), Harley and the Davidsons covers over three decades of American – and Harley-Davidson – history. The company was founded by three young men with a vision: brothers Walter and Arthur Davidson and their childhood friend/neighbor Bill Harley at the turn of the 20th century. Walter is portrayed by Michiel Huisman (you might know him better as Daario Naharis on Game of Thrones), while his younger brother Arthur is portrayed by Bug Hall (Alfafa from 1994’s remake of The Little Rascals looking even more adorable than ever before!). Robert Aramayo (also a Game of Thrones alumnus – that’s him in the flashbacks of a young Ned Stark from last season) takes a turn as Bill Harley, the engineering genius behind many of Harley-Davidson’s best-known designs and innovations.
At the turn of the 20th century, the times they were a changin’. Man had already invented the bicycle and the automobile and it was only a matter of time before his ingenuity put the two together. The first motorcycles were invented in Europe in the 1860s and were steam-powered. Commercially designed motorcycles began popping up across Europe by the late 1880s, and by 1901, the Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company brought the concept of manufacturing motorcycles to American soil. While they were certainly not the first to invent the motorcycle, nor were they even the first American company to produce motorcycles, Harley-Davidson was a pioneer in those early days with their production beginning in 1903.
Part One of Harley and the Davidsons beautifully establishes the early roots of the company. Arthur Davidson is inspired by the engineering mind and drawings of his friend Bill Harley. After his older brother Walter receives a bit of compensation from the C.M.P. Railroad forcing him off his farming land (because the railroads were coming through and you can’t stop progress!), Arthur asks him to fund their new entrepreneurship. The three quickly develop a new motorbike using a Flying Merkel bicycle frame and a homemade engine, and that’s the birth of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company and a big idea.
Getting financial backers in those days was tough, especially when the Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company was leading the industry’s standards and had pretty much established a monopoly among the early investors and dealers. However, these men were determined and driven to succeed. Sure, they experienced some setbacks along the way, such as when Bill went away to college to study engineering. (Never you fear, he eventually returned to the brothers who depended upon him.) In an effort to boost their sales and prove to the competition that they were a force to be reckoned with, Walter began competing in enduro-races to prove the superiority of their product on the market. However, by the end of Part One, Arthur has taken a firm stance against Motordrome racing and prohibits his brother and company from participating in it after a good friend of theirs is horrifically killed on the racetrack.
While boycotting the popular sport of Motordrome racing probably would have spelled uncertain death for most early companies, Harley-Davidson was fortunate to always remain on the cutting edge of innovation. They began building bigger, more powerful motorbikes and championed racing on dirt flat-tracks to make the sport safer. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Arthur had the foresight to understand how important establishing a contract with Uncle Sam was to the continued growth of their company. By building rugged bikes for the soldiers that could withstand just about anything, and training them to maintain those machines, Harley-Davidson successfully built a loyal following for their brand. For once all of those young soldiers returned home, many were eager to continue to build upon that loyalty. It’s really quite fascinating how Harley-Davidson became one of the world’s (not just American) largest motorcycle manufacturers by 1920.
However, by the end of Part Two, Harley-Davidson was faced with more woes. They were slapped with a class-action lawsuit for patent infringements by the Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company (along with several other manufacturers) and were forced to settle out of court and begin their brand all over again. In such uncertain times (the impending Great Depression), I think lesser men would have given up on their dreams in the face of such despairing adversity … but not Harley-Davidson.
Part Three establishes once and for all why the company is a lasting legacy that has endured for over a century. I think the most interesting aspect of the final act was seeing the next generation in the Harley-Davidson clan stepping up to the plate. The miniseries ends with the invention of The Knucklehead, which many consider to be among the company’s greatest triumphs.
Does the miniseries hold up with historical accuracy? Certain parts of the story have been embellished for dramatic purposes to be sure, but it remains fairly faithful to the company’s historical arc. The series was praised by both the great-grandson of the original founders and the head of the company archives at the Harley-Davidson Museum, as well as several noted motorcycling enthusiasts who have admired how the miniseries painstakingly recreated the motorcycles of the early era. It also received high ratings for the network when it was originally broadcast. On a production note, I’d give the miniseries very high marks indeed. I truly felt as if I were immersed in the early 20th century – they did a fantastic job with the costumes and set pieces. And the acting and writing were also top-notch. In short, I loved it and I’m not even a motorcycling enthusiast.
The DVD/Blu-ray combo pack also includes a few bonus features for those who are interested. There is a behind-the-scenes featurette shedding some light on what it entails to recreate over three and a half decades of history, as well as a special 44-minute “Biketacular” showcasing the top 20 most innovative motorcycles of all time. This miniseries is perfect for any “gearhead” and for just about anyone else who is appreciative of history. It reads like a love letter to the unbridled American spirit of entrepreneurship and wanting to achieve the American dream despite all odds. And that’s captivating storytelling in any era.