Archives: A Look Back at “Harley and the Davidsons”

Larry Lawrence | September 14, 2016
Harley and the Davidsons was entertaining, but historically inaccurate

The three-part Harley and the Davidsons miniseries on the Discovery Channel last week was by most accounts a highly-entertaining watch. The actors were compelling and you cared about what happened to them and the company they founded. But if you were looking for an accurate reading of the actual history of The Motor Company and the first three decades of motorcycling in general, this series was lacking. To say the producers played fast and loose with the history of the sport would be an understatement. Many movie productions of historical events take creative liberties, but Harley and the Davidsons flat out distorted facts beyond all recognition. Nevertheless, the movie taken for what it was, a completely dramatized romp through the history of Harley-Davidson, it was a well worth watching.

Episode One begins with showing the pre-motorcycle making days of the main characters Walter “Walt” Davidson, Bill Harley and Arthur “Art” Davidson. According to the series Walt Davidson, a big guy with hard fists, had lost his ranch by way of eminent domain purchase by the railroad. Harley, an aspiring engineer and college student who loved to tinker, worked for the railroad and Bill’s best friend Art Davidson, was a fast-talking troublemaker who was always scheming for a way to make a quick buck

Interestingly eldest founding brother William “Big Bill” Davidson is in the movie, but has a much smaller roll than his brothers Art, Walt and family friend Harley.

As Harley and Art work on building the first prototype, they run into issues of being able to buy the right tools and raw materials, Walt steps in to save the day by giving them the money from the sale of his ranch after becoming overjoyed upon riding the prototype. The movie depicts Harley and the Davidsons trying to work with fellow Milwaukee motorcycle maker Joe Merkel, getting a carburetor from Merkel in the beginning in trade for some engineering tricks Harley is coming up with. The carb proves faulty and causes the prototype Harley to catch fire.

For the most part the first episode sticks to fairly plausible things that might have happened when the four founders of Harley-Davidson are getting things off the ground. The one exception to that comes when Indian Motorcycle founder George Hendee just happens to show up in a field turned motorcycle proving grounds outside of Milwaukee, and challenges the group of Milwaukee motorcyclists to come and prove themselves by racing against Indian. That most assuredly never actually happened. To make Hendee even more villainous, he always has a guy with him wherever he goes who’s dressed up in full American Indian regalia as a live promotional tool.

The early challenge was to get Bill Harley to continue work on the bike, with his time occupied by engineering classes in college, another company making him an attractive offer and his parents wary of the Davidson brothers.

The big race meet hosted by Indian (which again is not based on reality) was the highlight of the first episode. When Hendee hears of the impressive specs of the Harley-Davidson, he bans them from entering the race due to being underweight. Walt pulls the Harley off the starting grid, but then starts the race anyway on an access road that runs alongside the racecourse. In spite of being at a disadvantage on the longer access road, Walt keeps the Harley alongside the leading Indian and the other racing machines. At the last second Walt smashes through a fence before the finish line to get on the track and wins the race.

The big national “enduro” race (they were actually called endurance races in that era) in the Catskills proves to be more hand-to-hand combat between Walt and Indian’s rider than a race. Walt crashes and is injured. That only serves to make Walt mad and he remounted and catches up with Indian rider and kicks him off into the woods, smashing his bike. The victory for Harley was supposed to get dozens of dealers to sign up, but when Walt gets into a brawl with the crew from Indian (including the guy in Indian headdress) the dealers get cold feet. Once again, all of this is very entertaining, but pure fiction.

There are a lot of fisticuffs in the miniseries, even the three Davidson brothers get into a dust up before Mama Davidson comes enters the room and offers to bonk some heads together herself unless the boys settle down.

Episode one of the series ends with the board track era and the death of Eddie Hasha. This time the producers decided to downplay the horrific board track crash that ended his life and that of fellow racer Johnny Albright and six spectators, including three young boys. The series shows Harley-Davidson withdrawing from board track racing after Hasha’s death and focusing on flat track racing, but the reality is that Hasha’s accident happened in 1912 and the Harley-Davidson continued racing and winning board track races into the mid-1910s and beyond.

Episode two emphasizes the racing success Harley-Davidson had in the 1910s and ‘20s with Shrimp Burns, Ray Weishaar and Otto Walker, the original Harley Wrecking Crew. Burns is portrayed as a flamboyant and rapidly rising star, barely old enough to race, who joined the team only to be later stolen away by Indian. That part was true.

With the onset of World War I much of the manufacturing capacity of the industry was put towards the war. In one scene Art and Walt Davidson and the new president of Indian, a fictional character named Randall James, and his assistant, appear together in a meeting with a military procurement officer and he tells the group that the government expects 25,000 units from Indian and 15,000 from Harley. Art comes prepared with a much better proposal for the military and the officer changes the order to 20,000 each. Again, sheer fiction. The fact is Indian supplied a total of 41,000 machines to the military effort during WWI, while Harley provided 15,000.

The second episode ends with a patent infringement lawsuit against Harley-Davidson instigated by Indian. The lawsuit threatens to bankrupt Harley, but unbelievably the episode ends with the suit unresolved and it’s never taken up again in the next chapter.

While the first two episodes were entertaining, albeit highly dramatized, the series really went off the rails in the Episode Three. In this final installment we are to believe that hooligan racing got its start in the 1930s and these outlaw races were open to blacks and women riders and that Harley-Davidson supported these non-sanctioned events.

And we are further led to believe that when Bill Harley makes his last great engine design, the founders decide to debut the bike at one of these hooligan races instead of at an AMA National. Pure bunk.

The series throws the AMA under the bus in a big way. Another totally made up character named Wharton, a Boss Hog type who is the chairman of the AMA, is one of the true bad guys. It seems Wharton’s sole goal in life is to stop these outlaw races and to keep black riders from competing. In easily the most laughable scene in the series Wharton comes charging down the hill at an outlaw race looking like the cavalry, police in tow, ready to arrest all those participating. But alas, there’s Walt Davidson himself there to watch his son Walt Jr. race and the cops back down when they realize they’re dealing with the head of Harley-Davidson. How they could shoot this ridiculous scene with a straight face is unbelievable.

The series was entertaining, especially in the first two episodes, but again for the producers of the show to present this series as based on true stories shows they simply didn’t know the real stories, or felt they weren’t dramatic enough.

The ironic thing is that Harley-Davidson’s real story is one of the most compelling of any American company. Perhaps someday we’ll get a movie or documentary about the Motor Company that is both entertaining and factual.

Larry Lawrence | Archives Editor In addition to writing our Archives section on a weekly basis, Lawrence is another who is capable of covering any event we throw his way.