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Series / Harley and the Davidsons

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Nope, this ain't a movie about a rock-and-roll group. Though it does sound like it.

Loyalty of a fellow worker is the biggest thing in the game.
Bill Harley

Discovery Channel is no stranger to Harley-Davidsons, and this docudrama about the American motorcycle manufacturer's origins is no exception. When a ragtag group of mechanics set out to make motorcycling history at a shed in Wisconsin during the The Edwardian Era, they were determined to do so at all costs - even if that means participating in a high-stakes race to prove their worth or getting into a fistfight with their corporate rivals.

Bill Harley, played by Game of Thrones actor Robert Aramayo, worked as a draftsman in his teens at a factory in Wisconsin, along with his childhood pal Arthur Davidson (Bug Hall). Arthur came up with the idea of making a motorcycle engine to take the burden out of pedaling, despite lacking the resources and thus Stealing from the Till for parts, bribing fellow workers along the way. Their first effort was a success, well, sort of, as it sputtered and died after the initial run. Not giving in to despair, they sought help from Arthur's brother Walter Davidson (Michiel Huisman), and together they improved upon their prototype to which they took to a number of races, eventually catching the attention of C.H. Lang who took a shine to their high-speed antics and decided to invest on their venture. Their exploits eventually made them enemies with fellow motorcycling pioneer George Hendee, who felt that Harley was encroaching into his market share and decided to do every single villainous scheme he could throw at to keep Harley and the Davidson brothers at bay. Neither this nor The Great Depression deterred them, as they eventually emerged developing and releasing the "fastest damn motorcycle in the world".


The show provides examples of:

  • Artistic License – History: The miniseries is so made of it - they did get a number of details right, but to call it a factual account of what happened would be a stretch.
    • Not much is known about Eddie Hasha apart from his tragic racing career, so the producers expanded upon this by making him initially under the wing of Joe Merkel, later to be employed by Harley-Davidson, and when he called it quits over who's going to join the motordrome race, he eventually signed up for Indian.note 
    • While Walter served as the sole test driver in the show, all of the founding fathers did take their products for a ride themselves.
    • The Knucklehead nickname Bill Harley coined in the show actually emerged after World War II, years after the company introduced an improved version which would later be known as the Panhead; official Motor Company advertisements of the time referred to their new engine simply as the "OHV", standing for OverHead Valve.
      • In addition, development of the OHV prototype was done in secret to keep rivals like Indian from coming up with their own, so unveiling it at an "outlaw" race would be too much of a gamble; the real-world 1936 EL was formally introduced at the annual Harley-Davidson dealers convention in 1935 at Milwaukee’s Schroeder Hotel.
      • Not to mention that Bill Harley's remark of it being the "fastest damn motorcycle in the world" is more of a half-hearted boast on his part; the record was held by the Brough Superior SS100 from 1925 to 1940.
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  • Black and White Morality: It's Bill and his pals as the Knights in Shining Armor versus Corrupt Corporate Executives George Hendee and (the fictional) Randell James.
  • Badass Biker: Which goes well with the MoCo's rebel image to which they capitalise these days. Though in this case it was done more as a Rule of Cool since Harley at the time had a largely modest, clean-cut image until the likes of the Hells Angels came along and perpetuated the outlaw biker stereotype. In fact, commercials for H-D during the mid-twentieth century were pedestrian to say the least, though Honda capitalised on Harley's tarnished reputation by presenting their bikes as a friendly alternative ("You meet the nicest people on a Honda.") to the ones frequently ridden by marauding hooligans.
  • Berserk Button: Feeling cheated at a race? Punch Hendee in the face.
  • The Big Race: It's basically the main focus of the miniseries, though the founders' efforts at rising through the ranks are obviously touched upon, along with their personal lives.
  • Blood Sport: Arthur was reluctant to have their company participate at the Newark Motordrome race, as it would mean suicide due to the G-forces involved. This was proven true when a number of racers were killed, one of them being a (former) employee of theirs.
    • The real-life Arthur Davidson likened motordrome racing to Gladiator Games in an editorial for the company's official newsletter—entertainment for spectators at the expense of those participating in it (or the audience for that matter, in case one or more of those bikes fly off the track).
  • Brains and Brawn: Come to think of it, this is a show about The Smart Guy and his Hot-Blooded pals out to establish an enterprise.
  • Cool Bike / Cool Car
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Yeah, but what happened to George Hendee and Randell James?note  Some might Hand Wave that they got caught up in The Great Depression as what most businesses of the day suffered, but the real-life Indian actually fared more or less well at the time, having merged with Du Pont Motors in 1930.
  • Docudrama
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: Happens on occasion especially in the first episode, where a racer's bike would blow up due to engine trouble.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: Bill Harley. Bill came up with a clock at the factory as a side invention he made in his free time, though this was dismissed by the factory supervisor as a mere distraction, ordering him to get back to work.
  • Genius Bruiser: The Davidson brothers were this in contrast to Harley, as they tend to get into altercations when things turn into Serious Business.
  • The Great Depression: Part 3 of the series focuses on this period. Arthur and his wife Clara were first seen donating clothes to the needy at a mobile soup kitchen, and as the Depression reared its ugly head, the four founders faced their toughest challenge, coming up with ways to keep themselves afloat as new vehicle sales decline.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Arthur, Walter and Big Bill aren't the ones you'd dare mess with, given their hotheadedness both at home and at the races.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Some have noted Hendee's depiction to be a tad too far from who he was in real life. One reviewer noted that while they were indeed rivals at both the race track and dealerships, Hendee and Arthur Davidson were noted to be close friends and looked after each other's businesses. In fact, Harley mourned when Indian folded in the 1950s, and that's in spite of them being one of their closest rivals in the industry.
  • Left Hanging: But what about the patent lawsuit subplot? Indian nearly put Harley to its knees in the second episode, but not much has been said as to how the company overcame it, if it happened at all in Real Life.
  • Rule of Three: While Bill Harley, Arthur and Walter are mostly shown in promotional material, Bill Davidson was also a key founding member of the company IRL, despite having a somewhat smaller role in the series.
  • Stealing from the Till: Having next to no parts, Arthur appropriated engine components at the factory he and his friend worked in. It wasn't without consequence though, but nevertheless they were able to produce an engine.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Which was pretty much the main point of criticism with the miniseries. At least some of the events are rooted in reality, but the way it unfolded is far from the truth.

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