Before there were motorcycles, there were bicycles with motors attached. Getting these internal combustion engines to turn over in the early 20th century often required pedaling, and some riders even required a push to get going. During this time, three young men in Milwaukee got together to create what would become the iconic American motorcycle brand, Harley-Davidson.
The tale of how Bill Harley and his neighbors Walter and Arthur Davidson built their legendary company is now a three-part mini-series, Harley and the Davidsons, debuting on the Discovery Channel on Labor Day.
Call it kickstart culture instead of start up, Harley and the Davidsons is about three guys as tight as family and offers insight into a brand that’s defined American motorcycling. “Love surrounds these three characters. And there’s a natural pecking order that presents itself in the most endearing way,” says Robert Aramayo, the actor who plays Bill Harley, the visionary and often mad scientist engineer behind the motos.
The pecking order puts the badass older brother Walter, played by Michiel Huisman (Daario on Game of Thrones), in an alpha position. “With badassery comes big brothership and Michiel was our big brother on this,” says Bug Hall, who played Arthur Davidson, the quick-talking sales and marketing guy behind the company.
Walter was responsible for the trifecta of qualities most associate with Harley-Davidson motorcycles: large, loud, and powerful. Walter’s motivations are clear: He didn’t want a louder, bigger, faster bike to beat the most popular manufacturer, Indian Motorcycles, that's just what he liked to ride. Impulsive and all ego, he followed his heart, when his temper didn’t force him to throw punches, which he does a lot.
Walter also races the bikes. And this is where the mini-series kicks into high gear. The race sequences are just as exciting as the vintage motorcycles are beautiful. Taking place on dirt roads, through the woods, and on the banked wooden tracks, there’s plenty of speed and spills.
Filmed in Romania because the countryside still looks like the midwest of the early 1900s, the actors and stuntmen rode replica bikes. Almost 80, all told, were built by the South African company Apocalypse, led by legendary motorcycle fabricator Alex Wheeler.
Riding the replicas “was challenging because they were bicycles with an engine. They’re not supposed to go very fast and they did go pretty fast. And they didn’t really have brakes, they had what we called ‘slow downers,’” says Hall, who was banned from riding the bikes after crashing and breaking his collarbone.
The fact that the founders of Harley-Davidson all raced these bikes surprised Bug. “I had no idea that the founders were out there bleeding along with the other idiots,” he says.
Motorcyclists will like watching the evolution of technology. Early on these bikes didn’t even have front brakes, which all riders know supply the majority of stopping power. And forget about modern shifting. Early riders had to deal with unwieldy levers and tension belts.
Spanning more than three decades, Harley and the Davidsons covers a lot of ground, including the birth of the V-Twin engine and how the Depression and Ford almost bankrupted them, as well as lesser known parts of Harley’s history, including how William 'Wild Bill' Johnson became the first African-American Harley dealer.
And they hint about the origins of the term hogs, which is often used to describe Harleys. Like the bikes themselves, Harley and the Davidsons is loud, brash, and not very economical. But it’s certainly fun viewing for riders who want get the inside story on a brand that created a culture.
“Without Harley-Davidson, there was no Long Way Round or Sons of Anarchy" Hall says. "Motorcycle culture has evolved, but it did have a starting place, and that’s the story we’re telling."