Harley and the Davidsons - What Was Right, What Was Wrong

Motorcycles dominated the small screen with Discovery’s three part ‘Harley and the Davidsons’, but how much of the story was fact and what was ‘dramatized’?

What is certain, America loved the docu-drama with ‘Harley and the Davidsons’ enjoying the biggest premiere telecast numbers in more than three years for a single-network miniseries on cable. The mini-series saw 3.4 million viewers tuning in for all three nights, riding through how Harley-Davidson started and the sometimes rocky ride through the history of the famous motorcycle manufacturer up to the 1930’s.

But how much was fact and what details can be firmly placed in the ‘drama’ category?

Romania was used to represent Wisconsin throughout the show and production values certainly seemed high for ‘Harley and the Davidsons’. The mini-series presented a timeline and many undocumented moments that aren't readily available online, bringing a freshness to a story most think is well-told.

Some of the items that has us scratching our heads weren’t bending facts, but leaving them out for the sake of time and entertainment. One such fact, after all the drama around getting into college, it was unclear whether Harley did in fact finish. Of course William Harley graduated, earning a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1907.

There were other odd moments.

Harley and the Davidsons - Source Discovery Channel

A Company Built From Passion

While Walter Davidson was the founding father seen mostly in the saddle, they all loved to ride.

According to Harley-Davidson’s archives, William Harley was an accomplished and enthusiastic motorcyclist, attending as many events as he could. He was an avid racer, with riders and racers in the late 1930s and early 40s looking forward to meeting him at the annual races in Daytona, Florida.

As early as 1907 when the company was building its dealer network, Arthur Davidson personally toured the country on a belt drive motorcycle to sign dealers.

However, Walter Davidson was the biggest racer of the three, becoming the first rider to achieve a perfect score in the Federation of American Motorcyclists Endurance and Reliability Contest in the Catskill Mountains of New York. This victory helped Harley-Davidson motorcycle triple its production the following year to a then amazing 1,149 bikes.

An interesting side note to this, in the series everybody but William Harley is credited with the motorcycle manufacturer creating a racing team. Harley-Davidson’s archives lists the formation of the Racing Department in 1913 as one of Harley's accomplishments to the point he served as the first Racing Engineer. Adding to this, Harley also served on the Competition Committee of the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) for twenty-four years.

The Success of Numbers

The mini-series wasn’t meant to be a documentary, so it wasn’t surprising the company’s sales or how quickly Harley-Davidson grew is only implied. For the readers out there who like to know the numbers, the years 1906 to 1908 saw a jump in production from 50 motorcycles in 1906 to 450 bikes in 1908. By 1910 Harley-Davidson sold 3,168 motorcycles. Another metric, Harley-Davidson’s workforce. After hiring the first full-time employee, other than the founders in 1905, 35 full-time staffers had been hired by 1908.

Part of this success was used as the losing side of an argument of whether Harley-Davidson should work with Ford on the famous Servi-Car or not, and that would be institutional sales. In 1908, the young Motor Company made its first sale to a Police Department in Detroit, Michigan and by 1914, the USPS had more than 4,800 Harleys delivering mail.

Mail delivered Harley-style

These sales were important for several reasons, but a lesser discussed fact is how they led to what would become a major part of Harley-Davidson’s financial success. In the early years of the company, more than 2,900 sheriffs and state patrols were using Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Boots, breaches and saddlebags gave motorcycle cops a ‘Wild West’ image that thrilled young boys and captivated the public's interest. Walter recognized the allure of this ‘motorcycle look,’ and launched a campaign to sell Harley-Davidson accessories and clothing. The ingenious marketing move helped the company survive the down days of the 1920s and created a booming market for Harley-Davidson accessories that remains a major part of the company's success to this day.

There was a moment in the series when Walter Davidson’s son tells him the riders customizing their motorcycles are the company’s biggest customers of aftermarket parts. We thought that this would be a lead-in for a sub-plot of Harley looking to aftermarket parts as a successful, additional revenue stream and at the time, revolutionary idea on several levels.

Instead, it seems that moment was used as a two-wheeled easter egg where we thought Michiel Huisman, who played Walter Davidson, would turn and wink at the camera. An easter egg is term given to an intentional inside joke or hidden message placed in a movie or video game.

Speaking of easter eggs, how Harley’s would eventually earn the nickname of ‘Hog’ was teased but never told.

There were several scenes in ‘Harley and the Davidsons’ of a pet pig being given to the Harley-Davidson racing team, holding it up on the victor’s podium. According to the company’s archives, whenever a Harley-Davidson team member won a race, he stopped to pick up the pig and took it with him for a victory lap. After a while, race fans and some in the media began to informally refer to the team as the "Harley Hogs." While the nickname of ‘Wrecking Crew’ was the one that stuck, as the ‘Harley Hogs’ nickname faded, the word ‘hog’ endured as the slang term among enthusiasts for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Source Harley-Davidson

Lawsuits and Grey Areas

A major moment of the three-part series played out a critical moment in Harley-Davidson’s history, when they faced what was a crippling lawsuit.

This is an involved topic which requires much more space than we have for this article, but it is interesting to note that Indian Motorcycle faced a similar suit just a few years before. The lawsuit seen in the docu-drama wasn’t quite as portrayed with the old adage of history being written by the victors coming to mind.

What is easily explained, how much copying went on between the different motorcycle manufacturers during those early years.

‘Looking through any motorcycling photographic history book shows that the ingenuity of the earliest Harley-Davidson motorcycles was duplicated by competitors. This fact was acknowledged by both H-D advertising pieces and industry experts,’ Harley-Davidson archives notes. ‘A 1909 print ad mentions those who copy or "adapt" Harley-Davidson designs and regards them as a fine tribute while also reminding the reader that there is no substitute. Other Harley-Davidson advertisements of that era mention "copyists" and "imitators," and the review sections of the magazine The Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review seem to confirm the assertion.’

Source Harley-Davidson


A scene that may’ve only left a question with the most detailed of viewers occurred towards the end when the final production motorcycle seen in the series was rolled out of a trailer decorated in the famous Harley-Davidson ‘Bar and Shield’. The logo looked alarmingly modern in a classic setting but it was actually in use at the time.

According to the Archives, the earliest known use of the bar and shield is 1908, when it became available from the Company as a transfer decal to be used on the tool boxes found on Harley-Davidson motorcycles. It was trademarked in 1910 and not even the Archives know for certain what inspired the choice of design or who created it.

But one ‘oops’ moment in the timeline came as the three leading roles looked down on that final motorcycle. The heart of the model they looked down on, the 61E, was its two-cylinder, 45 degree, pushrod actuated overhead valve V-twin engine. As the onscreen William Harley explains he calls the engine the knucklehead, audible questions and chuckles could be heard from gearheads all over America.

What would become known as the Knucklehead-engined models were originally referred to as "OHVs" by enthusiasts of the time and in Harley's official literature. The nickname actually arose from the California chopper culture of the late 1960s. Not only does this make the nickname of Knucklehead a retronym, a new name for something that differentiates the original, but more ‘drama’ than ‘docu’ for ‘Harley and the Davidsons’.

'In thirty years I'm going to call this engine the knucklehead!'
The motorcycle that changed it all: The 1936 EL - Source Harley-Davidson

All the above aside, the three-part mini-series was important for Harley-Davidson as well as the Discovery Channel. The most obvious success is seen for Discovery, with the trailer for the show enjoying 7 million views in about a week, outstripping any trailer ever posted to plug the network’s well-known Shark Week.

Understanding there are few boring parts of motorcycle history, the mini-series captured the raw passion and exciting birth of what could be considered the most famous bike brand in the world. However, some feel this same fame has homogenized or dulled the Harley-Davidson name for younger generations. ‘Harley and the Davidsons’ added the sizzle back to the meaty name of the motorcycle manufacturer.

Now we’ve said our piece, what do our readers think? What were the best and worst moments of the series?

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