Story by Ray Seidel,
Photos courtesy of Discovery Channel
“Living by your own rules”
1903. We all know that date – the year Harley-Davidson was born, and the year this story begins in this three two-hour miniseries. Keeping in mind this is a docudrama, NOT a documentary, this is an exciting ride through the first three decades of American motorcycling. Through some growing pains of various obstacles, competition from Excellsior Auto Cycle (they did not use the term “motorcycle”) and, primarily Indian Motocycle (again, not using “motorcycle” in the name), we see the huge risks founders Walter and Arthur Davidson and their friend Bill Harley took to work out their own personal difference (all three would have to come together to make this work) as well as establishing and growing the dream of their own motorcycle company.
Getting an actual first bike built, that runs, was of course the initial challenge. Once they have a bike, they have to prove themselves in racing to demonstrate they are to be taken seriously.
At the turn of the century Indian already had a head start, and Bill Harley used his engineering education to come up with new designs to also put Harley-Davidson on the map and record books. Noting the scarcity of actual antique motorcycles, we’ll allow artistic license that these are replicas used in the racing scenes in this segment, but the point is well taken that it is estimated 50% of motorcycle sales were driven by which company won on the racetrack. Both Indian and Harley-Davidson saw this as an opportunity to up the stakes by agreeing to participate in oval motordrome board track racing – certainly unequalled excitement for the time to watch machines fly flat out, no brakes – top speed only, around a wooden banked track. It was also horribly dangerous, both for riders (at best, a spill meant agonizing splinters!) and for spectators when a rider went flying into onlookers. This was then followed by flat-track racing, every bit as exciting, and now continues to this day with the return of Indian and its new FTR 750 dirt track racer.
“This is the type of compelling and honest storytelling that fits perfectly for Discovery Channel,” said Rich Ross, Group President of Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and Science Channel. “It is a story about brotherhood, an ironclad will to succeed and going against the conventional wisdom of that time. The founders of Harley-Davidson created more than just a motorcycle. They created modern entrepreneurism.”
By WWl, sales for Indian were already around 45,000 units – the world’s largest motorcycle company, to Harleys 10,000. But Uncle Sam changed things up for the war effort – a lid on gasoline and labor for civilian use, but a new demand for motorcycles for military use. Both Indian and Harley got the contract. (Indian supplied 41,000 bikes to Harley’s 15,000 – a fact omitted by the producers). Harley offered not only an attractive design, but unprecedented free training for servicemen in the field so they could fix their bikes themselves on the spot. Indian, hoping to make a killing with this war contract, underbid the costs of making and selling its machines, lost a ton of money, and this was the first nail in Indian’s coffin. Hereafter Harley-Davidson would be first in sales, and in large part because of how The Motor Company had the back of servicemen. And still does. No spoilers, but active Harley military owners and veterans may not have a dry eye when this is brought home in the scene at the end of WWI. Also embracing boisterous motorcycle clubs across the nation brought owners into the Harley-Davidson “Family.”
It’s said it’s easy to captain a ship in calm seas. Even in the #1 spot, it will not always be calm seas for Walter, Arthur and Bill. Patent lawsuits. The Great Depression. Personal tragedy. Even owners of other marques will be cheering for Harley & the Davidsons to win over whatever fate throws at them. This is not a story about a machine, even as the three work together to create the first “Knucklehead” super-bike, as much as it is about “Family.” And it is because it has been about family, it is why Harley-Davidson thrives to this day. Walter, Arthur and Bill would be proud of this exciting and entertaining mini-series.
The series is led by an all-star cast including Michiel Huisman (“Game of Thrones”) as Walter Davidson, Robert Aramayo (“Game of Thrones”) as William (Bill) Harley and Bug Hall (“The Little Rascals”) playing the role of Arthur Davidson. Penned by Evan Wright, Seth Fisher and Nick Schenk.
When: Check your local listings for repeat airings.
Where: Discovery Channel