"Harley and the Davidsons" – An Entertaining but Historically Inaccurate Ride

The three-part miniseries "Harley and the Davidsons" on the Discovery Channel proved to be a highly entertaining watch, featuring compelling actors and an engaging narrative about the founders of Harley-Davidson. However, for those seeking an accurate depiction of the company's history and the early decades of motorcycling, the series fell short. The producers took significant creative liberties, often distorting historical facts.

The first episode introduces us to Walter “Walt” Davidson, Bill Harley, and Arthur “Art” Davidson. Walt is portrayed as a rugged rancher, Bill as an aspiring engineer, and Art as a fast-talking schemer. Interestingly, eldest brother William “Big Bill” Davidson plays a minor role compared to his siblings.

As the trio works on their first prototype, financial struggles are resolved when Walt sells his ranch. They collaborate with Joe Merkel, a fellow Milwaukee motorcycle maker, but face setbacks when their prototype catches fire. The episode’s storyline, while plausible in parts, veers into fiction with dramatized events, such as Indian Motorcycle founder George Hendee challenging them to a race – an event that never happened.

The highlight of the first episode is a fictional race against Indian, where Walt defies the odds and wins by smashing through a fence. Another fictional event is a brutal "enduro" race, which ends in a brawl with Indian riders. These scenes, though entertaining, are purely fictional.

The first episode concludes with the board track era and the death of racer Eddie Hasha. The series inaccurately depicts Harley-Davidson withdrawing from board track racing, when in fact, they continued racing for several years after Hasha’s accident.

Episode two focuses on Harley-Davidson’s racing success in the 1910s and ’20s, highlighting riders like Shrimp Burns, Ray Weishaar, and Otto Walker. The series portrays Burns as a flamboyant young star, which is true, but then it fabricates a meeting where Harley and Indian compete for military contracts during WWI, falsely claiming they secured equal orders from the military.

The second episode ends with an unresolved patent infringement lawsuit against Harley-Davidson initiated by Indian, which is never mentioned again.

In the final episode, the series strays further from reality. It depicts hooligan racing in the 1930s, open to black and women riders, with Harley-Davidson’s support. Bill Harley’s last engine design is debuted at one of these fictional races instead of an AMA National event.

The series villainizes the AMA through a fictional character named Wharton, whose sole mission is to stop these outlaw races and exclude black riders. The climax features a ludicrous scene where police, led by Wharton, are deterred from arresting participants by the presence of Walt Davidson himself.

While "Harley and the Davidsons" offers entertainment, its claim to be based on true stories is misleading. The real history of Harley-Davidson is rich and compelling enough on its own. Perhaps one day, we will see a film or documentary that balances historical accuracy with entertainment.