‘Harley and the Davidsons’: The Origins of an Iconic American Brand

Discovery Channel
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How fast were we going?” shouts Michiel Huisman (Game of Thrones) over the roar of a motorcycle on the set of the new limited series Harley and the Davidsons. Guided by stunt coordinator Cedric Proust, sitting on an all-terrain vehicle with two cameras mounted on the back, the actor brings his replica 1910 bike to a screeching stop.

The scene—shot in Bucharest, Romania—is from Episode 2, in which Huisman’s character, Walter Davidson, is testing a fast new prototype. The speed? Eighteen miles per hour. “But it felt like we were going crazy fast!” laughs Huisman, dressed in early-1900s riding gear, complete with knee-high leather boots that take nearly 20 minutes to lace. “But in my defense, it’s a V-twin engine on a bicycle frame with a brake that we call a ‘slow-downer.’ And I wasn’t wearing a helmet.”

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The founders of Harley-Davidson were on an equally unpredictable ride when they began building what became one of the world’s most iconic brands. The story of the three bold young American men destined to make the world go “hog” wild is told in a three-night, six-hour series that spans from 1903 to 1936. The story opens with tough, rugged Walter trying to make it out West as a rancher, while back in Milwaukee, his charismatic, street-smart brother, Arthur (Bug Hall), and Arthur’s best friend since childhood—creative, college-bound Bill Harley (Robert Aramayo)—aim to make a name for themselves in the new motorized-bicycle market.

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Walter (Huisman, second from left) prepares for a race with Bill Harley (Aramayo) and salesman Arthur Davidson (Hall)

An aha moment (at a burlesque show, of all places!) sparks Bill’s imagination, and he designs something that could crush the competition. “Bill is an artist—he has talent, but he doesn’t know how to channel it,” says Aramayo, who took drawing lessons as part of his preparation for the role. “Once he does, Arthur recognizes that Bill has something real, something good.”

But the pressure Arthur puts on the sensitive genius eventually takes its toll and has serious consequences for their burgeoning business. “Arthur had a vision for the company,” Hall says. “In the beginning, he’s this bright-eyed kid with big dreams and no money. He embodies the American dream. Then he turns into this salesman, the guy with a golden tongue.”

Walter returns home to join the start-up and soon becomes a one-man test-drive department, riding in breakneck, all-terrain races that early motorcycle manufacturers held to promote their machines. “Walter is what the Harley-Davidson brand came to stand for,” Huisman says. “He’s free spirited, a bit of a rebel, antiestablishment, a self-made man.”

Most of the motorcycles Huisman rides in the series are reproductions built from information in the Harley-Davidson archives. It took five months for a team of 60 bike fabricators to build 80 replicas—some of which meet spectacular ends in re-creations of historical white-knuckle races. The most dangerous races took place at extremely popular early-1900s venues called motordromes, nicknamed “murderdromes” for the high mortality rate of riders who reached speeds of 80 mph on wooden tracks banked at 60 degrees.

A major reason for filming in Bucharest was to use an existing massive velodrome, a bicycle racetrack that production designers temporarily converted into a 1913 motordrome. On the noisy, smoky race-day shoots, packs of 10 stuntmen on bikes hit speeds of 60 mph as 500 extras cheered.

The debate over participating in the deadly competitions causes friction between the brothers. “The Davidsons are bullheaded and had different visions,” Hall says. “Arthur wanted to make a utilitarian product that people could use. Walter wanted badassery on wheels.”

The story isn’t all boys-and-their-toys. It delves into the ups and downs of the founders’ personal lives as well. “These were family guys,” Hall says. “Tough guys with big hearts who knew how to love.”

“Their wives were part of the business from the get-go,” adds Discovery Channel president Rich Ross. “They created a product that embraced women.”

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Discovery, too, hopes to make their brand more inclusive. Known for male-skewing shows, the channel is courting females—and more viewers in general—by adding scripted programming like Harley and the Davidsons. They tried it once before with the 2014 miniseries Klondike, set in the 1890s Yukon Gold Rush and starring another Game of Thrones vet, Richard Madden, but the company is now revving up development: Five scripted projects with historical components are in the works.

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Anna Harley (Annie Read, center).

Things are certainly off to a roaring start with Harley and the Davidsons. Over the course of the series, the founding trio will rise to power and wealth while weathering World War I and the Great Depression, not to mention Walter’s rebellious teenage son. All the while, they never stop innovating. “This is a show about ingenuity that will make our audience proud,” Ross says. “I hope it puts a twinkle in someone’s eye to say, ‘I can invent. I can do this too.’”

Harley and the Davidsons, Limited Series, Monday–Wednesday, September 5–7, 9/8c, Discovery Channel.