Miniseries explores origin of Harley-Davidson

Luaine Lee
Tribune News Service

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — While the Wright brothers were plotting to make man fly, two other brothers and a pal were scheming to make man soar — on two wheels. That trio was Arthur and Walter Davidson and their partner, William S. Harley.

Their dream was to create a motorized bicycle that could speed up to 100 mph while managing to remain upright. How they accomplished that in a wooden shed in 1903 is the tale of “Harley and the Davidsons,” premiering next Monday on the Discovery Channel.

Filmed in South Africa, the series chronicles the ambitions of three young men who eventually established the iconic Harley-Davidson Inc. and their legendary HOG.

The invention attracted speed junkies and soon daredevil riders were competing in races. “I think the reality was at the time, motorcycling was an incredibly dangerous activity, and motorcycle racing particularly was extremely dangerous,” says Dimitri Doganis, executive producer of the three-part miniseries, which airs on consecutive nights.

“The first episode ends in a large race in what was called ‘Motordromes,’ which were these very steeply banked, kind of velodromes for motorcycles. But at those events the bikes had no brakes. They had no gears. You would turn them on. They would go as fast as they could go,” says Doganis.

Gabe Luna plays one of those early motorcycle racers, a historical figure, says Doganis. “(They were) racing around a wooden track, which, the moment it got covered in oil — and these things would spew oil — became incredibly slick, like an ice rink.

“And the historical data was that these things were not only hugely dangerous to the riders because they would knock each other out; they would spin out. They were also massively dangerous to the spectators because the bikes would fly out into the crowds. And there were various historical examples of people being killed or fires being started or multiple spectators being killed in any one instant. So this was a gladiatorial arena, and it was really the birth of an incredibly exciting sport, but one which wasn’t yet regulated at the time which we depict.”

Michiel Huisman, (“Game of Thrones”) who plays the older brother, Walter Davidson, explains, “We portray the three founders. I think what stood out to me is how individual they were and how much they complemented each other. I don’t think the company could have become what it became without any one of them. You know, they really needed each other.”

“It’s a really great example of how three very different minds can come together on something,” says Bug Hall (“Revolution”), who plays Arthur. “And, you know, really their love for each other was more unifying, I think, even more than the machine that they made. But just their differences is what really molded and sculpted this amazing thing.”

“One of the things that really drew me and to my character in particular was there was an enormous level of creativity and, I believe, artistry involved in the creation of this machine,” says Robert Aramayo (“Game of Thrones”), who portrays Bill Harley.

“I’m really happy that my character highlights that. But I would agree with these two. It’s the love between all three characters and what is produced from that love that really attracted me to this.”

Alex Wheeler was enlisted to re-create the bikes of the era. It turned out to be no small task. “When we were asked to make them, we had to make the decision whether we were going to make the engines from scratch or try and use something that exists. And there’s just nothing out there that looks remotely like a 1903 Harley-Davidson motor,” he says.

“So we took a very big, brave decision to actually manufacture the motors from scratch. And they were built in South Africa from billet aluminium. And we worked from pictures, and we brought it to the best guy we could until we came up with the bikes that we saw on screen.”

Huisman actually got to ride one of Wheeler’s bikes. “And it was really like a dream to ride Harley-Davidsons or replicas of bikes that either don’t exist anymore or they’re behind glass at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee,” he says.

“And they were great fun to ride and very challenging to ride. But I think, even compared to the old ones, they were probably really smooth. … And the old ones, it was even harder. You basically had to be half a mechanic yourself. Now, I’m not a mechanic, but I had Alex and four guys following me all the time basically.”

Not all of the actors knew how to ride before they took on the roles. Huisman says he could. “I rode a motorcycle all throughout my 20s, and I thought I would never get in a car. Eventually my wife and I had a child, and I got in a car.”