Sunday, September 18, 2016

Harley and the Davidsons

I just got through watching Harley and the Davidsons. I recorded it when it was on Discovery, but I delayed watching because of other pressing matters. I watched the first part one week, the next the next, and recently finished the third. Overall, I would say the story is a nice piece of fiction, loosely based on the history of the Harley Davidson Motor Company. Why do I make such a harsh assessment?  How about if I get to that after a little bit of explanation.

I have been fascinated by Harley Davidson motorcycles since I was a kid.  Unfortunately, I came along during the AMF years (1969 - 1981) when Harley was making crap motorcycles, and facing an influx of good Japanese motorcycles.  Harleys had a reputation for leaking oil constantly, and having parts fall off or break down.  I can remember a Harley Davidson rider riding with a group of us Gold Wing guys.  We got to the first rest stop, and he had to turn back because his mirror kept falling off, and this was in the mid 1990s.  But despite the hard times on which the Motor Company had fallen, its reputation was being rebuilt by Willie G. and the other investors who rescued the Motor Company from AMF.

I have been a Honda man myself, starting out on a Honda CB 750. After several years, I got a 1982 Honda Goldwing Interstate. My last motorcycle has been a 1998 Honda Goldwing SE. At this point I figure I am getting too old to learn a new motorcycle layout, and besides, they are expensive. But I still love Harley Davidson not only for what it has been, but what it represents.  In a world where American industries keep being outsourced, or sold to foreigners, the Harley Davidson story is the kind of pluck Americans love.  It is both triumphant and an underdog story.  Since buying back the Motor Company, each new machine has been incrementally better, more reliable, and more powerful.  The latest big twin engine, the Milwaukee Eight, could be the best yet.  Harley also listens to its customers, and is branching out to newer riders and a wider audience.

So, what is it about the 3 part mini series that doesn't quite feel right to me?  For one thing, some of the events never happened at all, or were changed to make the movie more dramatic, or the characters more sympathetic.  For instance, when Hendee comes to challenge the Davidsons at a local race, that event never really happened.  Walter also didn't get into fisticuffs with the head rider for Indian Motorcycles.  Yes, Indian and Harley Davidson were rivals, but I doubt they hated each other.  Frankly, a more realistic depiction of the characters would have been sympathetic enough.

What really disappointed me, though, was how one dimensional the characters were.  Each of the main characters seems to have had one, and only one side to his personality.  If you only knew the movie version, William Harley was a mad scientist/engineer who never ventured out on one of his own designs.  How could a person design motorcycles without actually riding them?  In fact Harley was "an avid racer and had a passion for testing out his new bikes."  Again, while Walter Davidson and Arthur Davidson might have attended more to the business end, Harley was no slouch at business either, and oversaw the wartime contract with the War Department.  The Davidson brothers had similar multifaceted personalities that could have been brought out by the movie makers.

I realize the movie was not an enthusiasts movie, but Harley Davidson produced a lot of bikes based on the 45 cubic inch engine. The 45 is equivalent to 737 cubic centimeters today, or the 750 class. Today, the Motor Company builds a 500 cc bike (the Hoglet), the 883, and the 1200, most are built using the big twins. but in the past, the 45 was a major seller for Harley Davidson, and very little was said about these or any other engine other than the knucklehead.

I liked the movie well enough for what it was, but it wasn't a historically accurate account, nor was it really an accurate portrayal of the men who make the Harley Davidson Motorcycle Company the icon it is.

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