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Alex Wheeler, bike builder from Harley and the Davidsons, answers some of our questions about the miniseries

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Michiel Huisman, as William Davidson, astride a Harley-Davidson replica built by Alex Wheeler and crew. Photos courtesy of the Discovery Channel.

Following up on our phone interview with Bug Hall from the upcoming Discovery Channel miniseries Harley and the Davidsons, we recently had the opportunity to interview Alex Wheeler by phone from his Apocalypse Production studio in South Africa. Here, Alex clears up a few misconceptions we had about the bikes themselves and how they were built, transported and maintained during the filming of the three-part series.

HMN: Today, we are speaking to Alex Wheeler, who was in charge of building the many bikes used during the shooting of Harley and the Davidsons. Alex has built vehicles and sets for film and television in the past, including the Lawmaster motorcycle in Dredd, and has worked in the Art Department on dozens of television and movie projects. Alex, thanks for taking the time to speak with us at Hemmings Motor News. Do you have any previous motorcycling background?

AW: No I don’t actually, I never owned a bike before I was picked to do this project, although I have subsequently purchased a 1930 Harley-Davidson VL and I am just beginning to enjoy it. I now have an even better understanding of how the founders felt about their creations and the enjoyment riders get from owning and riding these bikes.

Harley and the Davidsons

One of the series’ replica Indian board track racers.

HMN: Can you give our readers an idea of how many bikes you were responsible for during the filming of the miniseries?

AW: Our production staff created 80 bikes for the filming. These bikes were not originals borrowed from some museum or private collection. The bikes were built on period-correct, thin tube frames, with accurate-appearing engines, and some rider safety features like brakes and clutches were built into the bikes as well. The monies necessary to build 80 period-correct bikes would have made the project impossible to sell to the Discovery Channel or any other channel for that matter.

HMN: We know from talking to Bug Hall last week that the miniseries spent quite a lot of time featuring the rivalry between Harley-Davidson and Indian. Did your staff produce some Indian bikes as well as the H-Ds? What other brand name bikes were used during the filming?

AW: Yes, all of the bikes, regardless of exterior paint scheme or brand name, were built by our staff in South Africa and shipped to the various filming locations. Engines and transmissions were built en masse and fitted into the frames. We created several period-correct appearing bikes for Indian and several other brand names as well. All of the engines were built with the advantage of modern electronic ignition, modern carburetion and a few tricks engine builders have learned over the past century. However, they still retain the classic intake over exhaust configuration of the valvetrain, along with the exposed valve springs used on the original engines.

Harley and the Davidsons

Replica bikes from numerous brands were constructed.

HMN: When we talked to Bug Hall last week, he mentioned that some of the H-D bikes only existed in pictures. I believe he mentioned the 8-valve racing bike. Was this bike built from photos, and can you explain some of the process involved in making this bike from scratch for the miniseries? You and your staff must have spent countless hours doing research on the bikes to project authenticity.

AW: Yes, that is exactly what we did. We got online, we got hold of Harley-Davidson and we compiled a lot of information from them. We basically acquired all of our information from these resources. There is a lot of misinformation and assumptions as to how these bikes were built, because, back in the 1900s, even cameras weren’t as common. The bikes were remanufactured and modified as the years went by, so, except for the very first bike, nobody is really sure what they were like, including Harley-Davidson. So, we sort of used what we could from pictures and we were able to make assumptions as to what size tires were available at that time, and we used those tire sizes. Yes it was a lot of copying from old pictures and in a lot of instances, with a best guess from eyesight.

Harley and the Davidsons

Replica Harley-Davidson V-twin.

HMN: Well, that must have been a difficult process. Did you have a lot of help in the manufacturing? Did you have a large staff of mechanics and support crew to help with the bikes?

AW: Oh yes, the biggest part of our job was to manufacture all 80 bikes and ship them to the filming set. We had 45 people working in South Africa, getting the bikes ready and shipping them to Romania, plus an additional 40 in Romania to maintain and repair the bikes. So, basically, there were 95 people on our staff, in our division, just for the bikes. Every one of them was necessary, too.

HMN: We have seen from the previews that there are a lot of crashes, bikes running into walls, catching fire on the track. Did you have to wrangle a lot of repair parts to keep them going?

AW: Absolutely. Just like in the old days, one of the things was the reliability of these bikes. You have to remember that many of these bike scenes were shot over three days, over and over again, and from different angles, to get just the right shot. So, the bikes took even more abuse and had to be even more reliable than just a short period of time on film, even more so than the modern bikes used in racing today. And obviously for the film, we had to build them to look like they were originally constructed from 1903-1920, which is the time period covered by the majority of the filming. The frames were made from quite thin tubing and the bikes used very thin metal panels, so, yes, they broke frequently. We spent many, many evenings, sometimes until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning after the shoot had concluded for the day, fixing the bikes so they could be used on set the next day. And obviously there was also a safety factor, as well. After a full 12-hour day of shooting, we had to inspect each bike for stress fractures in the joints on the frames. After a few days of shooting, we knew from previous inspections where to look for the most likely failures. So yes, we made many repairs on the fly each night. It was very similar to running our own motorcycle race team. During shooting, what we had were 10 bikes on the grid with another 10 bikes waiting in the wings so that if one bike stopped running or broke, its twin brother or sister could be wheeled up to take its place, given to the stunt man so that shooting could continue without much interruption. And the broken bike would be cycled out and taken to the truck where it would be repaired and used in a later scene. So yeah, a lot of bloody repairs.

Harley and the Davidsons

Billet cases.

HMN: So, without a lot of riding experience, you probably didn’t get much of an opportunity to ride these bikes yourself or attempt any of the stunts.

AW: The stunt riders did an incredible job on the set. I’m sure you are familiar with the board track racing reputation, and they were basically riding bikes that closely resembled board track racing bikes of the day. And for the filming, the production staff required that they wear helmets, although they weren’t much of a helmet back in 1910 and the clothing had to be correct for the period as well. The crew packed in some extra padding that would not appear on camera where they could, but the stunt riders were racing very skinny bikes at very high speeds with the possibility that one could break at any moment and cause serious injuries. The riders were very professional and there were no major bodily injuries other than some skinned knuckles, broken fingers or cracked shoulders. But, yeah, it was very dangerous out there and we let the stunt people and actors, where necessary, do all the riding.

HMN: We have seen some of the scenes in the previews where riders are kicking at each other and running each other off the track. Some of the footage was incredible.

AW: Yes, and a lot of that stuff wasn’t scripted. It wasn’t like we had an extra 20 bikes and they could go out and practice those maneuvers before the cameras rolled. To get those shots was incredibly difficult. The stunt people were really doing it with a little choreography and guesswork and kind of just going for it. And hopefully the cameras were set up in the right locations and were able to capture these stunts on film. And keep in mind they are riding on horribly irregular motors on these bikes for stunt purposes. Although there were a few broken bones, what you see in the filming were real accidents, some previously staged and others not at all. Somebody usually got hurt in one way or another in each one, generally speaking.

Harley and the Davidsons

Forks and frames weren’t exactly stout by modern standards.

HMN: How did you become involved in this project? Did the Discovery Channel reach out to you?

AW: One of the producers, Peter McAleese, had worked with us before on projects in South Africa. We had done some big builds for him, big mechanical builds. As soon as Peter got hold of the script, he called us right away, and here we are. We took a deep breath and said this is a very, very big project that we guessed would need 80 to 100 bikes to be able to shoot the series. There are a few historical inaccuracies you can see on the bikes, but to be able to shoot the show with period-correct authenticity, we probably would have had to build over 200 bikes, which we realized was just not going to happen. It could not be done in the time frame we were given. So, Peter gave us free rein to come up with the 80 bikes we built and trusted that they would be enough and that they would hold together for filming. We think it was well played. We were able to pull it off.

HMN: So how much time did you and your crew spend on the project? We know from talking to Bug Hall that the filming in Romania took over three months. With the additional shoots in other locations, the project must have taken you well over a year to complete.

AW: No, not really. There is one thing about television, we normally get features that have become a very big thing over the last four or five years. They have really taken off more so than films or other feature-length projects. The one thing about these types of miniseries is that once the Discovery Channel,  or a similar company, decides the project is a go, it goes. None of the three months or so of raising capital or what have you. When we got the call in mid-October of last year, I told Peter, “We are going to need every minute you can give us to make this happen.” Peter said, “We start filming in March,” and I said, “You’d better start us tomorrow then.” Just like that, we were given the go ahead and I think we started building the first bike on November 2. So we only had November, December January and part of February to prepare. The first bikes were delivered to Romania in February, in a little over three months. And then there was additional manufacturing in South Africa, after the first shipment and the filming for all three episodes actually took place over the following 12 weeks. In total it was about a six or seven-month project for our staff.

Harley and the Davidsons

HMN: Thank you for speaking to us today, Alex. We look forward to seeing the fruits of your efforts when the miniseries debuts on the Discovery Channel on Sept. 5 at 9:00 p.m., followed by episodes two and three, airing at 9:00 p.m. on September 6 and 7.

Postscript: Probably the saddest part of the story is that most of these bikes either broke and were discarded or were simply left behind in Romania. Without any major suspension systems on them, some of the bikes literally rattled apart and were scrapped. A handful were shipped to the U.S. by the Discovery Channel to be used for promotional displays, but it is doubtful any will see the open road here in the States. Still, we wouldn’t be surprised to see one or two turn up in someone’s private collection.