The March 2015 issue of Cycle World has an article entitled: “Where has my Easy Rider Gone?” A piece penned by Paul D’Orleans about Cliff Vaughs, a man who claims he is largely responsible for the two choppers in the iconic movie “Easy Rider” in 1969. The title of the piece refers to a Mae West song from the movie “She done him wrong” which is where Vaughs claims HE got the inspiration to name the movie.
But let’s back up here, who is this Cliff Vaughs and what did he actually do?
First, some background. Like most motorcycle mortals, I was stunned when Jesse James revealed ten years ago that the Easy Rider bikes had been built by a black guy in the south side of L.A. This was when I first heard the name Benny Hardy. Now Benny died in 1994 so we can’t get the absolute truth from the horse’s mouth but we can establish some things.
For years, the white motorcycle press suppressed this information. I can see where it wouldn’t fit their style at the time. Easyriders magazine was full of Nazi memorabilia for sale during this period. To compound the sin, the rumor started that Dan Haggerty, an actor (of “Grizzly Adams” fame) who had a minor part in the movie and was the “motorcycle wrangler” had built the bikes. Nobody refuted this, everyone was perfectly happy to let this float out there. Riding this wave of ignorance, Haggerty sold at least two “Captain America” bikes and “authenticated” them as genuine. This is unquestionable, he has admitted it.
From the LA Times website regarding the bike that was recently auctioned off as the real thing: Its principal authentication comes from “Grizzly Adams” actor Dan Haggerty, who had a bit part in “Easy Rider” and claims to have taken possession of the only bike that survived the filming of the druggy road movie. But Haggerty admitted this week, in an interview with The Times, that he has authenticated and sold two Captain America bikes.
Haggerty sold one bike to a Mr. Granger in Texas in 1996 for $65,500. He authenticated it at the time claiming it was 90% built with parts from the movie bike. Granger obtained a more specific “Certificate of Authenticity” from Haggerty five years later.
Again from the LA Times: “Haggerty did not deny that he signed Granger’s authenticating documents. He now says he signed something that simply was not true”
When Haggerty signed the newer Certificate of Authentication he had already sold another replica to a Mr. Parham, who was going to exhibit the bike at the National Motorcycle Museum in Iowa. This is the replica that was recently auctioned. I’m guessing the bike replica gig pays better than his attempt to sell cocaine to undercover cops in 1988.
Here’s what Fonda says about this: “There’s a big rat stinking someplace in this,” the 75-year-old actor is quoted as saying by the Los Angeles Times. “I can’t tell you which one is real, I know there are two bikes out there that are both authenticated by Haggerty. That’s not right.”
These comments by Fonda popped up before the recent 1.35 million dollar auction of one of the replicas that Haggerty came up with. Interestingly, Fonda had previously signed the tank of that bike giving it tacit approval.
This is from Fonda’s autobiography “Don’t Tell Dad”: “But over the years, many people have claimed they had the original Easy Rider bike. No one does. There is no “original” Captain America motorcycle. One afternoon several years ago, I noticed in Hemmings Motor New (a catalog for cars) that “The original Easy Rider motorcycle” was for sale for $9000. Dennis was the seller; he needed money for drugs. When Columbia realized they had a major hit, they had two replica Captain A bikes built for theater lobby display.
These two bikes ended up in one of the sheds on Hopper’s place in Taos. He’d shown me the so-so replicas in the early seventies, and any aficionado would have seen the difference. The bikes were never made to actually run, but somehow Hopper had fobbed them off. I’ve seen one of them since: its owner, who calls himself “Rodent,” refuses to admit that his prize is a rip-off, and makes a tidy sum going about the country displaying the bike. He charges a fee to be photographed with the bike, but never lets anyone move it. The dissection and dispersal of the real bike was a fitting action. Somewhere out there many bikers could be riding with some little piece of the original: a fender, a wheel, something. I only wonder where the tank is.”
As much as the Euro-centric chopper world wanted to believe the Haggerty myth, it was a crock. The truth is that the black biking community around the LA area had been building choppers for many years before this all ever happened. There are pictures of upswept cocktail shaker exhausts, apehangers and even welded-chain frames many years before people like Indian Larry adopted the style. Benny Hardy was in the middle of all this. The bike in the movie known as the “Billy Bike” was a quintessential Ben Hardy build. In fact he had built more than sixty bikes in that style. That fact alone should start ringing alarm bells when others take credit. Benny was no fan of the way the “Captain America” bike came out. It was a bit of a death trap and wasn’t as practical but it’s the way ‘they’ wanted it. The “they” in this case is a little murky. Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Haggerty and Cliff Vaughs have all claimed a hand in the design. Fonda actually acknowledged Vaughs involvement recently, however Fonda’s memory seems to come and go when it comes to these things.
Vaughs claims that he was given the money to go and buy the Panheads at the police auction, but Fonda told Fresh Air in 2007 that, “I built the motorcycles that I rode and Dennis rode. I bought four of them from Los Angeles Police Department. I love the political incorrectness of that … And five black guys from Watts helped me build these.”
Vaughs also told NPR that he acted as an associate producer early on in the film’s production. By his account, he designed the bikes himself, and is responsible for the distinctive look of the “Captain America” bike. He says he also worked with Ben Hardy to purchase engines at a Los Angeles Police Department auction, and coordinated the building of the bikes. So here we have three differing accounts of how the base bikes were acquired and that seems to be the pattern for all the claims regarding these choppers.
What we do know about Benny Hardy is this: he was very much a ‘my way or the highway’ kind of guy. A man with exacting standards and an unrivaled talent, especially for engine building. In fact, a very well-known international motorcycle club used Benny for their engine builds. Back in those days, the only white guys you saw in Watts were either lost, or bad motherf@#kers. It says something about Benny’s talent that the club members would bring their business to him in Watts at a time you wouldn’t normally think they’d even talk to a black man.
It is extremely unlikely he would have someone ‘helping’ him build these bikes, other than people in his direct employ.
Benny was so bitter about the lack of acknowledgment after the movie came out, he never built another chopper. In fact he wouldn’t even allow one inside his shop! If you had him rebuild your engine, Benny would not warranty it unless you brought the bike back to the shop and fired it up for the first time in front of him. If it was a chopper, you had to do it on the street outside the shop. Benny stayed in the motorcycle business right up until his death in 1994. He was so passionate about his personal motorcycle, he requested it be disassembled after his death so nobody else would ride it.
To my knowledge, Cliff Vaughs has never built another motorcycle. If you were, indeed, the designer and builder of THE most iconic chopper EVER, why wouldn’t you build some more? Mr. Vaughs claims that he hasn’t even seen the movie.
Why would he lie? Somebody sure is, all these accounts can’t all be correct. What does he have to gain? Perhaps he feels he is due some notoriety? Perhaps his memory of events is skewed by his own feeling of self-worth in chopper history.
Fonda, via Twitter and Facebook, announced he was traveling around with Vaughs to ‘authenticate’ the frame on one of these bikes. The ‘authentic’ bike was supposedly built around the twisted remains of the bike stuntman Tex Hall attempted to ride up the ramp for the final stunt. The plan was to cartwheel the bike into the field for the final scene. Tex rode the bike at the ramp and stepped off at the last second. The ramp collapsed, along with the bikes front end and so it was somewhat less spectacular than they had planned. There was an incendiary device that did go off on cue, setting the bike on fire. Fonda claims he had the melted lump that was the transmission on his desk for years.
But how was Vaughs supposed to know? He was fired early on in the production of the movie and cut out of the scenes and credits. He wasn’t there when they shot whatever that was burning into the field. Looking through every account and talking with people that were there at the time, I’ve formed my own timeline. I realize since Vaughs was actually involved with it all that his version of events would hold more sway than mine but
Fonda and Hopper secured funding for the movie, Bert Schneider handed them a $40,000 check and they were off. It does appear that four bikes were bought at auction… who by? Nobody knows for sure. Benny Hardy then built the main bikes for the movie. The Billy bike was all Benny, the Captain America was built by Benny, but there does seem as if there were several inputs for some of the design. Fonda claims Vaughs suggested the forty-two degree rake. Things get pretty murky when it comes to the what happened with the other two bikes, if they actually existed. It does appear that Benny had nothing to do with them, so it seems as if copies of the bikes were built. Perhaps these are the bikes Vaughs refers to building in his back yard with Larry Marcus? Regardless, Fonda said in his book the ‘first’ bike that was built was much better than the ‘other’ wherever it came from. Vaughs was fired after the opening scenes in New Orleans were filmed. The so-called “B” Captain America bike was the one tossed into the field at the movie’s conclusion. There has been speculation that this wasn’t even a real HD Panhead, but after taking a bunch of screenshots and going frame by frame it does appear to be one. The surviving movie bikes were relocated to Tex Hall’s place after the filming was wrapped. Armed robbers assailed the place and a bunch of bikes were stolen, including the only original Captain America bike. In all probability they were all parted out within the week.
I don’t have a vested interest in this. I’m not claiming credit for anything or selling books (except this magazine of course). Obviously I wasn’t there and Cliff Vaughs was. I just realize this is way too murky a subject to be taking one man’s word for and I suspect we’ll never know the reality of it all.