Behind The Motorcycles In 'Easy Rider,' A Long-Obscured Story

Oct 11, 2014
Originally published on October 11, 2014 5:33 pm

On Oct. 18, the Calabasas, Calif.-based auction house Profiles In History will auction off what it says is the last authentic motorcycle used in the filming of 1969's Easy Rider, and what some consider the most famous motorcycle in the world.

Peter Fonda, who played Wyatt in the Dennis Hopper-directed film, rode the so-called "Captain America" bike, named for its distinctive American flag color scheme and known for its sharply-angled long front end.

The bike currently for sale was partially destroyed in the film's finale, the auction house says, and then rebuilt by actor Dan Haggerty. (The three other bikes used in the production were stolen prior to the film's release.)

According to Brian Chanes, acquisitions manager for the auction house, the bike's estimated value is between $1 million and $1.2 million.

But despite the bike's fame, the history of the creation of the bikes used in Easy Rider has for many years been largely unknown. And the man who designed and coordinated the building of the motorcycles, Clifford Vaughs, says he and the other bike builders have not received proper credit for their work.

Choppers: 'Quintessentially American'

The motorcycles used in Easy Rider were not simply rolled out of a showroom and in front of the camera. They were "choppers," crafted by hand.

Choppers are "a type of customized motorcycle usually defined by a stretched out wheel-base, and pulled back handlebars, and a sissy bar, and a wild paint job," says Paul d'Orleans, the author of the upcoming book, The Chopper: The Real Story. "It's a quintessentially American folk art form."

The "Captain America" bike is an unmistakable and legendary chopper, and has made an enormous impact on the world of motorcycling.

The bikes in Easy Rider, d'Orleans says, "did more to popularize choppers around the world than any other film or any other motorcycle. I mean, suddenly people were building choppers in Czechoslovakia, or Russia, or China, or Japan."

Whose hands turned the wrenches? Who welded the steel? Most of the time, d'Orleans says, choppers are associated with their builders, "because they are an artistic creation. And curiously, the Easy Rider bikes were never associated with any particular builder."

In fact, two documentaries about the production of Easy Rider — 1995's Born To Be Wild and 1999's Easy Rider: Shaking The Cage — never name the men who designed and built the choppers.

Finding The Builders

In bits and pieces, the story behind the Easy Rider choppers began to emerge publicly, and identified two African-American bike builders: Clifford "Soney" Vaughs, who designed the bikes, and Ben Hardy, a prominent chopper-builder in Los Angeles, who worked on their construction.

The Discovery Channel's "History of the Chopper" identified Hardy and Vaughs in 2006, an exhibition at the California African American Museum noted Hardy's contributions in 2008, and Paul d'Orleans wrote about Vaughs on his blog The Vintagent in 2012.

Ben Hardy died in 1994. But in an interview this week, Vaughs, now 77 years old, explained his role in the creation of the "Captain America" bike.

At the time, Vaughs was a motorcyclist and had built bikes himself. He had also worked as a civil rights activist and photographer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and was a member of the newsroom at the Los Angeles radio station KRLA.

Vaughs says he first met Fonda in his role at KRLA. In the summer of 1966, Fonda was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana. Vaughs says he covered Fonda's court appearance for KRLA and, in the process, got to talking with the young actor about motorcycles.

Not long after, Vaughs says, Fonda and Dennis Hopper came by his apartment in West Hollywood, and discussed early plans for a motorcycle movie, and building the bikes they would need.

"I said, 'Well, I can build whatever we need for the film right here at my place,' " Vaughs remembers.

That film would eventually become Easy Rider.

Conflicting Tales

More than 45 years after the production of Easy Rider, it's difficult to sort out the exact timeline of the film's creation, and the various responsibilities of the people involved. Several of the key figures involved with the film have died, including director Dennis Hopper and credited screenwriter Terry Southern.

The history of the production has also been particularly messy.

"The whole thing has been like a Rashomon experience," producer Bill Hayward, who died in 2008, told the filmmakers who made Easy Rider: Shaking The Cage. "The whole movie, the whole production ... everyone's got an entirely different story."

Clifford Vaughs, for his part, says 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.

Peter Fonda, meanwhile, has said that he himself played a greater role in the design and construction of the bikes.

"I built the motorcycles that I rode and Dennis rode," Fonda told WHYY's Fresh Air in 2007. "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."

A publicist for Fonda said that he was unavailable for comment for this story.

But in 2009, Dennis Hopper recorded an audio commentary track for the Criterion Collection release of the film, in which he says Vaughs "built the bikes, built the chopper."

Larry Marcus is a mechanic who lived with Vaughs at the time, and worked on the choppers and the early film production. "Cliff really came up with the design for both motorcycles," Marcus said in a phone interview.

According to the press release announcing the current auction, the Captain America bike "was designed and built by two African-American chopper builders — Cliff Vaughs and Ben Hardy — following design cues provided by Peter Fonda himself."

Raw Feelings

Vaughs says he and others were fired and replaced early on in the film's production, following the chaotic shoot at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. As a result, his name never appears in the credits. And while the film went on to become one of the top-grossing films of 1969 and a cultural touchstone, the name Clifford Vaughs has remained largely unknown.

"I'm a little miffed about this, but there's nothing I can do," Vaughs says of the story, though he makes sure to note that he only spent about a month working on Easy Rider, out of a "long and illustrious life."

But he says the absence of black characters in the film is troubling. In the 1960s, Vaughs belonged to an integrated motorcycle club known as The Chosen Few. That multi-ethnic reality was not reflected on screen.

"Why is it that we have a film about America and there are no negroes?" he says.

Vaughs says the omission of his own name and that of other African-Americans in the retelling of the Easy Rider story is conspicuous.

"Those bikes, when we talk about iconic, they are definitely iconic," he says. "But yet, the participation of blacks ... completely suppressed, completely suppressed. And I say suppressed, because no one talks about it."

To this day, Vaughs has never watched Easy Rider. When asked why, he responds simply, "What for?"

A Million-Dollar Icon

Brian Chanes, of Profiles In History, says it's common for the men and women who actually build iconic props to go unrecognized. He handles some of the most famous props ever seen on screen, like Wolverine's claws from X-Men or the whip used in the Indiana Jones films.

"The guys that were back there doing the welding, the guys that are doing the set building, that are really masters of their craft," Chanes says, "they don't get the notoriety, unfortunately."

Now, nearly five decades after the release of Easy Rider, Vaughs says he's unconcerned about whether he's mentioned in connection with the auction.

"I'm really not worried about getting any credit for this, because I know what I did," Vaughs says. "People who were close to me were there in the yard when I was building those bikes."


Tom Dreisbach is an associate producer with weekends on All Things Considered.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The auction house Profiles In History sits in a short, average-looking office building in Calabasas, California. But it holds some of the most famous relics in movie history.

SABRINA PROPPER: Do you know what this is? This is the "Indiana Jones" whip.

RATH: Sabrina Propper works at the auction house.

PROPPER: Oh, this is the "Citizen Kane" jacket worn by Orson Welles.

RATH: There are Wolverine's claws from "X-Men," a crown from "Game Of Thrones," and next Saturday, Profiles In History will sell Lot 1121, what the auction house says is the last remaining authentic motorcycle from the 1969 film "Easy Rider" -

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN TO BE WILD")

RATH: - The "Captain America" motorcycle that Peter Fonda rode in the film with the American flag paint job and the long front end. The bike is like the movie - legendary. But for many years the history of who built it has been largely unknown. NPR's Tom Dreisbach reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EASY RIDER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: What do you say we take a look at these super machines we've been hearing so much about?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Let's get it on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE)

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: The "Captain America" bike was not simply taken out of a showroom and in front of the camera. It was handmade - what's known as a chopper.

D'ORLEANS: It's a type of customized motorcycle usually defined by a stretched-out wheelbase and pulled back handlebars and a wild paint job. I mean, those are sort of the cliche indicators.

DREISBACH: That's Paul d'Orleans. He's an expert on vintage motorcycles and the author of "The Chopper: The Real Story." He says the bikes in "Easy Rider" embodied chopper culture of the 1960s and took it mainstream.

D'ORLEANS: They did more to popularize choppers around the world than any other film or any other motorcycle. I mean, suddenly people were building choppers in Czechoslovakia or Russia or China or Japan.

DREISBACH: But d'Orleans says while the two "Easy Rider" bikes became icons, the names of the builders remained obscure.

D'ORLEANS: Most choppers - it's associated with who built this because they are an artistic creation. And curiously, the "Easy Rider" bikes were never associated with any particular builder.

DREISBACH: Here's where the story gets complicated and conflicted. In the past few years, with some work by d'Orleans and others, two names emerged more publicly - there's Ben Hardy, a prominent African-American motorcycle builder in Los Angeles and Clifford Vaughs, a black civil-rights activist, motorcyclist and bike builder.

Hardy died in 1994. This past week, I reached Clifford Vaughs, now 77 years old. Vaughs says he met Peter Fonda while working for an LA radio station. Fonda had been arrested for marijuana possession and Vaughs was sent to cover the court proceedings. They got to talking.

CLIFFORD VAUGHS: And so we talked about motorcycles. He asked me what I was doing. I said I have a hobby on the side. I build motorcycles.

DREISBACH: Sometime after, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda came over to Vaughs' place in West Hollywood. They talked about making a motorcycle movie.

VAUGHS: I said well, I can build whatever we need for the film right here in my place.

DREISBACH: That movie would become "Easy Rider." Vaughs maintains he came up with the bike's signature elements and coordinated their construction, which also involved Ben Hardy and others. Larry Marcus is a mechanic. He lived with Vaughs at the time and worked on the bikes.

LARRY MARCUS: OK, Cliff really came up with the design for both motorcycles.

DREISBACH: Before his death in 2010, director and star Dennis Hopper also credited Vaughs. In the past, Peter Fonda has said he himself designed the bikes. Fonda's publicist said that he was unavailable for comment on this story. Vaughs and others were fired early on in the film production, and his name never appeared in the credits. But Vaughs also believes the contribution of African-Americans has been conspicuously left out of the story of "Easy Rider."

VAUGHS: And really those bikes, I mean, we talk about iconic. They are definitely iconic, but yet, the participation of blacks completely suppressed. And I say suppressed because no one talks about it.

DREISBACH: Now 45 years after the film's release, Vaughs has still never seen the film. When I asked him why, he responded simply.

VAUGHS: What for?

DREISBACH: Vaughs says he's troubled that the film depicts '60s bike culture but has no African-American characters. At the time, he belonged to The Chosen Few, a motorcycle club that was racially integrated. That reality doesn't appear on screen. The Profiles In History auction house notes the role of Hardy and Vaughs in building the bikes, but acquisitions manager Brian Chanes says what happened to them is sadly typical in Hollywood.

BRIAN CHANES: The guys that are back there doing the welding, the guys that are doing the set building that are really masters of their craft, they don't get the props. You know, that's it, they don't get the notoriety, unfortunately.

DREISBACH: And Clifford Vaughs still has mixed feelings about this very short chapter in a long life.

VAUGHS: What can I say? Simply, I'm a little miffed about this, but there's nothing I can do.

DREISBACH: He says he's not looking for credit. Vaughs says he knows the work he did in his backyard all those years ago. Tom Dreisbach, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.