The captain America chopper from the movie Easy Rider is probably the most recognizable motorcycle in the world. The 1969 movie starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper about hippy outlaw bikers has probably done more than any other pop culture event to promote the ‘biker’ lifestyle. Less known is the African American subculture and people behind the famous bikes in the movie.
As the son of Henry Fonda, Peter Fonda was a young member of Hollywood royalty in 1968 when he met Clifford ‘Sonny’ Vaughs. Fonda had just been busted for possession of Marijuana and was being arraigned at LA municipal court. Cliff Vaughs was working as a reporter and went down to the courthouse to interview the young star. In addition to his job as a reporter, Vaughs was involved in the civil rights movement and was a part of LA’s custom motorcycle scene. Fonda took a shine to the charismatic activist and soon after was introduced to Vaugh’s friend Ben Hardy’s motorcycle shop in Watts which was full of Harley choppers.
Ben Hardy it turns out is one of the granddaddies of the whole LA chopper scene and was building custom choppers back in the 1950’s before most white riders had discovered them. Fonda was working on his script for Easy Rider at the time and the rest is motorcycle history. Fonda and Hopper described their ideas for the Captain America and ‘Billy’ bikes to Cliff Vaughs, and four (they needed stunt doubles of both bikes) early 50′s Harley Davidson Hydraglides were purchased at a police auction for $500 and then customized by Hardy and Vaughs.
Vaughs was supposed to be responsible for the bikes during the filming of the movie and to get an associate producer credit in the film. Unfortunately, Hopper decided he wanted another of his buddies to be the bike wrangler on the film, and Vaughs was fired and received no credit. As the years went by and the motorcycles achieved legendary status Fonda did tell the story of Cliff Vaughs and Ben Hardy but it wasn’t until some 40 years later when a whole new generation of reality show chopper enthusiasts like Jesse James, and Orange County Choppers stoked the interest of the public that the whole story of the black bike builders came to light.
In 2014 a replica of the Captain America bike purporting to be one of the originals brought $1.35 million at auction (the sale fell through when it was determined that it was a copy). And then in 2015 Cliff Vaughs finally got the recognition for his motorcycle masterpiece when he and other African American bike pioneers were featured in The Discovery Channel’s ‘History of the Chopper’. The show hosted by Jesse James, featured Vaughs and told the story of L.A.’s black chopper pioneers. To learn more about this topic read Soul on Bikes by Tobie Gene Levingston, and The Chopper – The Real Story by Paul D’Orleans. – A.S. 3/8/17