Friday, March 13, 2009

BEN HARDY - BUILDER OF 'CAPTAIN AMERICA'

My recent visit to the 'Black Chrome' show in LA exposed an emotionally charged, ragged hole in the history of motorcycling. The discreet mention that Ben Hardy had created the 'Captain America' and 'Billy' choppers for the film Easy Rider blew my mind - Why didn't I know this? Why isn't this part of the folklore surrounding this epochal film? The reasons are myriad, but the effect is the same - this man is nearly invisible on the Motorcycle Culture radar.















A little digging on the web revealed some photos of Hardy and his shop, and some details on the 'build' of the Captain America bike. Ben Hardy's Motorcycle Service was located at 1168 E. Florence in Los Angeles, which is now an auto repair shop. As Hardy looks to be in his late 40s in the photographs, I would presume he is dead now, but I'll be on the hunt for more info and family photographs - trust The Vintagent; this story is going to come out.

The story thus far: Peter Fonda, the producer of Easy Rider, hired Cliff Vaughs to coordinate the motorcycles for the film, and Cliff tapped Ben Hardy for the actual construction of the machines. I've heard a rumor that 3 'Captain America' replicas were built, but I'll fact check that (I do know that none of the originals exist, the principal bike having been stolen from the props warehouse after the movie was completed).

Ben Hardy used standard H-D frames, ca. '48-'56, and used Buchanan's frame shop to alter the steering head angle to 45 degrees. The steering head was cut off and repositioned, and the resultant extreme rake required a 12" extension to the telescopic forks. A set of A.E.E. fork clamps are used, with extended handlebar clamps ('dog bones'); the handlebars have a rise of 13" - not yet in 'ape hanger' territory.

Cliff Vaughns hired Dean Lanza to paint the bikes, and Peter Fonda specified the tank on one to resemble the sheild of comic-book character 'Captain America' - hence the name of the motorcycle.

I've long argued that the 'Captain America' bike is one of the top 3 most famous motorcycles in the world. I'm in disbelief that I never knew the story behind the machine. More to come.

Check out this youtube video on the subject; kudos to Jesse James for his research, and finding Cliff Vaughs:


Many thanks and an apology to Fritz Simmerlein of Harleysons.de for the original photos of Ben Hardy and the information about the 'Captain America' details. I found my info at random on the web, but it was Fritz' research. I'm hoping we find more original photos of Hardy, and will explore the subject further. Thanks Fritz!

33 comments:

Affer said...

Ha! You ARE enjoying this! This side of the pond, and perhaps influenced by TV and movies, I think it might have been perceived that biking in the USA had a bit of a racial divide. Looks like there was some - but a lot of commonality too! Great research, great story, Paul.

Anonymous said...

Hiya Paul. Surely the Captain America bike is the most recognizable in the world, (to the average public). What are your #2 and #3, #4? Evel Kneivel's HD, Marlon Brando's Triumph in "the Wild Bunch", then Rollie Free's Vincent?

ciao
Pete

cro said...

Get in touch with Sugar Bear, while in Sturgis, I had a long interesting conversation with him about this subject. Interesting indeed. It's my thought that aside from the obvious racial issues of the time, they were also dealing with the politics of Hollywood, which is a world in and of its own. The truth should be told. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Dear Paul,

Congratulations on your site and thank you for the hard work you put into it! It is one of my bookmarks - no greater honor exists, I assure you.

I am researching the history of two stroke engines, specifically, the origins of the expansion chamber. I am trying to track down any info on Dr. Herbert Venediger of DKW who I believe developed the first version of it. There were two engineers (Wolf and Jacob) prior to Kaaden who first put them on the three cyl DKWs but they were using existing DKW technology. I have a photo of a prewar DKW car that I found in the Audi archives fitted with an expansion chamber with Ing. Weber (who designed the RT125) in the driver's seat.

Any info you or your readers might have on these engineers or any patents would be much appreciated.

Joe J

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,
I greatly enjoyed/appreciated your pieces on “Black Chrome” and Mr. Hardy. It’s obviously ironic that black Americans had a significant role in American motorcycling in light of the racial and political attitudes of much of the Harley Davidson “Hell’s Angels” strata of motorcycling. In a similar vein you might find the role of Jews in motorcycling a fairly interesting topic, in light of the stereotypes that surround that religion. Just as a few examples, Triumph was founded by Siegfried Betteman, a German Jew, who emigrated to the UK and was actually mayor of Birmingham until he stepped down on the outbreak of WWI because of his German nationality. (Of course his nationality did not prevent him from selling large numbers of “Trusty” Triumphs to the forces during the war). Betteman I believe (?) was asked to remain on as a director for some time even after the original Triumph company went under during the Great Depression and was taken over by Jack Sangster.
Regards, MR

Anonymous said...

Thanks Paul, I too was among the ignorant. Now I know. Thanks again, C-ya, Jerrykap

lforney said...

Out of curiosity I pulled down my heavy copy of "Motorcycle" from the MoMa exhibition of the same name. In the section devoted to the Captain America replica there's a bit of copy. In regards to original bikes the copy simply states that "Fonda has them disassembled and heavily chromed before reassembly". Zero mention of Ben Hardy.

smitty said...

Hey Pete,

I'd say if you asked the average public what bike Brando had in the Wild Bunch, that they'd say "Harley". I'm not sure how many times people have said about my Ducati 250 bitsa, "I had a Triumph 500 just like that". I'm waiting for someone to think it's a Harley.

Thanks, Paul! It's another great post. I was under the mistaken impression the Captain America bike was designed by Grizzly Adams - Dan Haggerty.

Tom said...

Hi,

There's a captain america replica on display in the collection of old harley's at the Lighthouse HD dealership in Long Island, NY.

It was, apparentkly, built at the same time as the original.

Michael in LA said...

Hello Paul...

Enjoyed your posts about Ben Hardy and the Black Chrome exhibit @ CAAM. If you found this information interesting, bee on the lookout for the book that Sugar Bear is writing about this little known bit of Southern California history. Sugarbear also has an interview over at http://www.bikerradiomagazine.com/shows.html - scroll down to show 51, and skip the 1st half. Love your blog - glad you highlighted my part of the world...

Anonymous said...

The name of the Brando movie was "the Wild One" not the wild bunch. that was a western by Sam Peckingpaw.

Anonymous said...

most of the black guys i work with are into sport bikes , so i had some time to kill today and we were waiting for a oil sample report so i gave them a wind up , about kulture , lol , boy i had them going, a real full scale wind up , and then i dropped your black chrome and Ben Hardy page on them i almost got out of the office before they cottoned on , lol dave

Anonymous said...

As always a great blog.

A few facts as I know it.
There was an Easy Riders survivor. I was owned by Dan ? (Grizzly Adams). He sold it to John Parham. I believe this is the "burn" bike. John had it restored back as to original.You can go to the National Motorcycle Website and see it.

There was a black tuner in SoCal by the name of Hardee? I think he tuned for Al Gunter (who committed suicide?). They actually used radios to communicate during races! WAY BEFORE NASCAR! I met him once years ago.Check out page 98 in Wright's post war American racer.
I think he got all of Gunter's Goldie stuff.

There was also a Hell's Angel known as Chocolate George.He was black.I knew a girl from high school who went to his wake,she said it was quite the party!

Anonymous said...

Turns out Gunter's tuner was Hardy Allen.

Gary Inman and Ben Part said...

Hi Paul,
Yes great story. I heard about it first via NCRS last year:

http://thenewcaferacersociety.blogspot.com/2008/09/black-chrome.html

there are some more links there too
BP

Gary Inman and Ben Part said...

Sad that Hopper isn't forthright.
BP

Anonymous said...

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Again, congratulations on what I think is an enormous success.

All best,

David in Fort Lauderdale

Anonymous said...

hi dear paul , and first sorry for my aproximate english
thanks for your article on your blog about The Great builder mister Ben Hardy , i discovered his work when i saw a movie with mister Jesse James about the construction of an old blue chopper ( i think the episode is called " the history of chopper") and there is a lot af part which talking about Ben Hardy his work and his "non recognition "by the Harley -Davidson, and choppers people of this era"! But I am not sure that is another century mentality, cause today which magazines talk about black builders ????
I m a French guy , white one , and be sure this mentality of another century is not a particularity of the USA , in fact it's the same way in Europe , even if people tell not.
Your blog is really koolest on the web , keep on working on and take care for yourself

See Ya
Thierry

Apus said...

Your blog continues to intrigue and delight. I heartily agree that the Black Chrome thread is a fascinating story. It’s also a fascinating and seminal point in the evolution of post-war motorcycle design on both sides of the Pond.

As Vintagent surely knows, Easy Rider had a powerful influence over here in the UK.

I was 16 when it was released. Many Brits of my age will have great memories of early amateurish but passionate attempts to copy what we saw on the screen. My first post-learner bike was a 1953 BSA A10 with its petrol tank bearing the the Stars and Stripes (albeit in sticky-back plastic!).

Not sure if the 18in-rise bars I ran qualified as apehangers but there were heroes who managed 36in apes and screwed 7in slugs into 6in overstock stanchions (the longest available) to stretch their forks by a wobbly, unbraced 13in on unmodified frames.

Happy days, from which some of us never really recovered. So here's to Ben Hardy – until now I didn't know what a debt I wed him.

Zulu GVM said...

Hey man, Thanks for putting this up. All things being equal, and being that we all loves bikes regardless of color, it still bothers me that some people have the nerve to say "Oh, there was not really any discrimination when it came to motorcycles back then, it was just...(insert excuse here)". the fact is, once again Black people and their contributions to American pop culture have been purposely overlooked. If this was just an isolated incident then maybe, but this has been going on since America's inception. I can go on and on citing things that were created or pioneered by African Americans and yet which they never got credit for, from Rock and Roll music to peanut butter and the traffic signal!

Anyway, thanks for helping to set the record straight, and Big Ups to Jesse James for having the balls to speak on this subject on his show!!

Salute,
King Tone Capone

jonbald11 said...

Hello To All , This is great to read about the real way it was ! I'm not a rider but I love history of any sort . Thanks for your work !

Anonymous said...

Hi there, Paul,

You will be pleased to know that Australians read your site avidly.

I am preparing a feature on Ben Hardy and am hoping you can provide 300 dpi images of the pictures you have of him on your site. 96 dpi won’t do it for us.
I do hope you can help me.
My email is terri.australianroadrider.com.au

Thank you. This is pretty urgent.
Cheers,
Terri Dodd
Associate Editor
Australian Road Rider
Road Rider Cruiser & Trike

Goldie said...

Most don't know that Peter Fonda did a show on Tavis Smiley in January promoting the prequel to the movie Easy Rider called The Ride Back. He refuses to credit Cliff Vaughs & Benny Hardy for their contribution to designing and building the bikes.

He said he got 4 black guys from Watts to build the bikes. What crap!
Cliff Vaughs is responsible for coming up with the name for the movie, the concept and the design/building of the bikes. It high time the world knows the truth. Check out my website. www.goldie1779blackbikers.com

Anonymous said...

have u ever heard of a man named ira willikenson he said he built the bikes for the easy rider movie and can prove it.He said peter was the one who came up with the flag for the gas tank. And can prove that to.What do u think about this info

Goldie said...

He's not telling the truth. Cliff Vaughs is the designer who commissioned the job to Benny Hardy. He and Benny both designed and created both bikes.

Tell Mr. Ira to prove it then...

The Vintagent said...

@ Anonymous: bring forward the evidence! Rumor and claims abound, but proof is hard to find. If Ira can document his claim, the world needs to know who built the most famous motorcycle of all time.

Anonymous said...

I heard about ben hardy from the discovery channel's History of the chopper. I've loved choppers ever since I saw easy rider in Sydney way back when The sydney Hell's angels group ripped the theatre apart at the end of the movie. I ride a chopped sportster and a Yamaha 250 chopper I built myself. I'm trying to teach my japanese biker friends about the legacy. From Don Fraser Australian in Japan. 

eripley said...

Thank you!

Ben Hardy was my great-uncle. He passed away in the early 90’s (1994 if I remember correctly). And yes, he was the builder of the Captain America and Billy bikes.

It’s always been a source of irritation that no one was aware that the builder of these bikes was indeed a Black American living in Watts. I remember my aunt mentioning that she remembered the night the came to see my uncle about building the bike. She said they sat around the dining room table and discussed it. She never sounded too thrilled about it. I remember when my younger cousin mentioned he had built the bikes he was a little surly too. I always had the feeling there was some ‘annoyance’ that he wasn’t given any credit for the building the bike. I’m even more sure of this as I have become quite testy over this major oversight as well. I remember seeing Peter Fonda go on about the bike and all I heard was ‘he’ and ‘I’ – no mention of the real builder. And it’s not hard to believe he would slough this off to ‘4 black guys’ from Watts. 4

What I can tell you is that my uncle loved building bikes. He said after you build the engine, crank it up and it comes to life it was like giving birth. I guess it was. I remember coming by the house (he lived on 94th Street in Watts) there he was with some guys on his knees with a stethoscope listening to the engine….just like a doctor checking a baby’s lungs.

Someone asked if there are any examples of his work. I don’t know. He owned two Harley’s a black one and a green one. For some reason I always called her the Green Ghost but was corrected and told it was the Green Hornet. Even now, it was the most beautiful thing I ever saw. It was the love of his life but sadly, at his request, it was destroyed after his death. Unfortunately the only picture I have of it is a faded old Kodachrome. I guess something is better than nothing. The other bike I do believe was sold.

Anyway, just wanted to say thank you for bringing it to the everyone’s attention about my uncle. It’s about time.

The Vintagent said...

Yes, its an error I intend to see corrected! There's a much bigger story to tell, which will be discussed next year (2012), I promise.

Sal said...

Hi Paul ! Great subject. I believe there's no racist attitude in the lost of "Hardy's paternity" in te making both bikes , because the movie tells nothing else than this : " Hate and iniquity are everywhere, but people can learn much from each other, enough to ride together for a while. " God " only knows when it lasts... " I assume that Fonda was not necessarily involved in every step of the production. But He's supposed to have designed the project of both bikes on a towel in a restaurant, eating with Hopper. He's said to have baught 6 bikes, 3 of each, used and destroyed 4 of them during the making of the movie, the last 2 ones supposed to have benn stolen later.
Please Paul, let us know the truth, only the truth, but all the truth, about those terrific secrets.
Have a nice investigation.
Cheers from Toulouse, France.
www.saladin-de-tolosa.com

Jody Felix said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Buy Here said...

I never usually have the possibility to see something like this.. Good stuff.

Halra said...

i love hrdes,
with classic harley davidson, haha,,, so amazing
:-)