Monday, January 09, 2012


Cliff Vaughs ca.1974, on one of his custom-built HD choppers
 The origin story of the 'Easy Rider' motorcycles, 'Captain America' and 'Billy's bike' (as they're now known), has been clouded by the very fact of their fame, the absence of their creator, and the odd, at times haphazard circumstances of the making of the film.  Credit has at times been given to Dan Haggerty ('Grizzly Adams'), and many web and print stories repeat this misunderstanding; Haggerty did some repair to the machines and was their 'handler' at times, and possibly even re-created the 'ER' bikes, after they were used in most of the filming, and stolen before the movie was complete.  [The Vintagent posted the story of Ben Hardy and the building of the 'ER' bikes, in March 2009.
Cliff Vaughs today
Credit for the design of the 'Easy Rider' bikes (and other important aspects of the film, including the title!) goes to Cliff Vaughs, a civil rights activist, filmmaker, and biker (in the Chosen Few MC - a racially integrated club since 1960).  Vaughs was a member of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), a direct-action civil rights group, and a figure in many of the famous sit-ins, freedom rides, and marches in the 1960s South.  He participated in, and photographed, many of the legendary civil rights confrontations of the era, although he missed the March on Washington because he was "building a chopper" in his backyard.
Thus far, the only image associated with Vaughs' civil rights documentary; 'What Will the Harvest Be?'
Vaughs was also a documentary film maker, and made "What Will the Harvest Be?", about the rise of Black Power in the South, which included interviews with Martin Luther King, Stokeley Carmichael, and Julian Bond, and was aired on ABC-tv in the mid-60s.  From documentaries, he moved into film production by the late 1960s. He was also, clearly, a motorcycle nut, and considered Ben Hardy his mentor in building, maintaining, and riding his machines.
Cliff Vaughs being dragged by National Guard troops at Cambridge, MD, May 2, 1964.  Incredibly, this photo was taken (and c.) by photographer Danny Lyon, whose photo essay of time spent with the Chicago Outlaws MC is documented in his fantastic book 'The Bikeriders'.  I look forward to exploring the story of these two 'outlaw' bikers, one black one white, in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
When asked about his involvement with the 'Easy Riders' choppers, Cliff Vaughs sent the following statement to The Vintagent:

"I was working in the News Department at KRLA when Henry Fonda’s son, Peter, was arrested for possession of marijuana. I was mildly amused that so much interest was engendered by the incident, considering the number of citizens detained and incarcerated for smoking “pot".
We chatted for a while at the courthouse and I called in my story. He was interested in my hobby: designing and building motorcycles. It turned out that we lived in the same neighborhood, West Hollywood. I told him I was usually found in my back yard enjoying my hobby.
Peter Fonda with his father, Henry.  It must be the the late 60s; Dad has a paisley shirt.

He came by a few days later accompanied by Dennis Hopper, whom I hadn’t seen since his performance in “Rebel Without A Cause” with James Dean. We talked and I learned that they [Fonda and Hopper] had been planning to develop a movie that centers on motorcycles. I agreed that the themes of the 'Western' were careworn but an American adventure with the protagonists riding motorcycles instead of horses was apt. We adlibbed a story line: two friends (not quite “bikers”), traveling across America seeking adventure. I offered the name “Easy Rider”, taken from the Mae West performance of “Where Has My Easy Rider Gone”, in the production “She Done Him Wrong”… The title had been an adornment of my house, on the wall; a tapestry with a hidden message sent to me by Susan Mansour, erstwhile friend.

We had several discussions about the project at my home in West Hollywood and agreed that we would have to develop interest in the movie outside my parlor. We were not particularly known well enough to raise interest or financing. Peter and Dennis had a long background in the industry; they would raise the money. I would design and build the motorcycles and develop the visual themes. Captain America and Bucky [Captain America's sidekick], costumes, colors: red-white-blue. I was accorded the title of Associate Producer. We named our company Pando.
The Captain America comic book, here on a motorcycle with his sidekick, Bucky(c.Marvel)
 Through Pando, I was instrumental in hiring Baird Bryant as Director of Photography and agreed to have Paul Lewis as Production Manager. Subsequently, Les Blank, Virgil Frye, Karen Black, Seymour Cassel, Francine Reid, Larry Marcus, were included.  Jack Nicholson was hired after the New Orleans “shoot”.  I never met Raphaelson and Snyder (?) who backed the film.  Neither did I formally meet Terry Southern, credited with the screenplay. From my apercus the production proceeded admirably until the New Orleans shoot when there was a dispute about how much film was being used by the Director, Dennis Hopper. I was summarily fired from the production. The critics praised the film. Dennis was awarded “Best New Director” for ER.

There were no African Americans in the film as actors or participants in the production. 
I didn’t have any contact with the production long after 'ER' was released. 

[At that time,] the casualty rates on motorcycle accidents were so high that I asked Peter Fonda for a letter of intent to fund “Not So Easy”[1973], an educational film on how to ride a motorcycle safely. Filmfair financed the film with full support of Harley Davidson. Harley Davidson provided Evel Knievel, who was under contract to them at the time. I had Evel Knievel’s Coliseum jump on film, and a performance by the LAPD motorcycle drill team. Two of my cronies from Hollywood Chosen Few appeared on film: "Rabbit", and “Billy Diamond” (deceased). It was required viewing at judicial traffic school for quite some time.

The [ER] motorcycles were designed and built by me in my back yard. My longtime friend and mentor Mr. Ben Hardy assisted me wholeheartedly. We had met when he taught me how to wire my first motorcycle, a 1947 “knucklehead” in 1961. He had contacts developed over years of repairing motorcycles in his shop on West Florence Ave. Jim Magnera of MC Supply was a valuable asset. He had arranged to act as my agent when Harley Davidson sold me an unnumbered engine (shovel head) which required a new law from the California Legislature. Mr. Magnera was also active in financing the burgeoning black motorcycle enterprise in South Central Los Angeles. Mr. Magnera and Mr.Hardy were instrumental in my relationships with motorcycle specialists in Los Angeles.

From 'Easy Rider', the 'Captain America' and 'Billy' bikes, built by Cliff Vaughs
In the creation I had: Buchanan for frame fabrication, Dean Lanza, art work, Larry Hooper, upholstery, LAPD junk yard engines: rebuilt by Mr. Hardy. I don’t remember the chrome shop. Mr. Hardy also designed and constructed one of the fine points on the motorcycles. I had wanted something unique and he built the curved tail light brackets. I don’t remember the shop that tailored the leathers for ER.
After I had completed the construction of the machines, the registration (pink slip) was in the name of Pando Company. I asked Mr. Hardy to assemble the two disposable motorcycles in his shop. I was simply too busy with the daily task production of 'ER' at the time to complete them at home.

Ben Hardy on his H-D Panhead
I have never actually seen 'Easy Rider'. It represented only a few months out of my 74 years. I had a lot of fun with the bikes and with the talented people I met while working on the film. I have special regard for Mr. James Magnera a man with foresight, who personally helped aspiring entrepreneurs in South Central Los Angeles. Mr. Ben Hardy who worked for me as a mentor and skillful craftsman on a dozen designs of my own motorcycles. Mr. Buchanan, the man to go to for excellent frame modification.
Mr. Dean Lanza, The Artist: Brilliantly designed my marijuana plant on candy-apple petrol tank. Mr. Larry Hooper, ever a fugitive…the best leather craftsman ever.
Mr. Larry Marcus knows more about tools than anyone.
Mr. Dennis Hopper, Director, underlined my contribution to the production of “Easy Rider”.
There has been a remarkable marketing of “custom motorcycles” since ER.
Items and modifications I worked out with Mr. Hardy et al are now manufactured on a production line. Harley Davidson had “Low Rider“. Innumerable entrepreneurs have made a good living popularizing and promoting the so called “chopper“.
I missed my fifteen minutes of fame…..

Clifford A. Vaughs
Tuesday 29 March, 2011
Portobelo, Panama

PS: As an addendum to ER:
The fiery ending is an example of art imitating life. I was riding my "chopper" on the highway between Pine Bluff and Little Rock; pursuing an assignment for SNCC to initiate a school boycott there.  I had with me a staff member of the Arkansas Project, a Miss Iris Greenberg. A pickup truck passed us going in the opposite direction; stopped and turned around. They took a shot at us from behind and missed. They didn't pursue us any I lived to tell this tale.

The genesis of Captain America theme may be found in comics of WW II. Captain America had a sidekick named Bucky. Captain America's ride was a motorcycle."

'Choppers' from May 1969
In an interview with writer Bob Garcia from Ed Roth's Choppers magazine in 1968, before 'Easy Rider' was realeased; Vaughs gave these views on film and motorcycling:

“In terms of my own relation with my own motorcycle, it’s the final romantic expression that is left in this country. Obviously the frontier is gone. The cycle is the one thing that you can build from nothing—just a basket, and make something very, very beautiful and really put yourself into it. This goes from a simple question of chrome, to developing new designs, sissy bars, new ways of riding and things like that.”

“Certainly bikes attract a great deal of people who have basically been frustrated in their life. I haven’t been frustrated but I do view my bike as another way of relieving a lot of tension from myself. I have been riding since 1962. I even missed the March on Washington because I was building a chopper. I like my bike and I like Choppers and I’m very concerned about the restrictive legislation that is coming out from most states against the rider. Laws that are trying to keep Choppers off the road, and I think that a Chopper is a typically American expression.”

In “Easy Riders” the cycle is just a vehicle to get around on. It’s like the horse from the old days. What we are basically doing is psychological western. We have two guys who have problems and are into their own bag. They are good friends, they’ve made one big score and are off to Miami to retire. Now in the course of the film a number of things happen to them on their trip. These are things that could happen to a guy if he were driving a car, flying in an airplane or riding on a train—except for the fact that being on a bike—they are more vulnerable to what’s going on.” 

Bikers as modern-day cowboys
“This is not what we are into. I think we can change the image of the cyclist, and make a significant contribution to changing the development of the cycle image. I don’t feel that Hollywood today is producing anything of much significance. And I think that this is the time to make the change, because the western has been the major success in this country. If we can change the vehicle from a horse to a cycle—and still develop good stories and good concepts then I think we have made a significant and artistic contribution to bikes and films.”
“No Peter and Dennis are very heavy into a lot of cultural things. They are in a position to be very, very socially aware of what’s going on. A lot of bikers just don’t know what’s going on because the whole weight of having to deal with everyday situations or hustling to live precludes any awareness of other problems. I mean, theirs is a hunting and gathering culture. You must remember that most bikers are not in a medium where they can project anything. Even if an average rider went on ”Meet the Press,” he would give the same rap about oppressed bike riders, patriotism, etc.”
He stated that before the film was started he indicated that one of the main things “Easy Riders” should do was break down the whole idea of black and white motorcycle clubs. “Because my investigation showed that white clubs had restrictive clauses and it’s only the blacks that are integrating. The Chosen Few has been integrated for a long period of time.”
The Chosen Few MC in the late 1960s
“In this film", said Vaughs "we have a situation where the two main characters are riding across country. Their bikes break down and they run into about 50 black cyclists. They are very, very up-tight, scared and shaken up. But, it works out very well because the black cats just say, “Can we help you get some gas?” Everything is very groovy. And that to me seems a real situation.”“I maintain if that situation can happen and it does in real life there is still some hope. There are many, many people that maintain that it can happen. “But I’ve seen it happen this way.”
“The cities are still going to burn despite the fact that these black cats stopped to help these white cyclists on the road.”


And a recent addendum, from Peter Fonda himself: after 45 years, Peter finally gave credit where it has long been due, in an email of October 2014:

"Hi Cliff,
I wanted to first let you know how grateful I and others are that you knew where to go to buy the LAPD bikes at auction. Dennis and I had no idea. You magically bought 4 bikes at $500. a piece! You again amazed us when you designed and built the bikes for approximately $1250.00 per bike. We were all in awe of yours and Ben Hardy's abilities. You built two Billy Bikes and two Captain America bikes. I remember you and your girlfriend coming to our Pando office to talk about what we were going to shoot in New Orleans.
Unfortunately,the bikes weren't ready when we began filming in New Orleans and there was no way they could have been ready based on what was involved in their design.
A decision was made by Dennis Hooper, Paul Lewis, and Bert Schneider to fire you. Unfortunately, they blamed you for not having the bikes ready after The Mardi Gras parade. Hell, we didn't even have the script ready. This decision was a very bad decision, one of which was beyond my control and I found out about it after the fact. I am very sorry. Neither did I decide to drop the sequence of the black biker gang from the script. Again Dennis's decision not mine. Money was a factor I believe.

This is a Facebook entry of mine in late September 2014: The final design of the Easy Rider bikes started with this man, Mr. Cliff Vaughs. I gave Cliff a sketch that I had drawn in Toronto Canada on September 27th 1967. It was a rough sketch of the teardrop gas tank, the high sissy bar, the big automobile rear tire, and the same rake that I had on the motorcycle from the Wild Angels. Cliff refined it with the outrageous heavily raked front forks!!! It was a bitch to ride but it looked incredible!!! Thank you Cliff!!!!

It is not too late to give you and Ben Hardy the praise you deserve in designing the iconic bikes in Easy Rider.
I hope we can talk soon! I look forward to your expertise in determining whether Gordon Granger's bike is the crash scene Captain America bike.

All the Best,

Peter Fonda"


K. D. Cline said...

Incredibly interesting. As always, thanks for shining a light on the history and evolution of the machines that we love and the people who made and rode them.

GuitarSlinger said...

Jesse James : in one of his very rare moments of relevance did an entire show on this subject , but not nearly to the extent you have here Paul , so two thumbs up .

Another moment of Historical ( hysterical ? ) Irony .

Hitler , the supreme Anti Semite being in fact of Jewish descent and 1% er's , e.g. the White Supremacists riding M/C's that were in fact created by Afro Americans . Oh and listening to what is in essence music , who's roots came from Afro American culture as well

Kind of makes one want to laugh on one hand , yet cry on the other knowing so many have received so little credit for that which popular culture now takes for granted .

So again , cheers to you Paul for bringing the subject up here and giving some credit where credit is due

Anonymous said...

Simply outstanding in every way, even though Cliff's contribution, so often overlooked in the intervening 40 years since the film's release,has been covered by several writers seeking to redress the bullshit and fantasy on the subject of the bikes, the film and who was or wasn't involved. Your article concisely and respectfully sets things to rights. Truly wonderful to see Mr Vaughs is still among us and clearly in fine fettle . . . . let's hope his fifteen minutes of fame can come into focus before he rides off on the great adventure in the sky . . . thankyou so much for this superb piece !!!

-whiteline psycho

Matt said...

Great story. I had no idea about the origins of those bikes and the myths surrounding them. Thanks for bringing attention to this.

drsprocket said...

Thumbs up Paul. Well done. I was at the first showing in Hollyweird waiting to ship over to Southeast Asia. We were more than a little pissed off at the ending. We shouldn't have been surprised though. When you show people who always thought they were free that truely you are they get scared and react as they did. Fear and ignorance are a dangerous combination. Good work my friend.

Anonymous said...

I like your bit on Cliff Vaughns and recall as a kid watching 'bob-jobs' in awe as they terrified folks in Provincetown.

Best Regards, Robert

CRO said...


Best article on this subject I've read to date. I had the honor of meeting Hopper on two occasions. On one occasion in Venice Ca. he was looking at my panhead outside a local eatery. I introduced myself and we spoke about bikes for a few. He mentioned Hardy and Vaughs.

" A lot of people think choppers were a white dudes game, but just like rock and roll, the brothers had one up on us."

I am paraphrasing of course, but I'll never forget that. It was the first time I had ever heard it.

Thank god for cats like these and of course Sugar Bear.


Grandpa Jimbo said...

As always an extremely well written and informative article.

Thanks again, Jim A.

The Vintagent said...

More from Cliff Vaughs:

"Danny Lyon and I shared the beach in Malibu for a time. I didn't know he was a rider; although I remember his picture of a Triumph displayed at the museum.

I left the US in 1975. No real contact with my civil rights movement cronies.

The questions around ER were generated mainly because I wasn't there...

I must say I am thrilled [with your article]. All the pieces are falling together. I'm sending the link to your piece on Vintagent to my kids."

The man is finally getting his due for designing and building the most famous motorcycle in the world.

occhiolungo said...

Hi Paul. You wrote that you were looking for a photographic evidence of custom motorcycle development. It's not my bag, but Dr. Sprocket was kind enough to write up a few long articles with A LOT OF PHOTOS of early modified bikes starting in the 1920s through the 1950s and beyond. click here:


Felix said...

This is a great article! I just meet the man and has a wonderful story to tell. I must say this "Cat" has a lot more adventures to share with all of us. He is a good friend. Thank You for sharing his story for a new generation to know about the passed.


The Vintagent said...

Hi Pete,
Rich Ostrander's pix are fantastic, and thanks for sharing. I've added one to this story, with a link back to your site.

What I'm Really looking for is pix of the Socal black bikers making these bobbers, then choppers.

Who's got THOSE?

Hairy Larry said...

Great post. The prize for winning the 'Tricycle race' at my high school during 'twerp-week' or whatever it was called, was an Easy Riders poster. 40 some years on, I'm still ticked off at the guy that stole it before I could collect it.

Andrew Macpherson said...

Such an interesting post, great reseach and links. Your site really is my #1 bike site, I really enjoy my weekly visits, thank you and keep up the great work!

Suzanne Venesta said...

Everything Cliff Vaughs says about Easy Rider is true. I know because we shared behind-the-scenes action and events of EASY RIDER's production. I don't know why acknowledgement of his rich contribution has not occurred until now, especially as his approach helped bring about the enormously significant shift from studio to indy production.

ian smith said...

I met Cliff in Panama in 1980 and he was a real friend to me.
Hi from Aussie Ian.
Love to know what you're up to.
Have you heard from Jim ?
My email adress is "endsmith49@gmail .com"

Lonnie C. said...

Very good article. As a sidenote, I was stationed with the USN, living at Boling AFB in Washington, D.C. when "Easy Rider" was released and I saw it at that time. Shortly thereafter, I went to the D.C. Auto Show (don't remember the exact name). On display was a Captain America cycle and, not knowing that the originals had been stolen, it was my assumption at the time that it was the original. Perhaps this was one that Dan Haggerty built (?). While there, I also bought an Easy Rider poster, the one shown in your article, which I still have after 43 years!

max schaaf said...

hello paul.
this is really great.

Big Scott said...

Very Cool, Thanks!

Big Scott said...

Very Cool, Thanks

Englishman said...

Mr. Vaughs involvement in the building of the bikes appears at odds with several interviews I've conducted. Look at the 'Billy Bike" and then look at the dozens of of similar bikes Benny Hardy built at the time. That was pretty much a 'signature' look of his at the time. I know Mr. Vaughs was involved between the studio and Mr. Hardy, but I find it unlikely he would have designed and built the two most iconic choppers ever and then just stopped.

The Vintagent said...

Does it seems so outlandish that a talented young film maker and chopper builder, who was an associate producer of 'Easy Rider' and a partner in Pando Films, should have designed these two machines?

Its understandable there is confusion today about the 'Easy Rider' bikes, especially as Cliff Vaughs effectively disappeared from the film/bike scene by 1973, when he left the USA. I've conducted a few interviews myself, of people who knew Cliff during this period, and all have independently and voluntarily confirmed his role in the creation of 'Easy Rider', and the design of the bikes.

Cliff is quite clear of his relationship with Benny Hardy - as a mentor- which must of course mean a stylistic influence. Cliff is also clear that he designed the bikes, and subcontracted the building of them to several people, including Benny Hardy. Cliff built choppers with Hardy before 'Easy Rider', and acknowledges his help and influence, but is firm in his claim as designer of the 'Billy' and 'Captain America' bikes. I have no record that Hardy ever claimed thus.

I've seen the interviews with Sugar Bear where he has backed Hardy as the builder of these bikes, but Cliff Vaughs has never met Sugar Bear, and vice versa...

Anonymous said...

Rather than trying to hash it out in the 'comments' section, I just thought I'd email [Sorry, this was too interesting NOT to publish in the 'comments' - Ed.]

I presume you read the rebuff a year ago "Who really created Easy Rider".

During my interviews with people who were there, Mr Vaughs (known as "Sonny" amongst the biker community there), was a 100% film guy with very little involvement in building motorcycles. I know Benny Hardy did not like the 'Captain America" bike much, but it was what Fonda wanted more than anything.

I guess the absolute truth will never be known, I'm fairly convinced (as is Sugar Bear) that Benny built the two bikes entirely. Benny was the sort of guy that would never 'share' a build, it was his way or no way. There appears to have been a couple of 'lookalike' bikes put together for destruction in the movie. I'm not sure what Mr. Vaughs motivation was. Just like Peter Fonda and Dan Haggerty have "certified" several Captain America copies as "authentic". What is certain, the two bikes were stolen and likely parted out before the movie hit the screen.
Benny was not happy with the lack of credit and never built another chopper. Sugar Bear does own a really nice Panhead built by Benny though, you should check it out in his museum sometime.


The Vintagent said...

Hi Englishman,

thanks for the note; I didn't see your article, which is very interesting. As far as I know, the only mention Fonda made of 'who built the bikes' was on the Tavis Smiley Show last year, where he acknowledged 'a couple of black guys from Watts' built the choppers. Proper credit for these incredibly important machines was clearly not a priority for him...but I've met Fonda several times, and this doesn't surprise me. I never met Dennis Hopper.

I'm hoping to interview Cliff further for his thoughts, not just about ER, but his experience in the chopper scene in the 60s/70s, his friendship with photographer Danny Lyon, his experience in SNCC, etc.

After I published Cliff's article, I was contacted by three people via Facebook and my website, who claimed to know Cliff during this period. Each of them gave credible confirmation of Cliff's role in the film, and his activities in LA at the time; none had spoken with or heard from Cliff in the intervening years, and were glad to hear he was still alive. The fact that he's not 'known' today bears no relation on what happened over 40 years ago...but what happened so long ago is also difficult to parse at this point.

I have no doubt that Hardy had - at the very least - a critical role in the 'look' AND building of the ER bikes. I also don't have much reason to doubt Vaughs for claiming the 'design' of the bikes...which could have been a paper sketch... I haven't pursued this further, but will. No doubt Hardy deserves credit even if it's acknowledged Vaughs designed the bikes.

I think everyone can agree that if it weren't for Hardy, there would be no 'ER' bikes in that particular configuration, such was his importance at the time. Exactly 'who decided what' might be less important if we all agree that more than one person was involved, and quit focusing on 'the one guy' there wasn't 'one guy'...and never is in such a build. In my dealings with other, famous custom builders, its always the front man who gets the credit, and a lot of talented people get left in the shadows. Thus it was with Peter Fonda... let's keep in touch to bring all the information together, and see what we can make of it.

Anonymous said...

I've been away, as you know; I note that the discussion still rages.
I'm sending you a note I wrote ages ago which lists all the contributors to the finished product.

It seems fatuous that people still contest the origin [of the 'Easy Rider' bikes - Ed].
When I was fired after the New Orleans "shoot" I realized that I had never met in person Raphaelson and Snyder. No blacks in this film about America.

I built (you know) bikes in my back yard in West Hollywood as a hobby. My work for the [film] industry was always my main concern.

My show "The Credibility Gap" won me an AP award for the "Most Creative Presentation of the News"
The same year 1969 I received another AP award for the documentary "Berkeley Third World or Third Reich"

I opened the Industry unions to fair hiring practices. #IATSE (cameraman's union), the Networks - NBC, CBS, ABC - through due process in the Courts.

The above were ordered by the court to cease discriminating by race and gender as a result of my lawsuit and to establish an apprenticeship program/outreach for all minorities.

As an aside: the cameraman's Union President asseverated: "No niggers are coming into my Union."
My application to NBC Network was rejected in the same language.

The day of the announcement of my Union membership my fellow Cameramen mobbed me at the Governors, (Reagan) Press Conference in Santa Barbara. Pummeled me and smashed my cameras.

- Cliff Vaughs

Jody Felix said...

My father Dean Lanza built and painted both bikes in wild angels (1966) and Easy Rider (1969) I have kept his photos for over ten years after he passed.

Anonymous said...

I am a Lover of Riding and viewing Motorcycles from around the World. Thank-you for this article. I was born in 1969, so I grew up watching Easy-Rider, this movie is the Major reason I ride Motorcycles today. It is nice to know that African Americans had some effect on the creation of the most famous motorcycle of my life time. I ride in an integrated Motor cycle club. I am glad we have no such clause in our membership.

GuitarSlinger said...

Cliff Vaughs ; Ride in Peace [ I doubt Cliff will be resting much of anywhere ] Thank the small metal gods Paul d.O had the sense to finally bring some of the credit so long overdue to you . May all your rides be filled with the knowledge that some of us know the truth .. thanks again in no small part to Mr d'Orleans