The Easy Rider Bikes – Built by Ben Hardy and Cliff Vaughs
98 percent of all creation is accident, and 1 percent is intellect. At least that what Dennis Hopper said. I think thats an extremely humble way to describe natural talent and desire. Hell, mostly desire. But then again, Dennis Hopper smoked a lot of pot.
I’ve watched American Chopper since it came out. Jesse James makes some killer bikes. Been to bike shows and seen some really custom bikes that just blow my mind, and a few make me just wonder why. Anyone who fabricates something out of metal and it ends up rideable and 2 wheels tho, has my respect. I can’t do it. I never tried, and its always been this goal of mine to get to a place in life that I could try. I think I could make something cool. Maybe an old school bobber from the 40s or 50’s. I love that history; Guys came home from WWII, started cutting off fenders and lightening up their bikes so they’d go faster. Thats when the custom bike was born. But what is the most famous custom ever? To me, its pretty easy. I bet most people can tell you what this bike is.
Man, I double dog dare you to find me a more recognizable bike. I can’t figure what that bike would be. Evel Knevel? Steve McQueen in the Great Escape? Both are great bikes, but would you know em if you saw em? Whether or not you’ve seen the movie, that bike is an icon. It’s a 1950’s panhead motorcycle ripped from its police bike frame (peter Fonda bought 4 old police bikes from ranging from 1952 to 1954 for the movie) , and then someone got all freaky creative with it. The rake is crazy, the fender is gone, and there is no rear suspension. Hell, there’s no front brake. I am not a chopper guy, but you gotta respect that teardrop gas tank, the king and queen seat and you’ll find waldo faster than you can find the rear shocks. Maybe I’ve got my head lodged up Easy Rider’s ass (and that may be true), but tell me a more famous bike. Either way, you can’t tell me a bike that influenced more people to ride, and start customizing.
When The Easy Rider concept was quickly made into form, Peter Fonda set out to get him a couple of bikes for the movie. There’s lots of controversy about who built these bikes. Some say Dan Haggerty, who was in the movie. The guy who painted the bikes, his son says it was him (his dad, that is). Some say it was Peter Fonda.
But the guy who built them was a guy named Ben Hardy. Ben was an African american man who knew Harleys, and knew what he was doing. When Cliff Vaughs was asked by Fonda to oversee the building of the bikes, Vaugh’s turned to Hardy who was well known (if you were black) in Los Angeles as the go to guy to build a killer bike, and do it right.
Peter had only one thing he wanted on the bike. He wanted captain America to have a flag on his gas tank. Beyond that, the design was left to Vaughs. I gotta think tho… Peter was an experienced rider, and Dennis hopper wasn’t. That had to have come up in the conversation somewhere, because the Billy bike was a much easier bike to ride. I had a fat boy that was really close to the same configuration, and my brother has a friend with a Billy Bike replica. They’re easy bikes to ride. The captain America bike? Cut that steering head off and rake that bitch out like it is, throw in those long forks with no front brake and see how you fare. You don’t give that kind of bike to a beginner.
It was Cliff who actually first offered the name “Easy Rider” to Fonda. It was a term he used in the day. Whats an Easy Rider? that depends on who you ask. In the 1900s it meant a freeloader. A guy who mooched off you. To Dennis hopper, it meant a man who lived off the money of a whore. He got it from an old Mae West movie. Whatever cliff meant by it, I’m not sure. All I know is he redefined the word. To this day I think it is associated to Harley riders. Maybe because of cliff, but most definitely because of the movie. When you say Easy Rider, I think of the movie. I think of Harley’s.
Vaugh’s quickly took the idea to Ben Hardy. Peter bought four 1950’s panhead police bikes from auction, and got them to Hardy and Vaughs. Jim Buchanan fabricated the frames, The engines were built by Hardy, Dean Lanza did the paint (his son is adamant he built the entire bikes). 2 bikes were for filming, 2 were for the final sequence of the movie, which I’m fucking assuming you know about, otherwise you wouldn’t be here reading this. Hardy went to work, and the rest is history.
Ben Died in 1994. Cliff is still alive today. Both men haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve— in my opinion, for building the most famous bikes in the world. Ben’s old shop is still around in Los Angeles if you want to see it.
The next time you’re at a gas station, and you’re staring down into your tank and pouring gasoline all over it, think of Ben Hardy and Cliff Vaughs. They made a killer movie as much as anyone else, and I dare say the most famous motorcycles ever built.