Words: Paul d’Orléans, from his book ‘The Chopper: the Real Story’

It’s the most famous motorcycle in the world, period. Show someone a photograph of the ‘Captain America’ bike from ‘Easy Rider’, and everyone knows what they’re looking at. Show them Rollie Free stretched out in a bathing suit over his Vincent at Bonneville in 1948, and they’ll laugh, but won’t know a thing about the bike or the man. Show them TE Lawrence on his Brough Superior, and they’ll recognize neither the quizzical WW1 hero, nor his Brough Superior. The Captain America chopper transcends its own story; nobody needs to have seen the film, nor recognize Peter Fonda, to understand they’re looking at an icon, a magical talisman of Freedom. Such is the power of the machine’s image, and its place in the cultural history of motorcycling around the world. Far more people idolized that motorcycle than ever saw the film; all they needed was a photograph of Dennis Hopper (on the ‘Billy’ bike) and Peter Fonda, riding through the anonymous landscape of the American West, modern day cowboys roaming the land; free, just free.

The Easy Rider choppers: ‘Billy’ and ‘Captain America’, ridden by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda

If anyone thought to ask ‘who built that?’ (and few did), they might have assumed Peter Fonda built it, but most admirers of Captain America were simply glad it existed, as if it had been delivered from the gods. Its lines and proportions are perfect, as is the American flag paint job, which slip under one’s skin and electrify subconscious associations: the cowboy, the outlaw, America, freedom, power, speed, sex, drugs and rock music. Those admiring the Easy Rider choppers didn’t want to be Peter Fonda, they wanted to be Captain America. They wanted to own that bike and ride it and eat it and absorb everything the bike stood for into their very beings, to become the gods that bike promised we could become. It is a powerful work of art, a coveted, elusive object, copied a thousand times all over the globe, but it cannot be truly captured, as it exists only in the realm of dreams.

Cliff ‘Soney’ Vaughs on his white chopper on Malibu Beach, 1971 [Elliot Gold photo]
The Captain America and Billy bikes were a collaboration of several men, built by several hands, and were an outgrowth of an established legacy of Afro-American chopper builders in South Central Los Angeles, in 1968. That Cliff ‘Soney’ Vaughs and Ben Hardy have never been properly acknowledged as the men behind the world’s most famous motorcycle is a complicated story; a result of racism, their personal disinterest in fame, and a contractual settlement with the film’s financiers, Columbia pictures, to delete Cliff from the film’s credits.

Who Is Soney Vaughs?

Clifford A. ‘Soney’ (the spelling is his mother’s) Vaughs was born in Boston on April 16th, 1937, to a single mother who was 16 at the time; she’d been kicked out of the family compound in Gibbsboro, New Jersey, for her unwed status, so moved to Massachusetts to be near a more sympathetic aunt. As a boy, Cliff attended the Boston Latin School, from whence he derived a particular pattern of speech, and a facility with language – Cliff was specific about his words, and at times prickly in their usage. In 1953 he joined the Marines, and tested so highly he was scheduled for flight training, and sent to a base Pensacola, Florida.  He was immediately rebuffed by the CO of the base, who turned him right back to Boston, refusing the possibility of a black pilot on his watch, and an integrated flight training school. “Things were different in Florida than Boston”, noted Cliff. Instead, he was transferred to Electronics Technician School at Great Lakes NTC. After 3 years of active duty, he worked at the Boston Navy yard on the cruiser ‘Boston’ as a technician on its radar installations for guided missiles. After the USMC he took a job with Raytheon, working on the guidance systems of Sparrow and Hawk missiles. He decided to further his education at Boston University for his BA, then trekked to the University of Mexico in Mexico City for his Masters, driving his Triumph TR3 all the way from Boston. “At the time they offered a progressive Latin American Studies graduate Program. Plus I liked driving my TR3 from Boston to Mexico City. I had family friends living in Cuernavaca; buddies from the ‘Village’. Acapulco on weekends.” He hung out, of course, with future F1 racing legends the Rodriguez brothers (Pedro and Ricardo), who seemed immune from the law’s attention while driving unregistered Formula racing cars on the streets of the District Federal.

1961: First Chopper

By 1961 he “went from Mexico to Santa Monica where, I had a sort of ‘drawing room.’ [An] art, literary cocktail scene just as I had on a regular basis in Boston. Several friends came to visit. In those days we were called Bohemians.” In Santa Monica, living very close the beach, he had purchased an AJS Model 18S enduro for $300 from Motorcycles Unlimited on Pico Blvd, for plonking around town. His 5 uncles all rode Harley-Davidsons back in New Jersey, so motorcycling was in his blood. The Ajay had ‘knobbies’, which led to a slide-out on Dead Man’s Curve on Sunset Blvd; luckily he’d worn a helmet, for he could hear it clonking on the ground as he slid. The AJS took him and his then wife Wendy down to Tijuana for the Tecate Enduro races, and encountered about 2000 other riders, most of whom had ridden from SoCal. “As I rode home two-up on the Ajay, it seemed like all 2000 riders went roaring past us on Hwy 1. So I sold my AJS, and bought a Knucklehead chopper from a friend who needed some money. When I got the Knuck, I knew nothing about motorcycles really. Nobody in Santa Monica knew anything about them, but I’d heard of Ben Hardy in South Central, and another guy named Wes who had a shop too, but was less popular. When I needed parts, Ben Hardy would send me to Jim Magnera of MC Supply; it turned out Jim had subsidized Ben to open his shop. Black shops at the time couldn’t buy parts directly through the Harley-Davidson dealer, so Magnera became the small shops’ conduit for Harley parts.” He met the Chosen Few MC while sleeping by his chopper on the side of Highway 99 en route north; they invited Cliff to join them on a run to Oakland to visit the East Bay Dragons MC, and after they returned, Cliff was presented with his CFMC ‘club cut’, “I didn’t have to prospect, they just made me a member.”

The lost 1966 Civil Rights documentary made by Cliff Vaughs: ‘What Will the Harvest Be?’ [TV Guide]
“1961 was a real period of transition. When I bought that first chopper, it was running an 18” back and 21” front wheel. I wanted to build up a new chopper for radio station KRLA’s custom show, which would be smaller and lighter. So I took a ride out to Ben Hardy’s shop in Watts. We sourced a brand new Panhead engine through MC Supply, with no numbers on it. Ben knew everybody, and when I explained how I wanted to modify my frame; he sent me to Buchanan’s, who did at least 5 frames for me. When I wanted a special paint job, he introduced me to Dean Lanza. Thus, he was my mentor, in terms of teaching me how to work on bikes, and making contacts. Benny and Jim Magnera worked in tandem on the development of choppers in South Central LA, and both went out of their way to help me.”

Ben Hardy, member of the Choppers MC, and mentor to Cliff Vaughs

“My design philosophy was ‘wrap your arms around the engine and ride’. Slim it down, lower everything using 16” wheels. 21” front wheels were the rage when I started, but I moved on from there. I asked Benny how to eliminate the rear fender struts, and he used curved spring steel inside the fender to clean up the rear end – he was a real craftsman. I provided him with the resources (money) to develop ideas he’d always wanted to try. How many people would think of doing a fender like that?”

Recruited to the Cause

Vaughs admits that when Dr Martin Luther King Jr led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, “I was building a chopper in my backyard. I knew it was happening, but I hadn’t been politicized. Boston had nothing going on in terms of race at the time, it was all mixed race among my friends. We were all the American refugees; Italians, Jews, blacks, etc. I’d heard about the Freedom Rides, but, being from Boston, I thought, ‘What could happen?’ Cliff met Civil Rights legend Bob Zelner, the first white field coordinator for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), when he passed through LA in 1963 on a fundraising tour. Vaughs was recruited to the SNCC cause, and drove his 1953 Chevy half-ton pickup to Mississippi. Of course, being Cliff, he laid stainless steel in the truck’s bed, with teak runners, and a white fiberglass tailgate with ‘SNCC’ in big black letters. Outrageous, and an instant target, “In the window I had an ‘Ole Miss’ [University of Mississippi] sticker; I’ve been shot at many times.”

“They took a shot at us from behind and missed.”

Even more outrageous was riding his blue Knucklehead chopper to Arkansas in 1964, with a white girl on the back. “The fiery ending of ‘Easy Rider’ 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 Greenburg. 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 further…so I lived to tell this tale.” Of all the crazy motorcycle tales one hears about the 1960s, this is perhaps the hairiest story of all, and a sign that Soney was both a civil rights volunteer and a bit of a provocateur. “I may have been naïve thinking I could be an example to the black folks who were living in the South, but that’s why I rode my chopper in Alabama. I’d visit people in their dirt-floor shacks, living like slavery had never ended, and it was very tense; I was never sure if the white landowners would chase me off with a shotgun. But I wanted to be a visible example to them; a free black man on my motorcycle.”

in 1964, Cliff Vaughs was a staff photographer for the SNCC, as was Danny Lyon. This photograph of Cliff being lifted by National Guardsman in Maryland is among Danny Lyons’ most famous photos from his Civil Rights photography [Danny Lyon – SF Chronicle]
Casey Hayden (activist/politician Tom Hayden’s first wife) remembers Cliff at this time as “a West Coast motorcyclist, a lot of leather and no shirts. Hip before anyone else was hip. A little scary, and reckless.” Cliff’s ex-wife Wendy Vance added “I think that’s what attracted me to him. Finding this wild man in the South, a true adventurer. … There was just some sort of fearlessness in all situations. It did not occur to him that he was a moving target on this motorcycle. At a march in Selma, the civil rights leader John Lewis refused to stand next to him. ‘You are crazy,’ Lewis said, ‘I will not march next to you.’ The fear was that, somehow, Cliff would make himself a target.”

“You are crazy,” John Lewis said, “I will not march next to you.”

He carried on with SNCC through 1964, which is when he met photographer Danny Lyon (of ‘The Bikeriders’ fame), who snapped the infamous photo of Vaughs being bodily lifted, shirtless and shoeless, by no less than 6 helmeted National Guardsmen in Cambridge, Maryland, on May 2nd, 1964. “Stokely Carmichael is holding my other leg in that photo”, says Cliff. “Later on, Danny Lyon lived next to me in Malibu.”

Cliff Vaughs featured in Ed Roth’s ‘Choppers Magazine’ in 1967. Roth was the first to publish a magazine solely about custom motorcycles, and featured builders of all races, unlike post-Easy Rider chopper magazines, which often featured White Power ads and swastikas regalia, and didn’t include non-white chopper riders or builders.[Roth Family Archive]
Perhaps it shouldn’t be amazing that Danny Lyon, the first photo-journalist documenter of a ‘1% club’ (the Chicago Outlaws) in his book ‘The BikeRiders’ (1968), should have met Cliff Vaughs, the creator of the most famous chopper in the world, at a Civil Rights demonstration in 1964, while both worked for the SNCC. It was the bloodiest year of the civil rights movement, as black and white, men, women and children were beaten or killed in the South, for daring to stand up for their convictions. Vaughs and Lyons came together in a moment and place of tremendous cultural tension, and then exited that cauldron; while they went their separate ways, each would soon produce art related to the chopper which would stand as the finest in their respective fields – Lyons with his photography, and Vaughs with his motorcycles and films. And they’d met doing civil rights work in the South…which should explode a few myths about ‘who rides choppers.’

The Origin of ‘Easy Rider’

Vaughs began making documentary films with “What Will the Harvest Be?”, narrated by Julian Bond, about the rise of Black Power (a term Stokeley Camichael popularized) in the South, which included interviews with Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Carmichael, and Julian Bond, which was aired on ABC-TV in the mid-60s. He was also working at Los Angeles radio station KRLA, which is how he met Peter Fonda. “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.”

Cliff Vaughs (and friend) on one of his early choppers in Death Valley, 1968 [Roth Family Archive]
Fonda stopped by Vaughs’ house with Dennis Hopper, and the three of them discussed a new film project they wanted to develop, which would center 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 ad-libbed 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 the song ‘I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone’ from the film She Done Him Wrong”. A tapestry of Mae West with the song title hung on a wall in Cliff’s house, given to him as a gift by his friend Suzanne Mansour.

“We ad-libbed a story line: two friends (not quite ‘bikers’), traveling across America seeking adventure”

Elder Pattison de Turk III (henceforth Pat de Turk) remembers,“I moved into Cliff’s house in West Hollywood in the fall of ’67. I was working full time, and preparing to begin a career in computer programming…I met Cliff in 1961 while I was studying at UCLA and riding Harley 45”, and Cliff had an AJS scrambler. I soon had a lime green Knucklehead chopper that I bought for $300 on Venice Blvd. I was in the living room when Peter [Fonda] and Dennis [Hopper] were visiting. Dennis was slightly mad and a motormouth, he was incessant, so he pretty well dominated the conversation, and I was completely intimidated by the situation, I was just Sonny’s friend and all of the sudden here were these movie stars in the room. They came over several times…and of course, there was the ever-present small tapestry on the wall – “Where has my Easy Rider gone?”

Cliff and Wendy Vaughs outside their Santa Monica apartment [Cliff Vaughs]
Cliff continues: “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 production company Pando. 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, and 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.”

Larry Marcus; the Mechanic

Larry Marcus, mentioned above, was a mechanic, who Vaughs said “knows more about tools than anyone”, and who was also living at Cliff’s house at the time the Easy Rider project began in 1967. “The first time I recall meeting Soney was while I was working as a mechanic at Motorcars by Sutton on Western Ave, the Fiat / Rover/ Jaguar/ Triumph/ Renault dealer, it just a little tiny shop. I used to drive up to Griffith park for lunch. Soney walked in one day to get his Fiat 500 fixed, he was working for KRLA at the time, wearing a hippie shirt and flowered tie. KRLA did a lot of avant garde stuff on TV, things that had never tried before, like Ernie Kovaks. At the shop, he pulled me aside, and said he knew who I was, but didn’t want to acknowledge me as we were both on our jobs; he said we’d met at Goddard College back East, we had mutual friends there. I had been living in Europe in ‘62/’63, but applied to Goddard to stay out of the draft, as I’d been told I’d be drafted immediately if I showed up at a European draft office. After college I moved to Cali in 1966. Anyway, I offered to work after hours on Soney’s Fiat, so he didn’t have to pay the shop rate.”

Larry Marcus in 1971, in the midst of building a white Panhead chopper [Larry Marcus]
Marcus continued, “I got into choppers through Soney. At the time I got involved in ‘Easy Rider’, I was working with Herschel doing ‘nudie cuties’ [soft porn films], one of which was shot at the Spahn ranch, where I met Charlie Manson, who commissioned me to build him a bike. When Charlie paid me an advance, he had Squeaky Fromme and other Manson girls fetch $1600 in cash, in singles and fives. At that time a lot of 1% bikers like the Satan’s Slaves, the Straight Satans, and the Galloping Gooses were hanging around Manson, and they were pretty racist, like skinheads. Manson was building dune buggies out on the ranch, in preparation for his ‘Helter Skelter’ plan, and there were a lot of VW bodies lying in the canyon near Spahn ranch… but I didn’t know there were so many human bodies buried there too. I’ll never forget one yellow VW that was down in the gulley…all of it was stolen, even the Sportster I was commissioned to build. Manson gave some guy a couple of bags of heroin, and he went out and stole the Sportster in exchange; that was the bike I was building. I didn’t finish the bike as quickly as they wanted, so I was called out to Spahn ranch for a ‘family’ tribunal; the jury was composed of some of those bike club guys – Satan’s Slaves and the others, I can only assume they were racist too, given Charie’s well-published racist tendencies, and I was considered a ‘race traitor’ for riding with the [mixed-race] Chosen Few MC. I brought all the parts of the Sportster out there in boxes, and they cut me loose. Luckily the girl I was dating for 8 years was out in the car with her 18 month old kid, and Charlie had taken a liking to her. If it hadn’t been for the girl and her very young son, who knows what would have happened? I might have been another body in the canyon. Despite that, I still call the 1960s the glory days.”

Making ‘Captain America’ and ‘Billy’

Larry Marcus was living with Cliff Vaughs by 1967, when discussion for Easy Rider began. “The title ‘Easy Rider’ was Soney’s idea, taken from a Bessie Smith song from 1928. There was a thing on the wall … a little tapestry hanging, which said ‘Where Has My Easy Rider Gone’ with no question mark, the letters were sewn on, in paper, I’d never seen that kind of art before. A girlfriend of Soney’s made it, long before the film.”

Cliff Vaughs and his ‘Super Hog’ chopper in LA, 1972 [Easyriders Archive]
Regarding the infamous ‘Easy Rider’ motorcycles, Marcus explains, “I would call Soney the designer of the bikes, and Benny the head mechanic and assembly man. We were all involved, Soney was the true designer as far as I was concerned, of the style and design. Soney gave Ben Hardy the money to buy the first two police bikes at auction for $400 each. The LAPD would stamp their engines and gearboxes every year when they were rebuilt, so you knew they were good. Ben Hardy build the first two bikes [‘Captain America’ and ‘Billy’] without raked frames, and we told Peter the Captain America bike would look like shit [without a stretched frame], and be nothing special, and when we showed it to Peter, he thought it looked like shit too, and agreed it needed to be raked. So we disassembled the Captain America bike, and took the frame to Buchanan’s; they were the only ones who seemed to know you had to jig the frame and keep it rigid when it was welded, to keep it from warping. They had a 5” thick steel table with holes all over it to clamp down the frame. It took a while to find a chrome shop that could fit the frame after it was stretched. We used Van Nuys plating, who I think is still in business. I put the Captain America bike back together after we did the rake. I was getting $75/week while we built the bikes; I made a lot more money as a mechanic, but this was more fun.”

Ben Hardy (center) aboard one of his creations in a Choppers MC poster

“To clear up the mystery; Ben Hardy built the first two Easy Rider bikes. He was probably 10-15 years older than Soney. He didn’t drink or carouse or anything I ever saw. Benny did work for me too, I’d go occasionally without Cliff, and Ben actually put together the engine and gearbox for my next chopper, a white Panhead. I bought it as a basket case, and Benny put the engine and gearbox together; I paid him $165. He was a neat guy, not a prejudiced bone in his body. I loved the guy, he was really talented, and he built all that cool bracketry on the ‘Easy Rider’ bikes, and he did it for pennies, I don’t know how he survived on what he charged. A guy named Emmett was Ben Hardy’s helper, he did a lot of Ben’s work. They used to hone cylinders with a really long hone, the bar was like 10’ long, and Emmett was a big guy who could handle that thing. He worked as hard as anybody on those bikes. Ben built a lot of dressers as well as choppers, as a lot of the older black customers had dressers. We called them garbage wagons; I couldn’t imagine riding one of those down the street because of the sheer weight, but of course today they’re all the rage.”

“Ben Hardy built the first two Easy Rider bikes.”

Vaughs’ recalls of the Captain America bike, “When we did the first prototype of the bike it had no front brake, as I never used a front brake, which led to some harrowing experiences, especially with a chromed rear brake drum which would heat up quickly and fade. You’re always working the gearbox to slow down. For the movie, I had to put a hand clutch on the bike, as Peter wasn’t used to a suicide shifter. I could assemble a bike after all the parts were finished in about 6 hours, but it took time for Buchanan’s to build the frames, and Dean to do the painting. But with my resources and contacts through Ben Hardy, we got all our parts finished in 3 weeks. I had the money, and they all knew we were working on a film. In the creation of the bikes we used Buchanan’s for frame fabrication, Dean Lanza for the artwork [painting], Larry Hooper for upholstery, using LAPD junkyard engines, which were rebuilt by Mr. Hardy. 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. After I had completed the construction of the machines, the registration (pink slip) was in the name of Pando Company.”

Note the similarity in the style of the Captain America and Billy choppers to the Ben Hardy chopper above…[© Bettmann/CORBIS]
Marcus adds, “I built the extra bikes [to be destroyed during filming], and remember distinctly rattle-can painting a frame in silver. Peter [Fonda] wasn’t used to a suicide clutch and hand shift, so we rigged a handlebar lever clutch with a ‘mousetrap’ over-center spring assist. In spite of that, Peter still insisted on a neutral indicator light, so the original [Captain America] bike had a green catseye light by the shift lever, as a neutral indicator – it worked! The problem was electrically insulating the wires from the chrome frame. Peter came by the house by himself mostly, Dennis didn’t come around as much, and once he asked if there was anything else he could do to help – he was impatient to see the bikes finished. I handed him a 9/16th” wrench, and he looked at the bike, then the wrench, then the bike, and just walked off. I don’t know why he would go on national TV and tell people he designed or built the bikes; he didn’t have anything to do with them. Peter Fonda was not a particularly great rider, but he never dropped the bike, to his credit”

Cliff Vaughs and his ‘Super Hog’ chopper in LA, 1972 [Easyriders Archive]
After the bikes were finished, Larry and Cliff took them for an extended road trip; they weren’t props, but had been built to ride. Marcus recalls, “I rode the red, white, and blue duplicate bike down to Tijuana, then up to the Oregon border and back, with Soney and Buddy Miles [the drummer]. Buddy stayed with us for a couple of weeks at our West Hollywood place, and we built a couple of bikes for him too; one was for his backup drummer Fred Adams. On our ride north we had to go up 101, as there weren’t enough gas stops on I-5. My bike had a pair of Mustang tanks Ben Hardy had welded together and narrowed, he’d do whatever you wanted to do with your tanks. With such a small tank, I could only go 37 or 40 miles. At one point in that ride, Soney’s welded brake rod had crystallized at a bend and broken, it was dragging on the ground. We stopped in a gas station in farm country to look for a welder. A guy came out and slowly touched both our bikes all over with his hands – we thought it was pretty weird, but it turned out he was blind! He made all sorts of comments about the bikes, he knew Harleys very well. He was astounded at the amount of rake on the Captain America bike and asked, ‘Is that how you build them now?’ We replied that it was all the rage in LA…we considered ourselves to be on the crest of wave. We weren’t looking for fame and fortune, were hobbyists, doing it for fun. By the time we got back to LA, the back tire was threadbare.” Pat de Turk notes “When Sonny and Larry finished the bikes, they rode them up to San Francisco, and I was really envious!”

Ad-libbed and Ad Hoc

The actual filming of Easy Rider was notoriously chaotic, with an ad hoc film crew and, as Marcus says, “Terry Southern writing the dialogue on the crew bus between takes!” With Vaughs as co-producer and Marcus working as a sound technician, Marcus recalls his pay rose to $150/week during the actual shooting. “I’m proud to have about a minute of sound in the film, I worked with Les Blank, who was on the second crew with me. When one of our bikes wouldn’t start on the set, we were fired.” He adds, “I worshiped the ground Dennis Hopper walked on, he was an extremely talented guy, but I never got along with Peter.” A deleted scene from the film included Hopper and Fonda, broken down with their choppers on the side of the road, when a black chopper club (members of the Chosen Few) approaches and stops. “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’t happen. But I’ve seen it happen this way.” But, after Vaughs was fired, this scene was deleted from ‘Easy Rider’, and “there were no African Americans in the film as actors or participants in the production.” Interestingly, Vaughs’ own experience as a black chopper rider echoed the deleted scene; “I never experienced issues around race with bikers. There’s a myth of racism around 1% clubs, but I’ve never experienced it. I was always offered the helping hand of fraternity.” Both Vaughs and Marcus lament the cutting of the ‘Chosen Few’ scene, which to them spoke to the reality of chopper riding in LA at the time. Had that scene not been deleted, it might have altered the perception in the years after ‘Easy Rider’ that choppers were solely a white man’s game, and the cloud of racist associations hovering around this ‘folk art’ motorcycle style might have been cleared away.

Cliff Vaughs with 2 of his sons, from the ‘Film Maker’ article in Ed Roth’s ‘Choppers Magazine’, 1968 [Roth Family Archive]
Vaughs opined, “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.” After most of the original film crew was fired, Vaughs’ lawyer sued the film studio for severance pay, which resulted in a payment to Cliff and Larry Marcus of $333 each, and the same for their lawyer. Marcus recalls, “As part of the settlement, we had to sign a document agreeing that our names would not appear on the final credits.” This contract undoubtedly contributed to 45 years of misinformation and conjecture regarding ‘who built the Easy Rider bike’, as there remained no official trace of Cliff Vaughs’ involvement in the film. Easy Rider was a huge success, selling $41M in tickets, and was one of the three highest-grossing films of 1969, behind ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘The Graduate’, and director Dennis Hopper won a First Film Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Still, Vaughs admits, “I had 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.”

Cliff Vaughs with author Paul d’Orléans at the Quail Motorcycle Gathering in May 2016 – it was Cliff’s last public appearance, and he received a large round of applause from the assembled crowd. Cliff died just over a month later. Vale, and rest in peace.

Suzanne Venestra, née Suzanne Mansour, who hung that fated Mae West tapestry on Cliff’s wall, opines, “Everything Cliff says about Easy Rider is true; I know because we shared behind-the-scenes action and events during Easy Rider’s production. I don’t know why acknowledgement of his rich contribution has not occurred until now, especially as his approach [to film-making] helped bring about the enormously significant shift from studio to indie film production.” Easy Rider cemented the careers of Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson, but a film is the work of many inspired people, from costumers and prop builders to the final editors, who all deserve credit when the net result is spectacular. There’s little dialogue that’s particularly memorable about the film, but everyone remembers the character’s outfits…and those bikes, man. Those bikes.

[There are more terrific stories in ‘The Chopper; the Real Story’ – buy it here!]

Related Posts

The Vintagent Selects: The American Wall Of Death

Director Roberto Serrini takes us inside...

The Vintagent Trailers: Morbidelli – a Story of Men and Fast Motorcycles

Discover the story of the Morbidelli...

The Vintagent Selects: The Story Of The Chopper

With “Captain America”, the custom...