What’s the most famous motorcycle in history? You could make arguments for different machines, but there’s one bike that not only served as the supporting star in a movie, it also defined a generation’s attitude. And now, on June 5, it can be yours.
The bike we’re talking about is Captain America, the chopper that Peter Fonda rode throughout the film Easy Rider. It’s supposed to be auction in Texas next month, and it’s going to attract a lot of attention, not just because it’s an icon, but also because of its twisted backstory.
In the beginning, there was a counterculture movie wrapped in the clothes of a bikesploitation film. That movie was 1969’s Easy Rider, starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson. Hopper and Fonda both needed choppers to ride through the film; Hopper got the somewhat sensible Billy Bike, while Fonda got the raked-out, chromed Captain America.
The machines themselves were built around police surplus Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glides. African-American motorcyclists Cliff Vaughs and Ben Hardy built the bikes, with some help from Larry Marcus. These guys themselves were very interesting, especially Vaughs, but due to the usual chicanery and crookedness surrounding movie production and good ideas in general, their names vanished from history for decades. If you research the film’s production, it’s no wonder; drugs, fist fights, knives, you name it. The Swingin’ ’60s weren’t as carefree as aging hippies would like you to believe these days. After it was all over, Vaughs and Hardy didn’t get credit for their work on the bike, or their help with the movie in general.
Now, it’s a different story. Authors and television shows have explored the bikes’ history, with Paul D’Orleans putting together a fascinating picture of the machines’ construction, and the circumstances and people surrounding them. I’d highly recommend you read his piece here. It’s like Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, but with bikers and civil rights instead of movie stars.
There were four bikes built for the movie (two versions of each)—two gussied-up machines that were used for filming the nicer shots, and two bikes intended for stunt work. One of those stunt bikes was trashed while filming the movie’s final scene, where the drug-dealing bikers meet their end at the hands of shotgun-toting rednecks. The other three bikes were stolen at end of filming, and have never been seen again . Urban legend blames the Hells Angels for this, but no former club insiders have ever confirmed it, that’s for sure. At this point, more than 50 years onwards, you’d think they’d have fessed up by now, if it really was a club member. It’s not like anyone is going to prosecute them now.
So—that leaves the destroyed Captain America stunt bike, which was supposedly rebuilt by Dan Haggerty, of Grizzly Adams fame. That’s the motorcycle coming up for sale. Or is it?
There have been many replicas of the star-spangled Captain America chopper over the years, but Haggerty’s bike was the Holy Grail, due to its supposed originality. In 2014, collector Michael Eisenberg paid a whopping $1.35 million for the Captain America, buying it from John Parham, president of the National Motorcycle Museum. Parham said he’d bought it from Haggerty in the early 2000s.
Then, another collector, Gordon Granger, kicked up a fuss, saying he had purchased the movie bike in 1996. And in 2008, Haggerty also allegedly claimed he’d sold the original bike to the Guggenheim Museum. Talk about a tangled web indeed, and considering the chopper’s status (a rebuild of a crashed rebuild), who’s to say what the truth is? Haggerty himself said he made a “mistake” when he signed a certificate of authenticity for Granger’s bike.
Word on the street is Eisenberg’s $1.35-million buy didn’t actually go through back in 2014, as a result of the controversy. For a more in-depth look at the tangled web behind this story, there’s an LA Times story here. Maxim has a write-up here.
The bike that’s coming up for sale in Texas is the Gordon Granger bike. There’s no reserve on the listing. It’s set to hit the block around June 21-24; see the listing here for more details.
The end of the road
I don’t know enough about the bikes or men involved in this story to comment on the motorcycle’s authenticity, but I do know this. Just as Easy Rider itself served as an artistic condemnation of its times, one could argue the fallout over this bike could serve the same purpose. For decades, North Americans have been obsessed with the idea that he who dies with the most toys, wins. The result? Instead of building their own iconic bikes, or filming their own movies, we see people fighting over who owns bragging rights tied to a motorcycle they’ll never even ride.
I rarely get on a preachy soapbox here, but no matter what this machine sells for next month, I think the message is clear, just like Easy Rider itself said back in 1969. If this is the best we can hope for, if this is where North America is at, if this is where self-serving ideals and the pursuit of money leaves us … we blew it.