Opinion: Easy Rider at 50

The way Peter Fonda tells it, he was in Toronto in 1967 to promote a movie, and he attended an event where Jack Valenti, the brand-new president of the Motion Picture Association of America, made a speech.

“Jack’s up there – this is his first public utterance – ‘My friends, you are my friends’ – and looking right at me – ‘we have to stop making movies about motorcycles, sex and drugs, and make more movies like Dr. Doolittle.’ I went back to the Lakeshore Motel, smoked a couple of doobs, had some Heinekens, sat down and began to sign photographs. I came upon one photograph, from The Wild Angels. So the doobs and the Heiney kicked right in, and I fell into the photograph and that’s it! I know what to do for my next sex, motorcycle and drugs movie.”

Peter Fonda in The Wild Angels, and the photo that he says inspired Easy Rider.

He called his friend Dennis Hopper at 4.30 am, woke him up to tell him the outline of “these two guys who’d done this journey across America, and they get bumped off by these guys who are butchers,” and the rest is history. Easy Rider premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1969 and then opened in North America on July 14, 50 years ago this coming weekend.

It doesn’t really hold up these days – it’s pretty cheesy, with all kinds of ‘60s psychedelic and funky transitions – but then, that’s also its appeal. It was a very, very low budget movie, shot for $400,000 with most of the characters played by real people the crew met along the way, but it earned $60 million and a place in history. When the sole surviving Captain America bike was auctioned in 2014, it sold for $1.35 million and became the world’s most expensive motorcycle, despite being little more than a restoration on a rebuilt frame with a questionable provenance. Many consider it the most iconic motorcycle ever made. After all, it’s the bike with the flag on the tank, stuffed with cash.

This Captain America bike was apparently rebuilt from the original frame, and sold for $1.35 million.

It may have been Easy Rider iconic, but Captain America wasn’t easy to ride. The extended rake would make it wobble, especially at the 40 km/h speeds of most of the filming, and Jack Nicholson reportedly cracked one of Peter Fonda’s ribs with his knee just trying to stay on the pillion. It had no rear suspension and no front brake; the gas tank was good for maybe 60 kilometres. When Peter Fonda ended the first day of riding, he says he couldn’t pull in his arms to drink a beer, they were so stiff from clinging to the high bars.

Wyatt and Billy cruise across America with Old George (Jack Nicholson), all of them clinging on for dear life.

There were two Captain Americas and two Billy bikes made for the movie, but one of the Captain Americas was destroyed in filming the final scene, and the other three were all stolen before filming ended. It’s believed they were immediately disassembled and sold for parts, but there’s a persistent rumour that they’re still intact, sitting somewhere in a Hells Angels clubhouse.

There are many back stories like that, and who knows now which are true and which are embellished for effect. Peter Fonda says he designed the motorcycles, created from a job lot of four Harley-Davidson engines bought from the Los Angeles Police Department for $500. However, it’s now accepted that the bikes were designed and built by two African-American builders, Cliff “Soney” Vaughs and Ben Hardy.

Cliff Vaughs on one of his choppers in Los Angeles, 1972. Photo courtesy Easyriders archive.

Author Paul D’Orleans tells the back story in his excellent book, The Chopper: The real story, in an interview with movie mechanic Larry Marcus:

“I would call Soney the designer of the bikes, and Benny the head mechanic and assembly man,” said Marcus. “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, seen here in an undated photograph.

“Ben Hardy built 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. … 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.”

Both Vaughs and Hardy are now dead, but D’Orleans interviewed Vaughs and met him in 2016 about a month before he died. The movie was originally going to be called The Loners, but Vaughs and others said the final name came from a small tapestry that hung in his living room: it was a quote from the 1933 Mae West movie She Done Him Wrong.

Clifford Vaughs, seen here in Colombia circa 2000. Photo courtesy NPR.

“The title ‘Easy Rider’ was Soney’s idea, taken from a Bessie Smith song from 1928,” Marcus told D’Orleans. “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.”

Vaughs said he’d never seen the movie. There were no black characters in it, which he took as a slight, and besides, he’d been fired and his name wasn’t even in the credits. “It represented only a few months out of my 74 years,” he told D’Orleans. “I had a lot of fun with the bikes and with the talented people I met while working on the film.”

Should you watch it now? Of course you should. First, read Roger Ebert’s review from 1969 to put it into perspective, and then kick back on the couch for a couple of hours. Remember that all the marijuana smoked on screen was the real stuff, and the actors spent most of the filming stoned; Jack Nicholson says they churned their way through 155 joints during the filming of the campfire scene. You’d better not try to keep up, but if you can find yourself a couple of doobs and some Heinekens for the couch, all the better.

Take that, The Man!

4 thoughts on “Opinion: Easy Rider at 50”

  1. Hate to be “that guy” but the caption under the first picture is wrong. Fonda wasn’t in The Wild One. That’s Brando. The still is from The Wild Angels.

    1. Thanks for the catch, Phil! I’ve fixed the caption. I must have had Wild things stuck in my brain.

  2. I watched this movie about 2 or 3 years ago. While I liked it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the message of society’s intolerance for difference was all too relevant so many years on. (A recent viewing of FFC’s Finian’s Rainbow had me feeling the same way about racism.) It’s a good film, IMO, but there is no happy ending here.

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