100% Biker 210

100% Biker 210
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On 2nd July 2016, the man behind the world’s most famous custom motorcycle died at the age of 79. The bike is the ‘Captain America’ Panhead from ‘Easy Rider’, but until recent years barely anyone knew the name of Clifford ‘Sonny’ Vaughs.

Quite exactly the role that Vaughs played is one of the many and unanswerable questions surrounding Easy Rider. How many bikes were built, two or four? How many, if any, survived? Who bought the LAPD police bikes at auction—Peter Fonda, Clifford Vaughs or Ben Hardy? Did Dean Lanza built as well as paint the bikes as his son claims? Did Fonda pay for them or, as his co-star later claimed, were they personally financed by Dennis Hopper? Many of those involved—Hopper, writer Terry Southern, builder Ben Hardy—are now dead, but there were many versions of the story even while the cameras were still rolling.

As late as 2007, Fonda was quoted as saying he’d built the bikes with the help of ‘five guys from Watts’, but the generally accepted story is that Vaughs designed both Captain America and the Billy Bike and both were actually built by the man he called his mentor, Ben Hardy. And, for 40 years, no-one had ever heard of either while Captain America became and remains one of the recognisable bikes on the planet. Why? The likely and unpalatable truth is because both Hardy and Vaughs were African Americans.

Although Easy Rider only occupied a few weeks of his life (he was briefly employed as an associate producer before being fired by Hopper), Cliff Vaughs was a multi-faceted man and this was only one tiny part of his remarkable life. He came to custom bikes in 1961 when he first met Ben Hardy who taught him how to rewire his 1947 Knucklehead. A civil rights activist, he joined the Students Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and rode the Knuck in Alabama in 1964 because “I thought I could be an example to the black folks living in the South … I wanted to be a visible example to them; a free black man on a custom motorcycle.” In 2012, he recalled how, while riding in Arkansas, a pickup truck U-turned and took a shot at him…

He worked as a news photographer, made documentaries, rode with the Chosen Few (one of the few racially integrated bike clubs of the time) and later disappeared—apparently with someone else’s boat—to smuggle political refugees out of Honduras and marijuana into Miami before being thrown overboard by pirates. How much is true? That’s something Vaughs took to his grave. What is known is that it wasn’t until 2009 his and Ben Hardy’s role in Easy Rider was revealed by Jesse James. For the last years of his life, Clifford Vaughs began to receive belated recognition, although he didn’t actually see the film until last year. It was all too late for Ben Hardy who had passed away in 1994.

Vaughs would probably have liked the fact that there are even conflicting stories about his death. It was widely reported he died peacefully in his bed, but the LA Times reported that his partner found him dead outside her house with a wound to the back of his head. Even to the end, Cliff Vaughs was creating his own legends.