Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Legendary Chopper Builder Cliff Vaughs Dies

Cliff Vaughs helped pave the way for today's Chopper builders

Clifford A. 'Soney' Vaughs sitting atop a Captain America Chopper 

Cliff Vaughs -- the man most often credited with building one of the most iconic choppers of all time -- has died. He was 79 years old.

Vaughs is credited with being the brains behind the “Captain America” bike that Peter Fonda rode in Easy Rider. Though, it took many years after the film came out for him to receive that credit.

Vaughs created both the “Captain America” bike, as well as the “Billy” motorcycle ridden by Dennis Hopper. He created two additional copies, which were used in stunts. All four were ultimately destroyed or disappeared from the set after filming. The bikes have become so much a part of motorcycling legend that a few years ago a chopper that owners claimed as the original Captain America sold for $1.35 million despite questions over its authenticity, the sale later fell through.

Iconic still from the cult classic Easy Rider - Peter Fonda (L) and Dennis Hopper (R) riding

Born in Boston in 1937, Vaughs moved to California in the 1960s where he served as an organizer for non-violent civil rights protests. He also became a member of of racially integrated motorcycle club The Chosen Few MC.

Cliff Vaughs wearing a patch of the Chosen Few MC

Vaughs met Peter Fonda in 1965 and was later asked by the star to create bikes for Easy Rider. The two would work on another film project after that: a rider safety film called Not So Easy, which was recently featured in RideApart’s Film Vault series.

“I gave him some drawings I had made, and told him the gas tank had red-and-white stripes and white stars on a blue field,” Fonda remembers. “It had a tall sissy bar, and fishtail pipes. But Cliff did all the rest.”

Ben Hardy's Motorcycle Shop

He didn’t do it alone. Vaughs teamed with Ben Hardy, a veteran African American bike builder who had a shop in Watts. The two men were hired to create four motorcycles: a “Captain America” and “Billy” bike for Fonda and Hopper to ride in the movie, and two copies to be used by stunt doubles.

Vaughs and Hardy bought four used Los Angeles Police Department Harley-Davidsons at an auction and went to work. Vaughs was to be responsible for the bikes during filming and to get an associate producer credit.

A younger Cliff Vaughs on his Harley-Davidson Chopper dubbed "Super Hog" 

Not long after the four choppers were built, though, Vaughs was fired. Fonda remembers the decision being made by Hopper, who wanted his friend Tex Hall to be the movie’s motorcycle wrangler.

The 1969 film became a box-office sensation and is generally credited with popularizing the chopper movement and with giving Harley-Davidson an enormous financial boost.

 Vaughs initially received no credit for his part in Easy Rider and his negative experiences contributed to a frustration with U.S. racial inequality that ultimately led to his leaving the country. He became a world traveller, spending several years living at sea. By 2014, however, the former Marine had returned to the United States and was living with several other veterans in a homeless camp in San Diego.

 Cliff Vaughs on one of his custom Choppers

One of the most poignant glimpses at Vaughs’ character comes from his Wikipedia bio. It states that while he was traveling as a member of the SNCC in the Deep South, “Vaughs carried his customized blue Knucklehead chopper in the bed of his pickup truck to Alabama in 1964, and rode the motorcycle to visit sharecroppers in remote areas. Vaughs said, “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. I wanted to be a visible example to them; a free black man on my motorcycle.”

 Cliff Vaughs being dragged by National Guard troops at Cambridge, MD, May 2, 1964.   
Photo by photographer Danny Lyon

In 1964, Vaughs filmed interviews with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Stokeley Carmichael, and Julian Bond, among others, on the rise of the Black Power movement in the US. The resulting documentary was 'What Will the Harvest Be?', which was aired in 1965 on ABC-TV. Vaughs was denied entry into the cameraman's union while working at KABC, and sued successfully to break the 'color barrier' for union membership.

Joe Brown (L) owner of this 1951 Panhead that won the Chopper class, poses for a picture with chopper legend Cliff Vaughs (R) at the Quail Motorcycle Gathering

The sale of the purported “Captain America” bike, however, brought attention and long overdue recognition for Vaughs. The final years of his life were spent in Templeton, California, again in the company of an old flame with whom he had lost touch 53 years before.

 April 16, 1937 – July 2, 2016