Peter Fonda, 1940-2019

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Peter Fonda, the star of the iconic motorcycle film Easy Rider, has died aged 79. Fonda had a long and varied career, however it was his depiction of Wyatt in the cult 1969 road movie that he was arguably most famous for.

Riding a Panhead Harley-Davidson chopper in the American desert, sideburns and floral shirt billowing in the wind, Fonda’s character was a lightning rod for the youth of the day. The film was a portrait of the death of the American dream and stuck two fingers up to the Hollywood mainstream.

An Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay followed (Fonda co-wrote the film with director and co-star Dennis Hopper) however the President of the Motion Picture Association saw to it that they didn’t win after saying: “It’s time we stop making movies about motorcycles, sex and drugs.” Thankfully no one listened and Easy Rider’s legacy lives on to this day.

Fonda passed away at his home in Los Angeles after a short battle with lung cancer.

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Easy Rider, the film that made biking cool

Words – Stuart Barker – first published – 03/04/19

Original Easy Rider film poster

It’s 50 years since arguably the most influential motorcycle movie of all time was released. Easy Rider hit cinema screens in the summer of 1969 and became a global smash, eventually grossing $60 million from its paltry $360,000 budget and earning an Academy Awards nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

The movie, starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson, became a cult classic and kick-started the custom chopper craze as well as laying out the blueprint for road trip movies.

The image of Fonda riding Captain America is one of the most iconic in motorcycling and has led to claims that the bike is now the most famous, and certainly the most copied and argued over, in the world.

The movie tells the story of two drug dealers (Fonda and Hopper) and a drunken attorney (Nicholson) who ride around the American south west selling dope, lighting campfires, and getting stoned. It may not stand up so well today; Easy Rider was, after all, a movie of its time, but it truly tapped into a nerve in the summer of ’69 and celebrated a new form of freedom that caught the imagination of millions and changed the face of biking forever.

Captain America

The most famous bike in the movie is the one ridden by Fonda and dubbed Captain America. In reality it was a former Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glide police bike of 1952 vintage. The Panhead engine was retained, as was the Harley Wishbone frame, but almost every other part of the bike was custom-built by African-American chopper builders Cliff Vaughs and Ben Hardy.

The bike had a hard-tail rear, an ultra-high-backed sissy bar seat, extended forks (and no front brakes), upswept exhausts, ape-hanger bars and, of course, that iconic stars-and-stripes peanut fuel tank.

Two Captain Americas were built for Fonda and two Billy Bikes were made for Hopper who, funnily enough, played a character called Billy. The four Panhead Harley-Davidsons were bought as a job lot at auction (a 1950 model, two 1951 models and a 1952 bike) for just $500!

Captain America could only be made as extreme as it was (with its ludicrously long forks, absence of front brakes, and impossibly high bars) because Fonda was a skilled rider. Hopper’s bike was made much more sedate because he wasn’t as experienced on two wheels. Fonda also took it upon himself to run the bikes in around the streets of Los Angeles to get them looking grubby and well-used before filming began.

The Fate of Captain America

Three of the four bikes were stolen before the movie had even wrapped (which is why they don’t appear in the final campfire scene) and their whereabouts remains unknown. Some say they were broken for parts before their significance as movie props was realised, while another rumour persists that they were stolen by Hells Angels and may well sit in a clubhouse in Oakland to this day.

There have also been suggestions that some of the uncannily authentic-looking replicas of Captain America that continue to surface were modelled from the real thing. But this is all guesswork and no-one knows for sure.

“They were stolen out of a garage in Simi Valley with 11 other motorcycles two weeks before we finished filming,” Fonda once explained. But considering the low-budget film didn’t have any cash for advance publicity, it’s debatable if the thieves actually knew what they were stealing.

Whether they did or not, it still forced the director to film the final campfire scene without the bikes lined up in the background as planned. Fonda was furious because he wanted to keep the bikes for publicity purposes and as a memento of the film.

Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson on the set of Easy Rider

The Captain America that was stolen was the one Peter Fonda rode most in the movie, so the real deal has been lost to history for half a century. The bike that survived was the second bike which was crashed and burned in the film’s fiery climax by stunt rider Tex Hall (who was also a Hells Angel and member of Satan’s Slaves).

Very little of the second bike survived the flames apart from the frame, which got bent in the crash, but what was left was given to actor Dan Haggerty, who played Grizzly Adams in the 1970s kids’ TV show of the same name.

Sadly, Haggerty, who helped build the bikes and took care of maintenance during filming, died in 2016 but I interviewed him several years ago to try to get to the bottom of the whereabouts of the genuine Captain America.

This is what he had to say: “I had built some bikes for Ann-Margret (who starred opposite Elvis in Viva Las Vegas!) and then Tex Hall (stuntman and actor) and Dennis Hopper were working on the bikes and knew that I was a bike builder and asked if I wanted to come work with them on Easy Rider and help build the bikes. I said: ‘Sure, I’d be more than happy to.’

“I had a shop and we tinkered with bikes and I’m still tinkering with bikes. I always loved building bikes and cars and things like that and I was an animal trainer and I had a leather shop so I did a lot of different things but I was working with bikes from an early age.

Hopper and Fonda on the set of Easy Rider

“We built two bikes for Peter and two for Dennis. The two Billy bikes and the other Captain America were stolen and the one that we did the stunt with at the end of the movie, that’s the one that I had. That was an original bike too but the one that Peter rode most of the time was stolen. We never did find out who stole the three bikes.

“The bike that Peter got shot off at the end of the film had a bent frame so I brought it back to my house to fix it. They said I could have the bike for working on the movie, so I had it in my house for 30 years.

“I started to restore it several years ago. It wasn’t so much the money, it was just the time. I had to fix the frame as it was bent and just put it back together. The frame was chromed and the fender was chromed; the only thing that was painted was the fuel tank.

“I put it in a jig and straightened out the front end and the yoke and that was about it. It got bent quite a bit when we took it off that ramp. It’s totally original.”

So far, so simple but then things got messy when a massive legal dispute began over the identification of the real Captain America machine. In a nutshell, two collectors (Michael Eisenberg and Gordon Granger) both claimed to own the original bike and Haggerty’s contradictory statements relating to the bikes just served to muddy the waters further.

Captain America replica with Peter Fonda signature

He issued a statement saying Eisenberg’s bike was the real deal, but it appears he actually sold Granger the bike that Granger claims is authentic. It has even been suggested that Haggerty built and sold two separate Captain America bikes and assured the new owners that each was the real deal.

Since only one bike from the movie actually survived, this is clearly not possible. The argument rumbles on but, with Haggerty now deceased, we may never know the truth and may never truly be able to authenticate the sole-surviving bike from the movie.

Paul D’Orleans, author of The Chopper: The Real Story certainly doesn’t think there’s anything left worth fighting over… or paying vast amounts of money for. “What are you buying?” he asks.

“Best case scenario, you’re buying the stunt bike’s blown-up frame. They can claim to have pieces of the true cross but Jesus is gone, man, he has left the building. And so has Captain America.”

The bike that Haggerty claimed was the real one that he restored sold at auction to an anonymous bidder in 2014 for $1.35 million (£838,821) but the controversy remained.

“There’s a big rat stinking someplace in this,” Peter Fonda told the Los Angeles Times. “I can’t tell you which one is real. I know there are two bikes out there that are both authenticated by Haggerty. That’s not right.”

The new Easy Rider movie?

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper riding Captain America and Billy Bike

There have been several attempts to make a modern Easy Rider-style movie but none have come close to having the same cultural impact.

21 Days Under the Sky was a film released in 2016 focusing on four greasy, middle-aged men with junk food habits riding across America on choppers but it was a documentary rather than a drama and didn’t have the same clout as the movie that inspired it.

With the modern customising craze still in full swing in London, several attempts have been made to make movies that will do for that scene what Easy Rider did for the west coast scene.

Oil in the Blood is another documentary feature film, this time dedicated to the world of custom bike-building and based in the UK. Due to be released later this year, it remains to be seen if it can inspire a whole new generation of motorcyclists like Easy Rider did half a century ago.