Fonda’s Easy Rider chopper survives but is mired in controversy
hen Peter Fonda appeared in the 1969 movie, Easy Rider, cruising along in a drug-fuelled haze astride his Captain America chopper, he created one of the most reproduced images in biking history. The movie tells the story of two bikers (played by Fonda and co-star Dennis Hopper) who ride around the American south-west selling dope. It soon became a cult classic and led to a thousand Captain America replicas being built and sold. But what happened to the one Fonda actually rode in the film?
Donor bike 1952 Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glide
Appeared in Easy Rider (1969)
Ridden by Peter Fonda
Captain America? That’s a Harley chop, right?
Yes, a former 1952 Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glide police bike, to be precise. The Panhead engine was retained 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 essential stars-and-stripes peanut fuel tank.
Presumably they built more than one for the movie?
Two Captain Americas were built for Fonda and two ‘Billy Bikes’ were built for Hopper who, funnily enough, played a character called Billy. The four bikes were bought as a job lot at auction for just $500. Three of the four bikes were stolen before the movie had even wrapped (which is why they don’t appear in the final camp fire 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 to this day. There have also been rumours that some of the uncannily authentic-looking replicas of Captain America that continue to surface were modeled from the real thing. But no-one knows for sure.
What happened to the fourth bike?
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. The bike that survived was the second bike which was crashed and burned in the film’s fiery climax by stunt rider Tex Hall. Very little of the bike survived the flames apart from the frame, which got bent in the crash. What was left was given to actor Dan Haggerty (of Grizzly Adams fame, who died in January this year) who helped build the bikes for the film and looked after them during shooting. “They said I could have the bike for working on the movie so I had it in my house for 30 years,” Haggerty said. “I started to restore it some years ago. I had to fix the frame and just generally put it back together. The frame was chromed and the fender was chromed so about the only thing that was painted was the fuel tank. I put the bike in a jig and straightened out the front end and the yoke and that was about it, so it’s totally original.”
So they all lived happily ever after?
Not quite. The surviving Captain America is at the centre of a complex legal dispute. In a nutshell, two collectors (Michael Eisenberg and Gordon Granger) are currently claiming to own the original bike and Haggerty’s contradictory statements relating to the fate of the machines are just muddying the waters. Haggerty 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 machines 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 legal battle continues, so we’d best keep out of it.
Is the surviving bike worth all the fuss if it wasn’t even the one that Fonda rode in the movie?
Good question. Paul D’Orleans, author of The Chopper: The Real Story certainly doesn’t think so. “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.”
Words: Stuart Barker