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“A devastatin’ blow to our antiquated systems”

One of the all-time greatest scenes in the history of the cinematic art.

A blazing campfire way out in the boonies; a handheld camera shooting from the back seat of a scarlet 68 Chevy Impala ragtop purchased specifically for the purpose, rolling along at no more than 25mph so as not to jostle the cameraman overmuch; gorgeous, gleaming, one-of-a-kind Harley Panhead choppers; joints with actual, no-shit weed in ‘em for purposes of artistic verisimilitude; three immensely talented, daring actors improvising the dialogue in real-time, as they went, unscripted and unrehearsed.

Folks, it just don’t get much better than this.

The Captain America and Billy bikes were designed and built by the somewhat unlikely team of Cliff Vaughs and Ben Hardy, which is a great story in its own right.

When The Easy Rider concept was quickly made into form, Peter Fonda set out to get him a couple of bikes for the movie. There’s lots of controversy about who built these bikes. Some say Dan Haggerty, who was in the movie. The guy who painted the bikes, his son says it was him (his dad, that is). Some say it was Peter Fonda.

But the guy who built them was a guy named Ben Hardy. Ben was an African american man who knew Harleys, and knew what he was doing. When Cliff Vaughs was asked by Fonda to oversee the building of the bikes, Vaugh’s turned to Hardy who was well known (if you were black) in Los Angeles as the go to guy to build a killer bike, and do it right.

Peter had only one thing he wanted on the bike. He wanted Captain America to have a flag on his gas tank. Beyond that, the design was left to Vaughs. I gotta think tho…Peter was an experienced rider, and Dennis hopper wasn’t. That had to have come up in the conversation somewhere, because the Billy bike was a much easier bike to ride. I had a fat boy that was really close to the same configuration, and my brother has a friend with a Billy Bike replica. They’re easy bikes to ride. The captain America bike? Cut that steering head off and rake that bitch out like it is, throw in those long forks with no front brake and see how you fare. You don’t give that kind of bike to a beginner.

It was Cliff who actually first offered the name “Easy Rider” to Fonda. It was a term he used in the day. Whats an Easy Rider? that depends on who you ask. In the 1900s it meant a freeloader. A guy who mooched off you. To Dennis hopper, it meant a man who lived off the money of a whore. He got it from an old Mae West movie. Whatever cliff meant by it, I’m not sure. All I know is he redefined the word. To this day I think it is associated to Harley riders. Maybe because of cliff, but most definitely because of the movie. When you say Easy Rider, I think of the movie. I think of Harley’s.

Vaugh’s quickly took the idea to Ben Hardy. Peter bought four 1950’s panhead police bikes from auction, and got them to Hardy and Vaughs. Jim Buchanan fabricated the frames, the engines were built by Hardy, Dean Lanza did the paint (his son is adamant he built the entire bikes). 2 bikes were for filming, 2 were for the final sequence of the movie, which I’m fucking assuming you know about, otherwise you wouldn’t be here reading this. Hardy went to work, and the rest is history.

It is at that, it surely is, and not just biker history alone. A pic of Hardy, and of his LA shop.

Ben hardy Easy Rider Bike.

Ben hardy shop-1.

The shop is still there as of the writing of the above article (mid-2012, that would be), in the same location, albeit with a new name and under different ownership, seeing as how the great Ben Hardy passed away in 1994. Betcha didn’t see all that coming, now did ya? And I truly hope you didn’t think for a moment I’d leave out one last cultural lodestone immortalized in the film.

For whatever it’s worth, I always dug the minimalistic, cut-down lines of the Billy-bike bobjob way more than the near-parodically stretched, raked, and extended 60s chopper archetype represented by the Captain America machine. Two beautiful bikes, two completely different stylistic approaches, brought together in one unforgettable movie masterpiece. Taken for all in all, Easy Rider is as 100% all-American as apple pie, hot dogs, and hog-leg Colt .45 wheelguns; it could never have happened in any other time or place.

Nitpicking update! One decidedly trivial flub-up from the early part of the movie that has always irked me disproportionately is when Billy chides Captain America for being incautious about gassing up his bike, saying “Man, all the money we have is riding inside that peanut tank.” No, gawddammit, it is NOT a “peanut tank,” Billy boy. That’s the nickname for the original Sportster gas tanks, like thus:

As any fool can see without half trying, the American-flagged receptacle adorning Wyatt’s bike is actually a Mustang tank, to wit:

The Mustang tank is so-monikered because of its origin—namely, on the pioneering Mustang mini-motorcycle, a cute li’l thang that went the way of the dodo back in 1965 after a tragically abbreviated nineteen-year run during which it somehow never found its market niche, despite a plethora of innovative technical advances such as being the first American motorcycle of any size or type to feature the now-ubiquitous telescopic-fork front suspension.

The noble Mustang name lives on in its beautifully understated fuel tank, an unforeseen legacy that’s still available for most makes of big bikes from various aftermarket companies today. It’s been a go-to favorite with more discriminating and tasteful Harley customizers since the 60s. Myself, I’ve run a Mustang tank on every Sporty I’ve owned except for the first and last ones—what is that, three of ’em, four? Whatever, I absolutely adore the things, have ever since I first got hipped to their existence by an ad in the once-glorious Easyriders magazine.

For one thing, the Mustang has a much higher capacity than the stock Sporty “peanut” go-juice tank, which holds a measly gallon or so—some .9, others 1.3, depending on the year. That translates to no more than ninety miles or so before you have to make a stop for a refill. Which, actually, was just jake with me, since an hour and a half of having your teeth rattled and your bones jarred by those old Ironheads on a daylong putt with your local wolfpack was quite enough for anybody, thanks. By the time you’d gone through your peanut tank’s capacity and switched the petcock (Pingel Power-Flo, of course; no shoddy stock PoS will suffice) over to reserve (14-15 more miles at best), you were good and READY to climb off and unkink your aching legs and back a little.

Yeah, while you glided to the nearest pump sucking fumes the Big Twin ironbutts’ unwieldy 5-gallon fatbobs would still be well over half full, so you could count on catching the usual ration of good-natured shit for your “dirt bike” or “woman’s” bike’s short legs from them. But who the hell cares what those Geezer Glide pricks think anyway? Let ‘em snigger, let ‘em chortle to their hearts’ content; their ol’ ladies will be pestering you at the bar later on for a leg-wettin’ thrill-hop packing on the p-pad (“p” for pillion, although some mischievous wags swear it actually stands for pussy, and as all Sportster riders know, neither side is entirely wrong) of your fleet little speed-demon, and everybody knows it too. When some horny, sexy biker bitch is reaching around from behind you to fondle your throbbing erection through the thin fabric of your worn, grease-stained jeans as you rip down a lonely back road, the last laugh will be yours.

Ask me how I know. Never mind, don’t, I ain’t gonna tell ya.

For another, the Mustang tank’s curvaceous good looks simultaneously offset and complement the rest of the Sportster’s no-frills, bareknuckle-brawler savagery, making what was for me a perfectly irresistible aesthetic combination. Plus, back when I bolted on my very first prized Mustang the tanks had fallen so far out of contemporary vogue as to be downright rare; almost nobody who saw mine in those days—be they old-school scooter trash or cake-eating-civilian cager—even knew what the hell it was, although they all liked it. Or they said they did, at any rate, which was good enough to suit me. I certainly did, and as the builder, owner, and rider, my opinion was the only one that mattered.

It still is, I still do, and if I had a Sporty today there would almost certainly be a Mustang tank, in flat-black rattlecan sprayed on by yrs trly etc, perched saucily on the upper frame rail between the top triple-clamp and the stiff, uncomfortable nut-buster of a seat. Or there soon would be, you betcher. Even though I’m too old for that sort of thing nowadays, hey, that’s just how I roll, people.

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10 thoughts on ““A devastatin’ blow to our antiquated systems”

  1. I never cared for the Mustang or Peanut tanks. I have the Double D’s  which is also called the Fat Bob stretch tank on my Sportster Sport.

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  2. To conflate your last two posts together, nota bene nobody’s yapping about kill switches on motorcycles.

    How do you think that reality is going to evolve, when government tries to squeeze a handful of jello…?

      1. Probably what they’d like to do, anyways.
        Then again, how’s that worked out every time it’s been tried…?

        I also suspect the market in kill switch blockers and hackers is going to be brisk.

        1. The problem being that it is not just the “kill switch” they will control. You will not be allowed to make an unapproved purchase of fuel…

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