Last year I wrote a piece about a lowrider motorcycle exhibition called Viva Viclas at CAM Raleigh, and one of the things that struck me during the research for the piece was how Black and brown motorcyclists formed strong connections in the early years of motorcycle and chopper culture.
I wonder what happened, because those ties are not as pronounced today. While trying to find answers to that question I learned that one of the most iconic motorcycles ever designed for film was created and fabricated by 2 Black men.The designers failed to receive proper credit for their role until decades later.
The bike? Captain America. The movie? Easy Rider.
Cliff Vaughs was raised in Boston where he joined the military and eventually went to Boston University. He would later settle in California, but along the way Vaughs’s life was far more rich and complex. He was a news photographer and a studio assistant to legendary fashion photographer Richard Avedon. Vaughs had a devil may care, bohemian phase in the early 1960s and during that time he was building choppers while being mentored by motorcycle builder Ben Hardy who was known as the “King of Bikes” in South Central Los Angeles.
Vaughs came of age during the Civil Rights movement when he was recruited to join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Los Angeles. As an organizer for the SNCC, Vaughs was connected to Julian Bond and he frequently traveled to the south to organize demonstrations. In 1965 he directed a documentary called “What Will the Harvest Be?” which featured Bond, Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael.
Back in Los Angeles Vaughs met Henry Fonda and the two connected over their love of motorcycles. This connection led to his participation in the creation of the notorious choppers used in the film. Cliff Vaughs teamed up with mentor Ben Hardy to produce the bikes, but during the production of the film, a disagreement with Dennis Hopper led to the two designers being summarily fired from the production. After a nasty legal battle over their dismissal, Vaughs and Hardy settled with the movie’s production team in exchange for their removal from the movie’s final credits; this was done at Dennis Hopper’s insistence.
Not So Easy Rider
So for decades the two Black designers/builders never got their proper recognition for their role in the film that ignited chopper culture, one that is largely viewed as overwhelmingly white and one that also bears the stigma of racist associations. This is how erasure works.
Gone, But Not Forgotten
Vaughs eventually left the U.S.-a story so familiar among African-Americans who served their country and were never respected in return (Eartha Kitt immediately comes to mind). His path took some tragic turns, but he found redemption later in life after he repatriated back to the U.S. In the years prior to his death in 2016, his design work increasingly became recognized, particularly within motorcycle enthusiast circles. His story is sadly one of cultural erasure and it underscores the importance of cultural preservation. Viva Viclas was primarily an exhibition about Chicano and Latinx motorcycle riders, but the curator of the show was deliberate in creating a space to recognize the collaboration that took place between Black and brown riders in the early years. Without that important footnote, I fear that this piece of history would have been lost to me. This process yet again stresses the importance of sharing our stories broadly and frequently.
Side note: Young Cliff Vaughs gives me strong Lenny Kravitz vibes! Happy Friday.
Second side note: Richard Avedon shot some incredible images of SNCC members in Georgia with Julian Bond in 1963 for the book, Nothing Personal which features an essay by James Baldwin. I wonder if Vaughs had a role in facilitating this meeting.