If you have not heard about Benjamin F. “Ben” Hardy, you could be forgiven if you are not a motorcycle fan.
Ben was no ordinary man. This African-American was a custom motorcycle builder who made the Captain America and Billy Choppers for the 1969 Peter Fonda road movie ‘Easy Rider’.
Easy Rider was released by Columbia Pictures on July 14, 1969, grossing $60 million worldwide from a filming budget of no more than $400,000. Critics have praised the performances, directing, writing, soundtrack, visuals, and atmosphere. The film was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1998.
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The motorcycles for the film, based on hardtail frames and panhead engines, were designed and built by two chopper builders – Ben Hardy and Cliff Vaughs – following ideas of Peter Fonda, handled by Tex Hall, reports revolvy.com.
Ben, at just 20 years, co-built the motorcycles using a heavily customized Harley-Davidson Panhead. The motor is considered one of the most iconic motorcycles ever built. He was born on July 25, 1921, at Lincoln County, Georgia and died in 1994.
Ben and Cliff built two ‘Billy’ bikes and three ‘Captain Americas’, one of which was destroyed in the making of the movie while the rest were stolen. The ‘Billy’ bike was typical of the custom motorcycles Black bikers were riding at the time.
But all too typical of the American society weary of black innovators, Hardy and Vaughs remained largely unknown and uncredited for 25 years as they were not accepted due to being African-Americans, and were not welcomed into the mainstream motorcycle world in the USA.
Known locally as “Benny” and “King of Bikes”, Ben Hardy’s Motorcycle Service was located at 1168 E. Florence in Los Angeles. He was a mentor to many of the local motorcyclists in South Central, Los Angeles. His work was featured in the “Black Chrome” exhibition at the California African American Museum.
The provenance of existing ‘Captain America’ motorcycles is unclear, and has been the subject of much litigation.
A motorcycle on display at the EMP Museum in Seattle, Washington, is identified by that organization as the original rebuilt movie prop. A replica resides at the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa.