Unsung Easy Rider Cliff Vaughs Passes Away

Cliff Vaughs, one of the men who helped design and build one of the most iconic motorcycles ever, passed away this weekend. While mystery and controversy have always surrounded the “Captain America” and “Billy’s Bike” used in the movie Easy Rider, the originals were built by Vaughs and Ben Hardy, a chopper-builder in Los Angeles, with input from the movie’s lead actor Peter Fonda. In an interview with The Vintagent Paul d’Orleans, Vaughs also claims he came up with the title for the movie, stating “I offered the name “Easy Rider,” taken from the Mae West performance of “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider Has Gone,” in the production “She Done Him Wrong”… The title had been an adornment of my house, on the wall; a tapestry with a hidden message sent to me by Susan Mansour, erstwhile friend.” Though Vaughs served a short stint as Associate Producer on the movie as well, his name was not in the movie’s credits, an omission speculated to be based both on the fact that Vaughs was black and the fact he only worked for a short period on the film before Columbia Pictures replaced most of the original crew.

But helping build the “Captain America” bike doesn’t define Vaughs as a man. Vaughs did his own film directing and production, most notably a documentary called “What Will the Harvest Be?” a movie about the Black Power movement in the USA in the 1960s featuring interviews with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Julian Bond and others. Vaughs also produced “Not So Easy,” a motorcycle safety film shot at a time when few others addressed the topic.

Cliff Vaughs, the man who designed the original Easy Rider motorcycles, made a guest appearance at the 2016 Quail Motorcycle Gathering.

We recently met Cliff Vaughs, the man who designed the original Easy Rider motorcycles, at the 2016 Quail Motorcycle Gathering. And while we had hoped to interview him for an upcoming feature article, Vaughs passed away peacefully this weekend at the age of 79. 

His extraordinary life didn’t stop there. He was also a civil rights activist and member of the Students Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Danny Lyon shot an incredible photo of Vaughs being dragged away from a sit-in in Cambridge, Maryland, by five National Guard troops. He was also a member of the Chosen Few M.C. out of California’s Bay Area, one of the first racially integrated motorcycle clubs.

One of the most poignant glimpses at Vaughs’ character comes from his Wikipedia bio. It states that while he was traveling as a member of the SNCC in the Deep South, “Vaughs carried his customized blue Knucklehead chopper in the bed of his pickup truck to Alabama in 1964, and rode the motorcycle to visit sharecroppers in remote areas. Vaughs said, “I may have been naïve thinking I could be an example to the black folks who were living in the South, but that’s why I rode my chopper in Alabama. I’d visit people in their dirt-floor shacks, living like slavery had never ended. I wanted to be a visible example to them; a free black man on my motorcycle.”

We recently had a chance meeting with Vaughs at the Quail Motorcycle Gathering in May. While talking to Burt Lammers, the man who built the 1951 Panhead chopper that won the Chopper Class, he told us about how excited he was to meet and have his picture taken with Vaughs, who was a special guest at this year’s Quail Gathering. The conversation included building the Captain America bike, the Civil Rights movement, and tales of pirate encounters when Vaughs went off the grid or 20 years in a sailboat. Needless to say, our curiosity was piqued. Next thing we know, Lammers runs off and comes back with Vaughs. Even upon first meeting, you could sense there was something special about the man. I gave him my card hoping we could talk more for a feature article in American Iron Magazine, and he said “Yeah, we can talk, I’ll tell you anything you want.” Unfortunately, we never got an opportunity to share that conversation, and I am saddened I never got to hear his story first-hand.

Burt Lammers and Cliff Vaughs 2016 Quail Motorcycle Gathering

Joe Brown (L) owner of this 1951 Panhead that won the Chopper class, poses for a picture with chopper legend Cliff Vaughs (R) at the Quail Motorcycle Gathering.

Others who did get a chance to talk to Vaughs on a personal level have aired their condolences on social media.

“My friend has died; another legend passed. #CliffVaughs died in his sleep last night, happy in his bed with his lover, Daniela. Cliff was a lot more than the unsung hero of #EasyRider, filmmaker, civil rights worker, and pirate of the Caribee, but all that stuff added up to an epic life. I’m so glad I got to know him and tell parts of his life in #TheChopperTheRealStory and in a long @motofilmfest interview last year in New York. Life is short – talk to the people you need to, don’t put it off. Vale, Cliff.” The Vintagent, Paul d’Orleans

“Cliff Vaughs, the primary designer and builder of the iconic Easyriders choppers, passed away last night. I was fortunate enough to have had a great conversation with him about his life and ideas. There are certain people at the core of this life we love, that are too often glossed over and left unappreciated or unnoticed. Besides his work in civil rights, Cliff finally gained recognition in recent years for his contribution to the spirit of Choppers that inspired many of us. RIP Cliff.” Paul Cox of Paul Cox Industries

For those who would like to know more about Vaughs, we highly recommend you check out the piece d’Orleans did on him. Read it at The Vintagent: Cliff Vaughs and ‘Easy Rider.’

We lost another one of the good ones. Ride On, Vaughs, Ride On.

Cliff Vaughs sportin' his Chosen Few M.C. cuts.

Cliff Vaughs is indeed one of the “Chosen Few.”