Article by MFF Host and Head Judge Paul d’Orleans, reposted from his website, The Vintagent
|Cliff Vaughs at the Motorcycle Film Festival panel discussion, which I moderated – a film of his visit to NYC is being edited as we speak (photo courtesy the Motorcycle Film Festival).|
Cliff Vaughs, best known for his creation of the ‘Easy Rider’ choppers, sailed away from this world quietly on July 2nd from his home in Templeton, CA. Had it not been for Jesse James’ ‘History of the Chopper’ TV series, Vaughs would have likely vanished from history, but the question ‘who built the most famous motorcycles in the world?’ needed an answer. That led Jesse to a sailboat in Panama, where he found Cliff, who’d left the USA in 1974. Why he lived alone on a sailboat in the Caribbean, instead of soaking up praise for his work on ‘Easy Rider’, and his filmmaking , photography, and civil rights work, is a long story. I told some of that story in my book ‘The Chopper; the Real Story’, but Cliff’s life was too big to fit into one chapter of a book, and he dismissed ‘Easy Rider’ as “Three weeks of my life”.
|Cliff Vaughs on Malibu beach in 1973, on his white H-D Shovelhead chopper. (photo courtesy Eliot ‘Cameraman’ Gold)|
Cliff Vaughs was born in Boston on April 16th, 1937, to a single mother, and showed great promise as a student. He graduated from Boston Latin School and Boston University, then earned his MA at the University of Mexico in Mexico City – driving from Boston in his Triumph TR2. Moving to LA in 1961, he encountered the budding chopper scene, and soon had a green Knucklehead ‘chopped Hog’, as he called it; that’s where he befriended motorcycle customizer Ben Hardy in Watts, who became his mentor. Cliff was recruited to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1963, and brought his chopper to Arkansas and Alabama, where he drag-raced white policemen, and visited sharecropper farms “looking like slavery had never ended.” He added, “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 was never sure if the white landowners would chase me off with a shotgun. But I wanted to be a visible example to them; a free black man on my motorcycle.”
|Danny Lyon’s photo of Cliff Vaughs at a sit-in in Maryland, 1964. This photo is currently on exhibit at the Whitney Museum in NYC in Danny Lyon’s career retrospective ‘Message to the Future.’|
Cliff’s chopper adventures in the SNCC was a story never told – he was too radical, too provocative, too free for the group. Casey Hayden (activist/politician Tom Hayden’s first wife) remembered Cliff as “a West Coast motorcyclist, a lot of leather and no shirts. Hip before anyone else was hip. A little scary, and reckless.” Cliff’s ex-wife Wendy Vance added “He was a true adventurer. … There was just some sort of fearlessness in all situations. It did not occur to him that he was a moving target on this motorcycle. At a march in Selma, the civil rights leader John Lewis refused to stand next to him. ‘You are crazy,’ Lewis said, ‘I will not march next to you.’ The fear was that, somehow, Cliff would make himself a target.”
|A never-before published photo of Cliff on his white H-D Shovelhead chopper in 1973 (photo courtesy the Easyriders archive)|
Cliff was indeed a target of many failed shootings, and his tales of riding his chopper in the South were incorporated into ‘Easy Rider’, after he returned to LA in 1965 to make films like ‘What Will the Harvest Be?’, which explored the nascent Black Power movement. Cliff was Associate Producer on ‘Easy Rider’, and oversaw the creation of the Captain America and Billy choppers, which became the most famous motorcycles in the world. He didn’t get the recognition he deserved for those bikes, partly because the whole crew was fired when Columbia Pictures took over production, and Cliff’s payout/signoff included a clause keeping him off the film’s credits. Publications like Ed Roth’s ‘Choppers Magazine’ explored Cliff’s role in ‘Easy Rider’ from 1968 onwards, but both Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper at various times claimed credit for building those bikes, and Dan Haggerty took credit too. Hopper acknowledged in his last year the seminal role Cliff Vaughs played, as did Peter Fonda, in 2015. Cliff went on to produce ‘Not So Easy’, a motorcycle safety film, in 1974, but left the US to live on a sailboat in the Caribbean the next 40 years. He was brought back to the US in 2014, as appreciation spread for his contribution to motorcycle history, and he was celebrated at the Motorcycle Film Festival in Brooklyn last year; a documentary from his time in NYC is being edited as this moment. Godspeed, Cliff.
|Cliff Vaughs with a re-creation of his ‘Captain America’ chopper in 2014|
– For my first discovery of the lost black history of ‘Easy Rider’, click here.
– For Cliff’s story on his role in ‘Easy Rider’, click here.
– For Peter Fonda’s acknowledgement of Cliff’s role in ‘Easy Rider’, click here.
– For the NPR story on Captain America, click here.
– For copies of ‘The Chopper; the Real Story’, click here.