Get to know Ben Hardy.
If you're not familiar with the movie Easy Rider, then please go watch it before reading any further because in this episode of Bikers You SHould Know, we are going to look at one of the original legendary custom bike builders, Ben Hardy. Mr. Hardy is the man who built the choppers for Easy Rider. Since this is probably the most famous motorcycles ever made it might come as a surprise that he hasn't received more recognition for his role. Perhaps because both Hardy and Cliff Vaughs (Vaughs designed the bikes while Hardy built them) were black they were a bit short changed a bit in the history books. But we believe it's time to spread the word on their behalf. Hardy in particular, never managed to really profit from the fame that movie should have brought him, or Vaughs for that matter. Easy Rider made roughly $60 million over the years and the Captain America bike recently sold for $1.3-million a few years ago. Yet some men are content to just play a part in history and that appears to be the path Hardy was content with.
It is very frustrating trying to write about individuals like this man and not being able to find facts, and fewer pictures. Even on the web there are very few details, yet alone images, to help build the story Hardy deserves. But we will do our best.Almost everything online about Ben Hardy seems to come from an old issue of Ed Roth's Choppers magazine (like the lead picture at top), the Jesse James TV documentary "The History of Choppers", or from pictures on the wall of Sugarbear's shop. Paul D'Orleans over at the Vintagent seems to have stitched it together more completely than anyone, and eventually wrote a book about it. After reading through all of the info I could scrounge up, what it boils down to though is this: Just like rock and roll, and much of American popular culture, that classic chopper style was stolen from African Americans and whitewashed (pun intended - Ed.)
Even though Benjamin Hardy died in 1994, there does not seem to be an obituary for him online anywhere. Nearest I can figure he was born around 1910 or so, and opened his Hardy's Motorcycle Service shop in South Central L.A. just after WWII. In Jesse James' Chopper documentary, Cliff Vaughs mentions him being a mentor and old timer already in the 1960s. Ben had an encyclopedic knowledge of motorcycles and was always willing to share with anyone who needed it. The building he worked out of is still there at 1168 E. Florence, and you can see it on Google Street View.
As far as the Easy Rider bikes go, the credit they received was far from flattering. Back in 2007 (a year after the History of the Chopper) actor Peter Fonda explained to NPR's Fresh Air, that "I built the motorcycles that I rode and Dennis rode. I bought four of them from Los Angeles Police Department. I love the political incorrectness of that ... And five black guys from Watts helped me build these." It would be interesting to dig into this aspect of the story a little further but as you can imagine, it's not an easy task.
Dennis Hopper acknowledged Ben Hardy and Cliff Vaughs on the director commentary of the Easy Rider DVD in 2009, but it wasn't until 2014 when Fonda finally made things right with a written letter to Vaughs, saying "...I gave Cliff a sketch that I had drawn in Toronto Canada on September 27th 1967. It was a rough sketch of the teardrop gas tank... It is not too late to give you and Ben Hardy the praise you deserve in designing the iconic bikes in Easy Rider..."
Odds are, there's some long term memory loss that may be clouding Fonda's memory in particular. According to my reserach, Cliff actually bought the former police bikes and Ben Hardy rebuilt the engines, plus he performed the practical engineering and fabrication at his shop. Larry Marcus (one of the five guys Fonda mentioned) was Vaughs' roomate at the time, did a lot of the actual wrenching as well. For all of their work, according to Fonda's letter, they got paid $1250 per bike, and had to split it with the shop doing the chrome plating, the frame shop and painter, Dean Lanza. I'd say that the Easy Rider crew got a pretty good deal for the machines that would go on to represent the icons of the chopper lifestyle nearly fifthy years later. But you have to give props to Hardy, Vaughns and their team for building these masterpieces.
Ben Hardy lived his life and ran his shop, and never had the opportunity to enjoy the fame and fortune society has bestowed on many lesser motorcycle builders. To hear Sugar Bear, and Cliff Vaughs talk about him, he did experience a degree of fame within the black biker community, and people would come from all over L.A. to have him work on their bikes. As with most humble men, he didn't let it get to him. In the brief video interview from the chopper documentary, Ben doesn't seem particularly bitter about Easy Rider, but I sure wish I could find the rest of that interview. Ben's Wikipedia page is very short and lacking information, so if anyone who reads this has more resources, please let us know.