Editor's Note: Since it's Black History Month, we've decided to spruce up some old stories about black motorcycle history. This here story was originally published in February of 2017. It's been updated with new formatting, photos, and editing. Enjoy!
If you're not familiar with the movie Easy Rider, or if you haven't seen it in a while, 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. Hardy is the man who built the choppers for Easy Rider. Since these are 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.
We believe it's time to spread the word on their behalf. Hardy never managed to really profit from the fame that Easy Rider should have brought him. Neither did Vaughs for that matter. The film made roughly $60 million over the years, and the Captain America bike sold for $1.3-million back in 2014. Some men are content to just play a part in history, however, and that appears to be the path Hardy was content with.
It is very frustrating trying to write about individuals like Hardy and coming up largely empty handed. There are few details of his life and even fewer pictures of him out there on the internet. We will do our best, however, to tell his story. 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 Hardy. 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 in general—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 Los Angeles 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 that he was always willing to share with anyone who needed it.
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..."
According to my research, Vaughs actually bought the former police bikes and Ben Hardy rebuilt the engines. Hardy also performed the practical engineering and fabrication at his shop. Larry Marcus (one of the five guys Fonda mentioned) was Vaughs' roommate at the time, and he 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 Dean Lanza the painter. 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 fifty years later.
Ben Hardy lived his life and ran his shop, but he never had the opportunity to enjoy the fame and fortune society has bestowed on many lesser and/or whiter 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.