Riding the most famous motorcylce aka Captain America
Chasing the American Dreamby Harry Fisher, on
Often called the most famous motorcycle in the world, no-one really knows where the original Captain America, from the Easy Rider movie, is. But that doesn’t matter when you can have one built for yourself and re-create the American Dream.
The ‘American Dream’ that symbolised the 1950s and 1960s has passed into folklore; the post-war boom in consumerism was a bubble that had to burst, but while it lasted, it was the envy of the world; while Europe was licking its wounds after the war, America was the land of plenty and freedom.
Everything was larger than life and twice as gaudy. Chrome was ladled onto cars with spades; styling cues took on lives and dimensions of their own. By the end of the 1950s, fins on Cadillacs had grown to astonishing proportions, while the rear deck of the 1959 Chevrolet Impala resembled, in one observer’s description, a ‘fan-dancer’s tantrum.’ While the 1960’s brought a sense of restraint in automotive styling excesses, the counter-culture continued to embrace the extravagance and bling, nowhere more so than in custom motorcycles, unaware of the irony of perpetuating the symbols of mass-consumerism while preaching ‘turn on, tune in and drop out.’
The Best Motorcycling Movie Ever?
One of the great motorcycling movies of all time, Easy Rider, told a parable of the ending of this era of peace and love and a descent into the cynical, intolerant world of the 1970s. The star of the movie was neither Peter Fonda nor Dennis Hopper, but the motorcycle that Fonda rode; the fabled Captain America, which became as much of a symbol of American freedom as anything that came before or since.
Now, you can either love or hate the chopper as a form of motorcycle, but I challenge anyone who loves motorcycles not to be moved by Captain America’s lines or what it represents; the open road, freedom, the hippy ideal, America itself.
The Original Captain America
The legend of the bikes used for the movie has become as confused and elusive as the search for the American dream itself. Depending on which source you believe, Fonda bought several ex-police 1962 Harley Davidson Model FLs from which Captain America was created by custom builders Cliff Vaughs and Ben Hardy (Here’s a great story by Paul D’Orleans about Cliff and the building of Captain America)
Two Captain Americas - some reports say four - were built, one of which was destroyed when filming the movie’s final scene. The other was put into storage and stolen from there, never to be seen again, and it is claimed that Fonda sold the remains of the crashed bike to a fellow actor - Dan Haggerty, who had a small part in the movie - who then sold it on but then changed his story a decade or two later. The truth is that no-one really knows where the real Captain America is. As Peter Fonda himself stated; ‘That bike [the one stolen out of storage] got scattered.’ The thieves broke up the bike and sold it off piece by piece. When it was stolen, the movie hadn’t been released so it was just another customised motorcycle, worth more broken up, and not the icon it was to become in time. ‘I like the idea that in a variety of places around the country, folks are riding parts of that bike,’ said Fonda. ‘Underneath some metal-flake-painted tank somewhere, there are Stars and Stripes. And the owner doesn’t have a clue.’ It’s a romantic idea.
Call In The Experts
So, we have an iconic bike that doesn’t exist any more (or, at least, can’t be proven to), except on the silver screen and in people’s imaginations; maybe that is the perfect starting point for a custom recreation?
Which is exactly what the owner of this Captain America had in mind and, in Pat Draper of V-Customs in Centurion, near Pretoria in South Africa, he found the perfect creative mind to make it reality.
Pat has owned V-Customs since 2005, but he has been obsessed with motorcycles for the whole of his life. Growing up in South Africa, he remembers clearly being taken by his mother in 1972 to buy a poster for his birthday. The poster he chose? The movie poster of Easy Rider.
He built his first chopper in 1977 (coincidentally, a Triumph-engined Captain America copy) and, with various work-related detours along the way, custom bikes have remained his passion ever since. Today, the standard and creativity of the bikes he and his team build is second to none.
Can a Replica Be Authentic?
Because the original was a custom bike, created from scratch and for a specific culture, to ride a recreation doesn’t seem wrong. When the recreation is this good, then can it be said to have less authenticity than the original? The original was built using techniques and knowledge and a motorcycle of the time, just as this one has been. Let’s face it, the architecture of a Harley engine has changed little so whether the engine is a pan head or a modern 103cu.in. unit, does it matter? It was the style and the ethos it represented that was important, not the mechanicals.
This particular recreation started life as a 2015 Softail Deluxe, not that you’d know it now, such is the skill of the build. Pat chose to leave the frame alone and not mess with the geometry of the steering head. The rake of the forks, therefore, is determined by the triple clamps, made for him by an engineering firm in South Africa.
Pat and the owner of the bike were very particular about the finer details of the bike, poring over photographs and playing and re-playing the movie countless times, pausing it at appropriate moments and taking pictures from the frozen frames. That is the beauty of this build; it is a faithful recreation. Take time to look at the details and you’ll see that the headlamp is mounted in exactly the same way as the original, as are the four rear lights. The handlebars are completely correct as well. Not content with simply mounting ape-hangers, the original had dog-bone risers, so that is what this bike has. Even the number of buttons in the seat is exactly the same.
Some of the engineering is hidden. The original Captain was a hard tail, so the seat could be mounted directly onto the rear mudguard supported by the sissy bar which was mounted directly to the frame next to the rear wheel spindle. As this version started life as a softail, the seat had to have a steel beam incorporated into it so it could be mounted to the frame at the front of the seat and still support a pillion.
Similarly, the petrol tank had to be sliced open lengthways and widened to accommodate the fuel pump. You’d never know, so skilfully has it been executed. Just one more detail that makes you understand how much work went into it to make it a usable, everyday bike, which of course, it is, given that underneath the style are modern H-D mechanicals.
Out on the Open Road
It was with a slight sense of trepidation that I swung a leg over the low seat and thumbed the engine into life. Not that all the controls are any different to any other bike, but the wheelbase certainly is! Add to that the fitment of period correct tyres which means a worryingly square-section rear tyre, not to mention hearing stories of how difficult a chopper such as this is can be ride and you can understand my nerves.
Yes, it did take about a mile to recalibrate my thinking but, once done, it was great to ride; so different to anything I am used to. Though many might not agree, there is something special about the acres of torque that a Harley engine provides and I do love the sound of a Harley V-twin. It added to the experience of riding the bike. And talk about a sense of occasion! Every mile under my wheels transported me back in time and cemented my love affair with the movie. It is testament to the skill of the team at V-Customs, not to mention the numerous suppliers who contributed small but indispensable elements to the build, that the bike rides as well as it looks.
A couple of funny moments. It’s the first bike I’ve ever ridden that I had to steer into a corner; none of this new-fangled counter-steering nonsense! Coupled with the square-section rear tyre, it did mean that the first looping off-ramp on the highway was a series of interesting lurches (the second one was better!).
Then the fuel light came on so we headed for the nearest gas station. Inevitably, as I pulled up at the pumps, a crowd gathered and I busied myself answering the equally inevitable questions, taking no notice of the tank being filled. When the attendant had finished, I glanced at the pump to see how much I owed, at the same time getting my credit card out. Imagine my surprise when I saw that it had taken exactly 1.2 gallons to fill the tank and I could pay with the loose change in my pocket! Maybe the plastic tube in the tank with rolled up banknotes in it had reduced the capacity…!
Chasing the Dream
Riding Captain America, as it appears in these photos, was a life-changing event. Using a bit of imagination, the roads of Northern Johannesburg turned into an interstate highway across America, heading for New Orleans and the Mardi Gras. I could have ridden on for days, or at least until my spine, arms and backside gave out! More than any bike I have ridden, it represented the freedom and personal expression of motorcycling, wrapped up in the rose-tinted spectacles of a time and innocence long lost and never to be found again. I absolutely loved it and it was with a sense of regret that I handed it back to its trusting owner.
Modern production bikes are brilliant but they have no individuality. They don’t show you an alternative way of life, a life on the open road chasing a dream. That the dream might not come true is no reason to stop chasing it. With a bike such as this underneath you, the journey becomes the dream.
And people reacted to the sight of it. I’ve never ridden a motorcycle that provoked such a reaction, whether they knew what the bike was or not; it just turned heads in a way I haven’t experienced before. And, of course, we all know that, deep down, we motorcyclists are exhibitionists first and foremost and love the limelight, so what better motorcycle to ride?
Now, where’s my road map of America?