Think of a motorbike. If you’re not a bike fanatic, and you’re my age, I’m guessing that you pictured a Harley Davidson.
Explaining why is beyond the remit of this post, but off the top of my head I’d point a stick at the seemingly infinitely exportable durability of a culture (counter as well as straight) as defined by the 1970s, a decade that will go down in history as the moment America both made and lost it. As symbol, the Harley Davidson is Vietnam on two wheels. Watch Easy Rider.
Which isn’t entirely fair, and says more about me than it does a motorcycle making dynasty stretching way back to 1903, when William S Harley and Arthur Davidson tested – and failed – the first ever Harley Davidson motorbike, a 116 cc power-cycle. However, whatever else Easy Rider says about the beginning of the end of hope, there is something in its championing of two Ben Hardy customised mid-century panhead Harleys that captures everything that is perfect about a world of making that is as much about craft as it is a point on the timeline called Harley Davidson.
If you’ve never heard of Ben Hardy, then feel slightly at ease: you and nearly anyone. A Los Angeles based African American, Hardy’s relative obscurity is all the more ironic for the themes as espoused by Easy Rider’s. More’s the pity. Hardy owned and ran Hardy’s Motorcycle Service in Florence, LA. Modest in everything, Hardy’s reputation among Los Angeles’s black motorcycle fraternities couldn’t have been higher. His contribution to Easy Rider is as near as he ever got to becoming more than that which he properly cared about: being a motorcycle engineer with a pedant for choppers. Accounts of Hardy’s Motorcycle Service describe a scene of oil, parts, stripped frames and bikers. A 1954 Panhead stood for decades to the rear of the building, never for sale, saved on a promise to someone still in jail. The store was known locally either as Benny’s or King of Bikes. I read somewhere that Hardy had its contents destroyed when he died. Interesting and interested man, no doubt.
And also, to get to the point, a top notch engineer and craftsman. Hardy was approached by Fonda via friend and fellow enthusiast Cliff Vaugh, who along with legendary painter Dean ‘The Dean’ Lanza, helped customise the bikes. Fans of Easy Rider will know that there were five bikes: Captain America and Billy Bike and three stand-ins. Deep fans will know that one didn’t make onto set, one was destroyed and three were stolen. Harley heads will recognise the work – steering heads radically repositioned (the resultant rake requiring 12 inch extensions), teardrop tank, no fender, or front breaks, or rear suspension – that went into transforming mid-century H-D Hydraglides into the beasts you’ve grown up believing in.
So, a call to viewing action. Next time you watch Easy Rider (tonight, tomorrow?), a glass, please, raised in the name of Benjamin F Hardy, the man who gave us Captain America, Billy Bike and the wide, wide open road. Keep your motor running.