“Not So Easy Rider”: Peter Fonda and Evel Knievel in Cliff Vaughs’ 1973 biker safety film

By on June 4, 2015

In 1973, Cliff “Sonny” Vaughs — a civil rights activist, documentary filmmaker, and member of the Chosen Few motorcycle club — approached Harley Davidson Motorcycles and writer/producer/actor and motorcycle enthusiast Peter Fonda for financial help in funding an educational public safety film he wanted to film, on how to ride a motorcycle safely on the city streets.

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The result was Not So Easy, which features both Fonda (as the narrator) and a “special guest,” daredevil Evel Knievel, as well as Vaughs himself, riding motorcycles on the streets of L.A. and providing tips and guidance for motorcycle riders. The film has the backing of the Los Angeles Police Department (the L.A.P.D. Drill Team are shown in the film), the California Highway Patrol, and for awhile it was required viewing at judicial traffic school.

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By the early 70s, the casualty rates from motorcycle accidents were so high that Vaughs realized that an educational film could be easily produced. He then wrote a screenplay, providing essential safety tips for riding motorcycles on city streets and highways, and set about financing the film.

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When he approached Harley Davidson, they offered the services of Knievel, who was under contract to them at the time, and Vaughs also had already shot Knievel’s Los Angeles Coliseum jump on film — it’s included in the film — and Knievel is shown on film testing the ramp at Anaheim Stadium, where he was about to make another big jump with his customized Harley XR-750 Sportster.

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Vaughs was a member of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), a direct-action civil rights group, and he was a major participant in famous sit-ins, freedom rides, and marches in the South during the 1960s. As a filmmaker, he photographed and documented many of the legendary civil rights confrontations of the era; one of Vaughs’s documentary films included What Will the Harvest Be?, about the rise of the Black Power movement in the South; it featured interviews with Martin Luther King, Stokeley Carmichael, and Julian Bond, and was aired on the ABC network. Vaughs claimed to have missed the March on Washington because he was “building a chopper” in his backyard, which turns out to have been the prototype for bikes ridden in Easy Rider just a few years later.

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In an excellent article about the Easy Rider choppers last year for NPR, which points out the various untruths and confusions about who did what, Vaughs was interviewed and he says he worked in the newsroom at the L.A. radio station KRLA, and met Fonda when he was arrested, in the summer of ’66, for possession of marijuana.

Vaughs covered Fonda’s court appearance for KRLA and they became friends, learning that he and Fonda actually lived in the same neighborhood, West Hollywood. Fonda was interested in Vaughs’ hobby, designing and building custom motorcycles.

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“Not long after,” Vaughs says, “Fonda and Dennis Hopper came by his apartment in West Hollywood, and discussed early plans for a motorcycle movie, and building the bikes they would need.” There were actually four former police motorcycles —1949, 1950 and 1952 Harley Davidson Hydra-Glides, purchased at a police auction for $500 — and Vaughs then coordinated with a custom motorcycle builder, his longtime friend and mentor Ben Hardy, for the actual construction of the choppers themselves.

Peter Fonda claims to have designed most of his bike, Captain America, but the design for Hopper’s Billy Bike was all Ben Hardy, according to Vaughs, who ended up having a falling out with Fonda later. He was never given the proper credit for his work on Easy Rider, and thus the title of this little education film, Not So Easy, has kind of a double-meaning, we think. There’s more to the story at the link.

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Vaughs also asked two of his fellow bikers from the Hollywood chapter of the Chosen Few, “Rabbit” and “Billy Diamond,” to appear in the film. The Chosen Few, by the way, have been a racially integrated motorcycle club since 1960. Vaughs’ then-wife Wendy is also one of the bikers seen in the film.

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The Chosen Few Motorcycle Club (photo by Gold Mustache Photography, Elliot M. Gold)

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • Kevin Greenquist

    Godspeed Cliff!