The Battle Over Captain America, the Chopper from “Easy Rider”

The iconic motorcycle, once the embodiment of American freedom, is now at the center of a debate involving warring collectors and the star of “Grizzly Adams.” 

It has ape-hanger handle bars, upswept mufflers and an ironic stars-and-stripes—emblazoned gas tank. It is Captain America, the chopper driven by Peter Fonda’s Wyatt in Easy Rider and a chromed-out icon of ’60s counterculture the open road. As time passed, Captain America became the centerpiece of this anti-establishment, middle-finger-of-a-movie. People who watched the film—in which Wyatt and Dennis Hopper’s Billy cross the country, wheel-on-wheel, on a tragic quest—imagined discarding their own possessions and reshaping their idea of the American Dream.

But they really just loved that bike.

Now, forty years later, Captain America is a movie prop worth millions of dollars that rests at the center of a messy legal battle over the bike’s authenticity. The problems started last fall, when the Profiles in History auction house, which specializes in Hollywood artifacts, put Captain America up for sale. It’s owner was a collector  and realtor named Michael Eisenberg. The bike hit the auction block and sold for a princely $1,350,000.

Then along came a Texan named Gordon Granger, who claimed that he was, in fact, in possession of the original Captain America. The sale was nullified. Lawyers descended.

Now, the chopper is locked at the center of a quarrel between two men both claiming rightful ownership. To solve the dispute, they turned to none other than “Grizzly Adams” star Dan Haggerty. Haggerty knew the Captain America better than most as he wrangled bikes on the set of Easy Rider. The dispute seemed settled when Haggerty issued this statement: “The bike owned by Michael Eisenberg is the only authentic Captain America bike that was rebuilt from the original frame up. The other bike in question is and has always been a replica of the original bike.” 

Haggerty passed three polygraph tests last fall and Eisenberg remains confident in the authenticity of his bike. However, a 2008 video seems to show Haggerty falsely stating he sold the original to the Guggenheim Museum.

It gets weirder still. In 1996, Haggerty—who has served jail time for selling cocaine and tax evasion – was deep in debt. So he sold Captain America to Granger for $63,000. The sale went through Dan Kruse Classics in Texas. Tiffany Kruse, Dan’s daughter, says Haggerty passed it off as the original. Although he didn’t put anything in writing, she says, “Everybody believed it was the [original] bike.”  Granger who now calls Haggerty “one of the biggest fucking liars in the world,” still maintains that Haggerty told the truth back then. “This was the real deal,” he says. “I’m 100-percent convinced.” 

That claim is also a bit dubious.  In 1999, Granger let “The Art of the Motorcycle” exhibit at Chicago’s Field Museum label his bike a replica. Granger says it was too expensive to update the catalog from its run at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, which actually had a replica. Meanwhile, in a Chicago Tribune article that ran around the time of the exhibit, Haggerty says Granger owned a copy with only “a few bits and pieces, a chain or a fender, nothing more” and that he still had the original frame in California.

In 2002, Haggerty apparently off-loaded that frame to John Parnham, president of the National Motorcycle Museum. After a History Channel segment around 2005 featured both owners, Granger asked Haggerty to give him something in writing. Haggerty signed a certificate of authenticity but says he made an honest mistake. “I thought I was signing something that said [Granger’s] was a replica I had built,” he says.  “Haggerty is really not on top of things,” says Parnham.

In 2010, a fire destroyed Granger’s roadside warehouse in Austin, which held his bike and other collectible vehicles. The bike wasn’t damaged but he used the occasion to tell local news outlets that this was the original Captain America. Although no arrests were ever made, the authorities deemed it arson.

Last fall Granger says he contacted Profiles in History. When they stopped returning his queries he contacted Fonda’s lawyer as well as reporters. Fonda told the Los Angeles Times he wanted the auction called off, calling the confusion “embarrassing and infuriating.”  Fonda always took credit for designing and building the bikes. Only recently, however, did he acknowledge the work was actually done by a team including Cliff Vaughs, a civil rights activist who belonged to an interracial biker club. Vaughs was fired from the movie and wiped out of history.  

“What Fonda did was despicable,” says Paul D’Orleans, author of “The Chopper: The Real Story” and an expert on motorcycle history. Vaughs, for his part, says there’s no way to tell from looking at the frame “whether it was or wasn’t the original.”  According to Parnham, Fonda undermined Eisenberg because Eisenberg had offered Fonda a cut of the proceeds in exchange for his celebrity push, but refused Fonda’s demands for more money.   “I don’t think Granger is on the up-and-up,” says Parnham. “He’s just the loudest guy and sooner or later someone listened.”

Meanwhile, the auction house remains in denial. When asked to confirm that the sale fell through, a spokeswoman sent a release from October proclaiming the $1.35 million sale. When pressed as to whether this meant the sale was finalized she responded “Yes, it was also printed in the Los Angeles Times.” 

“That’s called a lie,” D’Orleans says.  

If he had to give an educated guess, D’Orleans believes Eisenberg’s bike is the most authentic model. The truth, however, is neither man owns the bike Fonda rode in the film. That was stolen – along with the two used by Dennis Hopper—before the movie was released. All that remained was the burned wreckage of the replica stunt man Tex Hall rode in Easy Rider’s flaming finale. Fonda let Haggerty keep the remnants. 

Haggerty apparently built up the bike around the original frame. Parnham acknowledges that after buying it from Haggerty he had the seat and wheels re-done using stills from the movie “to make it more authentic.”  

D’Orleans says that while Eisenberg has the “most legitimate” claim it’s all relative. “What are you buying? Best case scenario you’re buying the stunt bike’s blown-up frame. They can claim to have pieces of the true cross but Jesus is gone, man, he has left the building. And so has Captain America.”