AUTOS

Uneasy riders: Which 'Captain America' chopper is the real film relic?

A 'Captain America' chopper up for auction in Calabasas might be a phony

This weekend, the gavel will fall at a Calabasas auction of the "Captain America" chopper used in the filming of the 1969 movie "Easy Rider."

Bidding for the gleaming vintage Harley-Davidson could reach $1.2 million, estimates the auction house, Profiles in History, which specializes in Hollywood artifacts. With its star-spangled gas tank, it might be the most famous motorcycle in history.

But caveat emptor: This Captain America might be a phony.

------------
FOR THE RECORD:

"Easy Rider": An article in the Oct. 17 Section A about the auction of a motorcycle said to have been used in the film "Easy Rider" said that the auction house Profiles in History offered actor Peter Fonda a share in the proceeds to promote the sale. It was the motorcycle's owner, Michael Eisenberg, who made Fonda that offer.
------------

Its principal authentication comes from "Grizzly Adams" actor Dan Haggerty, who had a bit part in "Easy Rider" and claims to have taken possession of the only bike that survived the filming of the druggy road movie.

But Haggerty admitted this week, in an interview with The Times, that he has authenticated and sold two Captain America bikes.

Haggerty sold the first bike to Gordon Granger, of Texas, in 1996. Granger said he paid $63,500 for his version of Captain America — authenticated by Haggerty, in person at the sale, and then again in 2005 with a signed certificate. Haggerty confirmed that he signed this document, but he now says it was false.

Granger, fuming at the prospect of this weekend's auction, still insists he owns the genuine article.

"They know damn well they don't have the real bike," Granger said. "I own the original remaining Captain America bike. The one to be auctioned is a replica."

Not so, says the current owner, Michael Eisenberg, a Los Angeles real estate agent and collector of Hollywood memorabilia. Eisenberg bought the bike in early 2014 from John Parham, a Midwestern motorcycle parts magnate who had purchased the bike from Haggerty 12 years earlier.

Eisenberg insists his bike is the real one, because Haggerty says it is.

"Dan Haggerty is the only guy who knows," Eisenberg said.

Peter Fonda — who co-wrote "Easy Rider" and rode Captain America in the movie — once authenticated that bike, at Haggerty's request, after Parham bought it. Parham said the sale was contingent, in fact, on Fonda's blessing.

Believing it to be the real machine, Fonda signed the gas tank. But he retracted that authentication in an interview with The Times this week, saying Haggerty duped him.

Fonda said he has no idea which bike — if either — was the one actually crashed in the movie. "There's a big rat stinking someplace in this," the 74-year-old actor said.

The history of the "Easy Rider" motorcycles is a twisted one.

Before filming began in 1968, Fonda and Dennis Hopper, his "Easy Rider" director and costar, bought four used Harley-Davidson motorcycles at a Los Angeles Police Department auction. They commissioned two chopper builders in Watts to fashion two Captain America bikes for Fonda's character and two "Billy" bikes for Hopper's. The extra bikes were to be ridden by stunt doubles, or by the stars in case of mechanical difficulties.

The Captain America stunt double was crashed and almost destroyed in the filming of "Easy Rider's" final sequence in which Hopper and Fonda are shotgunned off their motorcycles by a hippie-hating redneck.

The three remaining bikes were stolen from the film's stuntman — at gunpoint, from Tex Hall's home, while he and his wife were bound and gagged, Fonda and Haggerty said. They were never seen again. After the movie shoot, Haggerty said, Hall gave him the remains of the crashed Captain America. The burly, bearded actor used those remains, he said, to restore the chopper to its original glory.

The problem is that Haggerty has said that twice — in writing. At a 1996 auction, Haggerty told Granger he was buying the real deal. Granger got a "Certificate of Declaration," signed by the auctioneer but naming Haggerty and his partners as the sellers, stating, "This Captain America motorcycle has been certified and guaranteed by the seller as the original motorcycle used in the crash sequence on the 1969 film 'Easy Rider' …"

That document added that Granger's acquisition had been rebuilt using 90% of the parts from the bike used in the movie, and that the remaining parts "were damaged beyond use and were destroyed."

Five years later, Granger asked for and received a more specific "Certificate of Authenticity" from Haggerty. The document reads in part: "This motorcycle was used as a double of the 'Captain America' bike … and was the motorcycle ridden by stuntman Tex Hall in the crash sequence."

Haggerty did not deny that he signed Granger's authenticating documents. He now says he signed something that simply was not true.

"That was my mistake," Haggerty said. "It's not the real bike ... The bike with me here [at Profiles in History] is the bike Tex Hall gave me."

By the time he gave Granger that second certificate, Haggerty had already sold the other Captain America bike to Parham, who planned to exhibit the chopper at the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa.

That Captain America, Haggerty now says, is the one true "Easy Rider" motorcycle.

Fonda authenticated that bike, and autographed its gas tank, after a cursory examination.

But this week, Fonda told The Times that he relied on Haggerty's word. He had no reason to doubt him — until a few years later, Fonda said, when he learned about the earlier Captain America sale in Texas. Now he wishes he'd never lent his credibility to the other motorcycle.

"It's embarrassing, and infuriating," he said in an interview.

He hopes the weekend sale of that machine — being auctioned with a $1-million minimum set by the auction house — is called off. Fonda said Eisenberg offered to give him a 10% cut of the bike's sale price if he helped promote the auction, which the auction house confirmed. He declined.

------------

For the Record

Oct. 17, 10:08 a.m.: An earlier version of this article said Profiles in History offered Peter Fonda a 10% cut of the motorcycle's sale price if he helped promote the auction. That offer was made by the bike's owner, Los Angeles real estate agent Michael Eisenberg.

-----------

Fonda wanted to warn potential bidders at the auction.

Eisenberg, Haggerty and Profiles in History executive Brian Chanes said the auction will go forward as planned.

Eisenberg is well-versed in the memorabilia business. He supplied many of the motorcycles that decorate the Planet Hollywood restaurants, he said, and was part-owner of the Sunset Strip motorcycle-themed Thunder Roadhouse. His latest acquisition was the boat from the movie "Life of Pi."

And Parham, who owns several hundred vintage motorcycles, is convinced the bike he bought from Haggerty, and later sold to Eisenberg, is the sole surviving "Easy Rider" motorcycle.

"This other claim is just false," Parham said. "I paid a lot of money for that bike, believing it was what it was."

Eisenberg wouldn't say how much he paid. But Parham said the $1-million auction minimum is "considerably more" than Eisenberg paid him for the bike.

Haggerty has had his share of difficulties since his early work on "Easy Rider" and "Chrome and Hot Leather," and his later role as the bear-whisperer "Grizzly Adams." In 1977, he made headlines for catching his beard on fire while drinking a flaming cocktail.

The actor was sentenced to 10 days in jail in 1985 for tax evasion and served time in 1988 for selling cocaine to undercover police officers. His last acting gig was in the 2013 Paul Bunyan-themed horror movie "Axe Giant."

Haggerty and Eisenberg dismiss Granger's claim that he has the real "Easy Rider" relic.

Fonda, who sketched the original Captain America design and rode the bike in the movie, is reluctant to take sides.

"I'm no expert, and I can't tell you which one is real," he said. "I know there are two bikes out there that are both authenticated by Haggerty. That's not right."

Granger, in Texas, would rather not be talking about motorcycles. He was in mourning last week after his wife died just days ago. But Haggerty, he said, jeopardized his investment and his reputation with the auction.

"There are only three possibilities," Granger said. "Either my bike is the real one, or the other one is the real one, or neither one is the real one."

charles.fleming@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
69°