Genuine Article: Peter Fonda’s Panhead from The Wild Angels

Dragon Bike from The Wild Angels 1969
Warning: Pot-stirring chopper
inbound, avert your eyes now.

If I asked you to name a chopper film, 99% of those polled would respond with Easy Rider—a fitting response for the genre-defining cult classic. But the iconic trio of Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson had all starred in their own chopper films before Columbia gambled on Easy Rider in 1968.

Dragon Bike from The Wild Angels 1969
Hopper played the antagonist in a not-so-good film called The Glory Stompers in 1967, and Nicholson in Hell’s Angels on Wheels was decidedly meh that same year. Of the three, Fonda’s lead role in The Wild Angels in 1966 was the strongest, and reinforced his status as one of the most prominent counterculture figures of the day. All of which sets the stage for Captain America and Billy in 1969, as a sort of farewell to the genre.

While it’s not as strong a film as Easy Rider, The Wild Angels has become somewhat of a cult classic for those who can appreciate the trippy chaos of early biker movies. Peter Fonda stars as Heavenly Blues, the leader of a California motorcycle gang, and his 74 ci Panhead chopper plays a central role in the show. 93 minutes of sticking it to the man, The Wild Angels is a more angsty film about the biker lifestyle, but doesn’t paint as broad a stroke across the counterculture spectrum as Easy Rider.

Dragon Bike from The Wild Angels 1969
The film reaffirmed that moviegoers were buying into the motorcycle scene, even its rougher elements, and went on to be one of the highest-grossing low-budget productions of its time. Critics detested it however, with noted film critic Leonard Maltin calling The Wild Angels “OK after about 24 beers.”

The Dragon Bike and the Captain America Bike are both modified rigid Panheads, but the two HDs couldn’t be more different. The star-spangled Pan from Easy Rider is a rolling symbol of late ’60s rebellion, with a chromed frame, a tall king-and-queen saddle and a massively raked wide-glide front end. A show bike through and through, the raked-out Pan would have been a nightmare to ride daily, and Fonda admitted it really only worked on the open road.

Dragon Bike from The Wild Angels 1969
With far more reserved geometry, the Dragon Bike is more representative of street choppers of the era. The neck appears unaltered, both wheels have brakes and the tanks look factory and retain the stock speedometer and bezel. With a little extra height in the chromed springer, a 21F/16R wheel combo, a tall sissy bar and a pair of fishmouth tips, the Dragon Bike still exudes period style, but it’s a machine that’s still meant to be ridden.

In some ways, the Dragon is even more of a biker’s bike; it’s the granddaddy of all choppers and it cemented my role as the original, in chopper history.“—Peter Fonda

Dragon Bike from The Wild Angels 1969
Its defining characteristic is a pair of hand-painted dragons on the tanks, believed to be the work of Von Dutch. In addition to being the father of modern pinstriping, Dutch’s art often featured pigs, spiders, dragons and all manners of beasts, and the tank art here bears more than a strong resemblance to other known Dutch works.

The Dragon Bike was on loan to director Roger Corman for filming, and the Panhead more or less disappeared after its debut on the big screen. Decades later, the bike was allegedly discovered as a basketcase, and a blog post from December 2008 indicates that 80-90% of its parts were together at that time. A letter of authenticity from Mil Blair, co-founder of Easyrider magazine, also dates from 2008, indicating that the bike was the real deal, along with ‘many of its original parts.’

Dragon Bike from The Wild Angels 1969
The HD was later restored to its previous glory utilizing period photos and film, with great care taken to preserve original parts, paint and chrome wherever possible. Receiving only minor reconditioning, it wears its scrapes and chips well, especially on the tanks, which match the 2008 photos. Having seen the movie a dozen times, I was surprised to find that the bike is actually purple, as it appears more blue on screen.

So what’s the point, why care about some leaky old chopper just cause Fonda rode it in a low-budget film way back when? Well, consider for a second that the only existing Captain America bike from Easy Rider sold for $1.35 million in 2014, and that bike has some really convoluted history—let’s leave it at that. Mecum estimates that Peter Fonda’s Panhead from The Wild Angels will bring between $100,000 to $120,000, and by all evidence, it’s the more original piece by leaps and bounds.

Dragon Bike from The Wild Angels 1969
Between the two, I’d rather display this fire-breathing Panhead every day of the week, but that’s probably just my contrarian nature (read all snooty like). Captain America is king, but as long as stubborn fools continue paying tribute to the kidney-belted, rigid-frame days past, even lesser-known machines like the Dragon Bike will keep skyrocketing in value. Color me uncultured for this deep dive into blockbuster HDs, but someone will laugh their way to the bank with this one someday, and I certainly wish it was me.

Peter Fonda’s Panhead from The Wild Angels is offered by Mecum as part of the John Parham Collection at the National Motorcycle Museum.

Dragon Bike from The Wild Angels 1969