What’s the most iconic motorcycle brand in America? Every Harley-Davidson dealer swells with pride, knowing the answer is obvious. Harley-Davidson has been a staple in the American motorcycle industry since the 1900s. Giving rise to customizable bikes like the chopper, the manufacturer has become synonymous with open-air freedom and has built a loyal following of passionate riders along the way.
Harley-Davidson certainly doesn’t need much help solidifying its popularity, but there’s no denying that the Hollywood spotlight has helped over the years. The silver screen has given us some of the most iconic Harley-Davidson bikes of all time, courtesy of films like Easy Rider, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Ghost Rider, Wild Hogs, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and many others. So, what Harley-Davidson bikes did some of our favorite characters ride across the silver screen?
Easy Rider (1969): 1951 Panhead Chopper
One of the most iconic countercultural films of a generation, Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider is what many call the “quintessential Harley-Davidson film.” However, out of the many motorcycles in the movie, none captured the spotlight quite like the 1951 Panhead Chopper, dubbed “Captain America.” Wyatt, played by Fonda, climbed in the saddle of the powerhouse with its patriotic design details, hi-rise handlebars, and potent Panhead engine.
Fonda had two Panhead Choppers built for the movie, but only one survived. According to rumors, the other bike was destroyed in the fiery crash at the end of the film. However, even this history is controversial as the motorcycle was supposedly restored and sold at auction in 1996 for $63,500. Nearly two decades later, the Captain America bike was reportedly sold for $1.35 million, but it wasn’t one of the originals as everyone believed. Or was it? As of 2021, numerous replicas remain, including one that sits at the Harley-Davidson Museum.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991): 1991 Fat Boy
It’s nearly impossible to find a Harley-Davidson movie scene that’s more iconic than The Terminator’s face-off with a semi as he rides a 1991 Fat Boy, later launching it across an LA sewer in one of the most jaw-dropping film scenes in history. It turns out that The Terminator, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, had a little help with the leap. The production crew used cables to support the bike and reduce its weight, digitally erasing the wires during the final editing process.
As The Terminator, Schwarzenegger sealed his fate as one of Hollywood’s hottest stars and ignited a new trend among motorcyclists worldwide. Naturally, everyone wanted a Fat Boy, with fans flocking to Harley-Davidson dealers to purchase the bike following the film’s massive success. Decades later, the Fat Boy and Schwarzenegger returned in Terminator: Genisys (2015), igniting another round of demand for the legendary bike. Today, several of the original Fat Boys remain in circulation, with one on display at the Harley-Davidson Museum and another that frequents movie memorabilia auctions where it once sold for over $480,000.
Pulp Fiction (1994): 1986 FXR Super Glide
“It’s not a motorcycle… it’s a chopper, baby!” Bruce Willis joined Quentin Tarantino, John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, and Uma Thurman in the 1994 American crime film Pulp Fiction. Willis’ character, Butch, visits Zed’s pawn shop, where he steals a key in hopes of upgrading his white Honda Civic. Butch quickly realizes the key isn’t for a vehicle but for a chopper––none other than a 1986 Harley-Davidson FXR Super Glide with a V-Twin engine capable of reaching 105 mph. Although the bike only appeared in one scene, its silver screen debut became legendary as Butch escaped with his life and got the girl; lucky, indeed.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008): Springer Softail Classic
Steven Spielberg gave moviegoers more reasons to love the Harley-Davidson lineup when Shia LeBeouf climbed in the saddle of a customized Springer Softail Classic in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). Spielberg kept five bikes on hand during the shoot, each customized to fit the movie’s 1957 period setting and tailored to suit the film’s demanding action-packed scenes. The result was phenomenal, especially with LeBeouf and Harrison Ford riding two-up during an iconic chase through the Marshall College campus and library.
Despite every attempt to make the 2006 Softail Springer Classic look older, avid motorcycle fans spotted a few modern details like the twin cam cylinder heads and front disc brakes. Even so, the bike became legendary in Harley-Davidson history. Following the film, two of the five bikes were returned to Harley-Davidson for display at the museum in Milwaukee. One was strictly used for stunts, and the other was ridden by two of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
Ghost Rider (2007): Panhead-based Chopper
While many argue that Ghost Rider was a flop for Nicholas Cage, there’s no denying that Ghost Rider’s motorcycle made a lasting impression. It’s only fitting that Johnny Blaze climbed in the saddle of a Panhead-based Chopper. The customized bike weighed over 500 pounds and measured 11 feet long, but its sheer size wasn’t the only thing that caught moviegoers’ attention.
The Harley-Davidson Chopper was fully customized for the film. The intricate detailing features skulls, bones, and flames that cover the motorcycle. But, of course, the 11-foot behemoth isn’t street legal and is solely meant for the silver screen, the only place its wheels can ignite in a blaze of fire.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009): Panhead FLH
Although Wolverine climbed in the saddle of a Ducati Diavel Cromo in The Wolverine, Harley-Davidson fans are quick to argue that his ride in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) is closer to his character and even more impressive. The Marvel superhero claimed a 1963 Harley-Davidson Panhead FLH as his ride of choice, a tougher and burlier bike that Hugh Jackman, who played Wolverine, later added to his garage.
The Panhead FLH easily fits the demands of the film, with its 60-horsepower engine capable of producing over 65 lb-ft of torque. Its sheer power and sleek design made it easy for Wolverine to navigate the film’s many action-packed scenes. Of course, the film’s success ignited new interest in the Panhead FLH and the rest of the Harley-Davidson lineup. After all, a superhero gave Harley-Davidson yet another stamp of approval.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): Softail Cross Bones
Over the years, the rising popularity of Marvel Comics has reintroduced us to icons like Thor, and Iron Man, and The Hulk. So, when Marvel Comics called on Harley-Davidson to build a bike for the 2011 film Captain America: The First Avenger, the answer didn’t require a second thought. Harley-Davidson was all in.
With Captain America, played by Chris Evans, tied to the World War II era, Marvel Comics needed a WLA Military bike like the ones Harley-Davidson produced during the war. So rather than reinventing the wheel, Harley-Davidson turned to its Softail Cross Bones. After a few modifications, Captain America’s WLA bike came to life. It not only put a superhero in the saddle but also gave Marvel fans a taste of Harley-Davidson’s pivotal role in American history through its contributions to the war efforts.
What’s Your Favorite?
Avid movie buffs are quick to share lines from their favorite films, but something remarkable happens when those movie fans are also loyal Harley-Davidson riders. Suddenly, films generate new excitement when they feature a Harley-Davidson powerhouse. Fortunately, Hollywood has given us plenty of bikes to drool over, whether you’re a die-hard Marvel fan, can’t get enough of Indiana Jones, or appreciate comedies like Wild Hogs. You may even find yourself traveling back in time to classics like Easy Rider or westerns like Harley-Davidson and the Marlboro Man for a trip down memory lane to enjoy more of America’s favorite motorcycle manufacturer on the silver screen.