Posing for a Poster – Show Me the Money
Mickey Rourke is one of those politically incorrect anti-heroes, a boxer/actor who has punched his way through all kinds of obstacles to reach iconic Hollywood stature, albeit not one of the “politically correct” of Tinsel Town, not that he probably gives a damn. He’s just plain too hard core as evidenced in real life and reflected in his film characters. He still gets those “chews on broken glass for fun” roles, for example his recent part as the bad guy in Iron Man II. He stole the show from the flying metal suit, at least in my opinion.
He’s a bruiser/fast lane flyer and way not ashamed to admit it. While he’s appeared in nearly 70 films over the past 30 years, many to critical acclaim, he garnered the international spotlight when he appeared in the 2009 knock-your-block-off blockbuster “The Wrestler,” and by all accounts should have been awarded the Academy Award for his portrayal of a down and out wrestler struggling with his own inner demons. He did receive dozens of other awards for it. Some might have called that type casting, but his performance left an indelible impression on everyone who saw it, this rider/writer included.
In any case, it was a quantum leap beyond one of his previous efforts, that being “Harley-Davidson and the Marlboro Man” which debuted to less than rave reviews in 1991. The plot revolves around Mickey aka “Harley” helping his buddy Don “Marlboro” Johnson raise money the hard way to save his bar from defaulting to a bank’s plans for redeveloping. Speaking of banks, it seems Mickey also needed some bucks, and has repeatedly avowed it was the only reason he made the flick, much to his, let’s say, chagrin. One quote from the script about sums it up. Mickey says, “He's gonna take my girl, I'm gonna take his bike.” In any case, the movie has left its mark, carved a niche as a cult classic as they say, both because of the character he portrayed and the bike he rode, a Harley custom with the moniker “Black Death.” The Black Death also happens to be the name of the series of flea-born Bubonic plagues, the biggest occurring during1348 and 1350 that wiped out some 60% of Europe. So it’s a scary name for a scary bike, in this case a chopper based around Harley’s venerable FXR. Some say the Black Death bike has reached the status of the Captain America Easyrider bike. So does that mean Peter Fonda and Mickey Rourke should duke it out in the ring? Probably not a good idea. Maybe a virtual wheel-to-wheel race between the two bikes? Maybe somebody has already conjured up that video game?
We can however trace the somewhat hazy picture about the Black Death…or should we say the Black Deaths…as more than one surfaces upon researching the matter. It turns out Mickey himself had a bit to do with proliferating multiple images of the real McCoy.
Will the Real Black Death Please Stand Up?
Photo found on the Internet, purportedly showing Black Death 3. Probably clone because it features lots more chrome and the engine does not show the “V” shaved cylinder fins. By the way, the bike ridden in the movie by Don Johnson was a Kawasaki “chopper.” Don’t ask me who built it; I’m sure that’s another whole story, but probably one nobody’s too interested in. I could be wrong.
Back to the movie and the scuttlebutt about the bike or bikes. It seems the famous dealership, Bartels, located in Marina Del Rey, CA, got the contract to build the bike. They started with a 1989 FXR and eventually built Black Death 1 and Black Death 2, one serving as Mickey’s personal scooter, the other utilized for stunt work, jumps, crashes, etc. for filming. As the stories go, for some reason they were scrapped and a third version was then built, resulting in the final iteration of Black Death aka BD3. (Originally the build was erroneously reported in some mags as the work of Billy Westbrook, famed California builder.)A lot of this is Internet buzz can make it hard to pin down the hard facts since various Internet sites mention guys claiming to own the bike.
Original McCoy? Or McCoys?
Original photo of newly built Black Death “movie bike,” the version that appeared in the film. Notice pipes are not chromed. Photo from Bartels' Gene Thomason, a member of the Bartels’ team that built the real deal.
Now we get to the egg before the chicken conundrum. Another source states that Black Death 3 was a 98 inch stroker built by Gene Thomason, Dave Fournier, and Allan Barsi at Bartels. At some point MGM approached Mickey to star in the movie, and he told them he already had the bike he wanted to ride in the film, DB3. The movie company then paid Gene to build a duplicate of the S&S 98-incher. According to a blog entry, Mickey's bike was used for some opening scenes and basic riding shots, while the duplicate 80-inch version was used as the primary stunt bike. The two bikes are identical except for the S&S stroker kit.
A 1997 published story gave some specs for the bike: chrome swingarm, solid steel struts on the rear replacing the FXR stock shocks, shortened Don Crager seat and fender, the latter hinged and doubling as the seat pan. The 5-gallon Softail gas tank left in primer wore a 6-inch plate down the center. The artwork is of playing cards reportedly inscribed with initials of some of Mickey’s friends. Black Death sits on a basically stock frame with bondo molding massaged into the neck area. It sits about 24 inches from the pavement. Reportedly because of its 70.5 inch wheelbase, it took input from shoulders to steer.The basically stock 80-inch Evo powerplant benefited from a Bartels' BP-40 series cam and an S&S Super E carb (although other sources say the Keihin carb got a performance kit). The report also stated that it wore a set of black 1 ½ inch pipes. Cosmetics included the “V” for Victory shaving of the cylinder barrel fins. Last but not least, some 14 years ago, the price tag for Black Death 3 was reportedly $50K. Which BD bike remains unclear.
There’s a bit of a numbers game at play that further fogs up the picture. Reports indicate the bike seen in the movie, although labeled Black Death 3, was actually the fourth attempt to get it right in Mickey’s eyes, based, as the tale goes, on a drawing he originally penned on a cocktail napkin. Originally the bike was for another movie he had in mind, one called “The Ride.” According to the story, he brought the drawing over to Bartels and fast forward, as mentioned previously they built DB1, DB2 and Death Bike 3 (the fearsome 98-inch stroker version).
The tech list lists the FLT fork as six inches over as ordered by Bartels. Apparently a Continental tire rode up front, a Metzler in the back. Details of the bike include the fact that the left front peg was H-D OEM, one that took the place of the original JayBrake forward control peg that had been damaged during a stunt spill. Sort of like a tell-tale mark, tattoo, or scar that helps identify the “real” bike.
The Real Deal
While many have attempted to copy the Black Death’s tank art, here’s the original, real McCoy with the correct initials on the cards, those of good friends of Mickey at the time of the bike’s creation. Photo courtesy of Bartels’ Gene Thomason.
Now we enter the territory of multiple clones. Mickey teamed up with Chuck Zito and his Black Death Motorcycles enterprise and also with Arizona builders Carefree Custom Cycles, the plan to produce exact repops of Black Death as seen in the movie, utilizing the original DB3 for a template. They did the strut conversion and followed the matching paint and graphics treatment, that handled by Jason and Phil Smith/Cougar Ridge Rod Shop. The big change, and a major departure from the original, was a replacement of the FXR EVO motor with a 114-inch Powerhouse sourced from Mid-USA and pumping a purported 135 HP. Other components included a heavy duty Falicon crank, a 5-speed tranny, Andrews gears, and Primo belt drive. The “updated” powerplant outwardly looked much like the original BD bike. Mickey was seen reportedly riding one of the clone bikes, and it apparently was indistinguishable from the original movie bike, at least to the general public. When introduced for sale, those DB reproductions carried a price tag of $35,000. (Didn’t find any figures on how many were minted or sold.)
Chuck Zito’s life and times makes for a great read and contains passages relating to Rourke and the HDMM Black Death bike.
The semi- final word as to the disposition of the original Black Death bike as seen in the movie may have been revealed in Chuck Zito’s 2002 book Street Justice (St. Marten’s Press, NY). On pages 159-60, the author (actor, stuntman, bodyguard to the stars, ex-prez of NYC HA MC) writes of his friendship with Mickey Rourke and reveals the true story behind the destiny of the original Marlboro Black Death bike. He writes: “That was Mickey, though, always pushing the envelope. Always looking for a good time. We remain friends to this day. In fact, one of my motorcycles I own actually belongs to Mickey. It’s the original Black Death motorcycle used in the movie Harley Davidson & The Marlboro Man starring Mickey and Don Johnson. I visited Mickey one day at his house in Beverly Hills, the garage of which was full of bikes, a dozen in all, bikes that he had built or bought. Some of them were beginning to rust by then-Mickey wasn’t riding as much as he used to-so I said, “Why don’t I take a couple back to New York and restore them for you.” Mickey didn’t mind. He was never one to be cheap. If he liked you, he gave you the shirt off his back……
Photo of original photo of original bike as provided by one of the original Bartels’ builders, Gene Thomason.
“Anyway I happened to have a friend who happened to being going to New York with some other bikes, so I put a couple of Mickey’s bikes on the trailer and off they went. I went back into the house and Mickey asked me which bikes I took. “The Marlboro bike and the bike from Stone Cold,” I said. (1991 movie). Back in New York with the help of brothers John and Sal Petrazzi, I built the Marlboro bike back to its original condition.” Then on page 161, Zito states, “As for the Marlboro bike...well, I borrowed it six years ago, and I still have it today. In fact, the inscription on the carburetor reads: "This is the original Black Death motorcycle used in the movie Harley-Davidson & the Marlboro Man.”
The Man Behind the Movie Wrench
As we followed the elusive trail of the Black Death bike, it came down to a sunny Saturday at Bartels’ where we found Gene busy prepping a bike for a young lady named Fatima, originally from Brazil and a rider who had survived the intense traffic of Sao Paulo and now ready to take on L.A. She was picking up her very first Harley and Gene said I would have to wait my turn. Fair enough. In fact I hung around quite a spell, Gene pulling out a pile of photos filling a drawer of his large tool cabinet, among them original photos of the Black Death bike which he kindly let me copy and seen here.
Finished sending off Fatima and her new ride, Gene, not one to waste time or words, summed up the facts behind the creation of the Black Death/Mickey Rourke/Harley-Davidson & The Marlboro Man bike. He showed me a copy of a story published in 1995 that ended with a paragraph saying if you wanted to buy the bike, give Gene 50 grand in a paper bag and it’s yours. Says Gene, “Well, a guy in Denver must have read the article, because he gave me 50 grand in a paper bag. I threw the bike in a truck and drove it to him in Denver.” Okay, but which bike did he get? Says Gene, “Most of the other stuff that’s been said about the bike is untrue. Mickey had one bike. It started when we set up a regular FXR with a Wide Glide front end for him. Then later he changed his mind. He wanted this all black bike with all digital gauges and stuff, digitals at that time just coming in. So it got the digitals and solid wheels. So now it’s this black back with built-in digital gauges. At this point, Mickey had a change of view and went back to basics. So we got rid of all that digital crap and built the one bike for the movie. At the exact same time we built an identical back-up bike, and that’s the one used in the movie. The other bike, which had a stroker motor, was hard to start and other problems. So the back-up bike was the stunt bike that did most of the movie.”
The story is not over. Gene continues. “And then Mickey gives the original stroker bike to Chuck Zito. Now years go by and I’m sitting in a bar and a guy starts talking to me, telling me he works in a movie prop company and they have this motorcycle that was from the Harley-Davidson and the Marlboro Man movie. I say, no #%$. He says he had an offer of six for it. I told him I would give him twelve thousand, double his offer. He called me back and it turns out it was a real prop shop, the bike was there. I went and I paid for it. So Chuck had the original bike, and this was the other one, the stunt bike used in the movie. The one that went to Denver. But what happened later with it, I wouldn’t know. But it had all the paper work from MGM so it’s documented that it was in the movie. Things got cloudy when everybody starting re-making the bike, some blessed, some un-blessed.”
So there you have it…at least up to this point. No doubt we’ll be hearing more about the Black Death bike, a bike that literally wouldn’t die. —Paul Garson