Arlen Ness – The King of Custom Motorcycles
Up to this point, our Legends of Hot Rodding have all been members of the four-wheel community – you know, hot rodders. But occasionally a talent from the two-wheel world is so renowned that they crossover into hot-rod legend status. Such is the case with motorcycle customizer extraordinaire Arlen Ness.
Arlen Ness was born in Minnesota in 1939 to Ervin and Elaine Ness, who owned a furniture moving business. Among the rules for their son: You will not own a motorcycle. The family moved to San Lorenzo, California, in 1947, and after graduating high school, Arlen got married. He made ends meet by setting pins at a local bowling alley and dabbled as a pro bowler.
“I was into cars – hot rods,” Ness once explained to the AMA Motorcycle Museum. “On Friday nights, we’d cruise East 14th Street (in Oakland and San Leandro). That was what you did back then. There was a place where all the guys with bikes would hang out. I’d go by that place 20 times a night just to look at the bikes. I didn’t really know one from another, but I knew I liked the ones that had a low-slung look.”
In 1963, at age 24, he scrounged up $300 in bowling winnings and purchased a 1947 Harley-Davidson knucklehead. Knowing his spouse and parents would disapprove, he arranged for a friend to ride it home to keep the purchase secret, albeit temporarily. (The sound of a Harley rarely goes unnoticed.)
From the get-go, Ness had a vision for the knucklehead. Working in his home garage, he modified the frame, blew on a candy red hue accented by golden swirls, and upgraded the transmission. For that perfect outlaw touch, he affixed a picture of a gangster on the fuel tank. At motorcycles shows, the bike was anything but a gangster: it captured multiple mainstream design awards.
Duly inspired, Arlen built more custom bikes, each distinctive, each enhancing his reputation. Other motorcyclists took notice and enlisted Ness to customize their bikes, too. This led to Arlen opening his own shop, which created some of the most dramatic, head-turning bikes ever straddled by a rider.
Here’s a quick list of Arlen’s greatest hits: the “Ness-Stalgia,” a brilliant yellow machine that incorporated tail fins off a ’57 Chevrolet; the “Two Bad,” a twin-engine machine; the “Ferrari Bike,” inspired by the Italian sports car maker; the “Smooth-Ness,” styled after a Bugatti; the “Top Banana,” winner of the Discovery Channel’s Biker Build-Off; the “Mach Ness,” that employed a jet-powered helicopter engine; and his personal favorite, the “SmoothNess,” an swoopy art-deco inspired machine – a fat-fendered motorcycle, if you will.
For three decades, Ness cranked our hundreds of custom bikes. He was featured in every bike buff book imaginable. Books were written about him. He even caught the attention of the New York Times, which published a flattering feature in 1997. The new millennium ushered in a new expanded shop for Ness in Dublin, California – Arlen Ness Motorcycles – which included a museum to showcase his collection of two-wheeled artistry. The museum displays all the bikes detailed above as well as dozens more.
Ness’s unique vision and success didn’t go unnoticed. He received recognition and awards including Builder of the Year, induction into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame and Lifetime Achievement Awards.
Sadly, Ness passed away in March of this year, at age 79, after a four-year battle with cancer. But among his many accomplishments was passing along his passion to his son, Cory, who embraced his father’s interest in motorcycle design with the save verve, enthusiasm, and talent. Cory even outdid his dad in a 2004 episode of Biker Build-Offs. The Ness motorcycle gene passed down to his grandson, as well: Cory’s son, Zach, built several high-end customs before finishing high school and now works with Cory at the dealership.
In addition to building complete bikes, Arlen introduced innovative products for V-twin engines and miscellaneous aftermarket accessories. He also received a patent for a motorcycle fuel injection system called Big Shot.
“The phrase ‘the king of custom motorcycles’ was hung on him relatively early, and he deserved it,” explained Robert Pandya, a former Indian Motorcycle executive, to the San Francisco Examiner. “You’d expect someone who built these amazing motorcycles to be loud, act super proud, have a sense of bravado. But with Arlen, you were always struck at what a humble and quiet man he was, in contrast to how avant-garde and progressive his custom bikes were. He was not a relic of the past. He was an icon of what’s current.”
Being from the same East Bay neighborhood as Goodguys founder Gary Meadors, Ness was the organization’s go-to source when cool bikes were needed for an event or to accompany hot rods for a road trip. Several Goodguys events, such as the All-American get-together in Pleasanton, have included custom motorcycle exhibits, with Ness’s creations leading the way.
Famed designer Thom Taylor collaborated a number of times with Ness. “Arlen was fun and easy to work with,” Taylor recalled. “You’d think that with all of the cool bikes he designed and built he’d use me strictly as a conduit for what he envisioned. But he would just give me vague ideas, so I’d do some pencil sketches. Maybe we’d go one more round of tighter sketches, and then he’d start building. I designed the Ferrari bike and the next one that looked like a swoopy Indian, but bodywork could be stripped off so it was two bikes in one. Really great! Such a great guy and always nice.”
In the Facebook post announcing his death, Ness was quoted saying “My whole life since I’ve been motorcycling has been wonderful. I’ve met so many nice people, friends from all over the world. We can go almost anyplace and stay with friends. Motorcycling has been a great ride.”