Arlen Ness: The King of Customs (1939-2019)

Arlen Ness: The King of Customs (1939-2019)

It was just a few weeks ago that we hit the second anniversary of the passing of Arlen Ness. Given that I started photographing Arlen almost 40-years ago and our long relationship that followed, I thought it appropriate that I dedicate this first DK blogpost on a builder, to Arlen’s amazing life and career.

From the earliest times, Arlen was a trendsetter, quietly and steadily producing some of the most creative custom bikes the motorcycle world has ever seen. Many of his innovative ideas and designs evolved into popular styles and trends. Year after year, even when custom bike building was going through hard times, he came out with spectacular new machines that caught the attention of the media and the riding public.

It all goes back to a fateful day in 1963 when a 24-year-old Arlen drove by a Harley-Davidson Knucklehead for sale while driving home after working his day job delivering furniture. With his wife Bev at home with their two-year old Sherri and pregnant with Cory, Arlen took $300 of his bowling winnings to go buy the Knuckle the next day. His friend Charlie had to ride the bike most of the way home since Arlen had never ridden a suicide clutch, but he did get on it and, after killing it a dozen times, managed to pull it into his garage. Bev opened the door, took one look, and promptly slammed the door on him. 

Arlen rode that ’47 Knuck everywhere. He soon made friends with other riders and got involved with the motorcycle scene. They hung out in Harry Brown’s Hayward garage where Harry painted bikes on the side and where Arlen learned as much as he could by helping Harry out. All the while, he practiced his own paint, graphics and flaming techniques by working on Harry’s customer’s bikes, as well as his own Harley. Every year, that Knuckle got rebuilt and was put into shows, but it was the Oakland Roadster Show every January that really mattered. Finally, at the 1977 show, that Knuckle, then known as “Untouchable,” won the “Show of Shows,” and things really started to change. No longer was he going to rip apart the Knuckle just to rebuild it the next year. Instead, he saved “Untouchable” as it was and began working on a second custom bike, thus starting what would become an impressive collection of one-off motorcycles.

Without realizing it, Arlen was also creating a model for an industry before an industry could even be fathomed, and it was one that has lasted for decades. Each year, after Arlen’s new bike won awards at the bike shows, they got the attention of the press, got photographed for magazines and got published. As soon as an issue featuring one of Arlen’s bikes was on the newsstand, the shop phone started ringing (and kept ringing.)

Keep in mind, this was a time when prefabricated aftermarket parts were just becoming available, so there wasn’t much out there. When guys saw a set of Arlen’s custom Rams Horn handlebars in a bike magazine, they’d snap them up in record numbers. In fact, handlebars were the first Arlen Ness products available. “People seemed to like them, so I went down to Superior Tube and they bent more up for me,” Arlen told me. “Then I’d take them to a polishing shop, bring them back to weld the bungs in them, and then have them chromed. My first production may have been twenty sets. That was a big investment for me at the time, but people would see my handlebars on a bike and they would call up to order them. I didn’t know anything about advertising.” Arlen realized that the average guy might not be able to afford an entire Arlen Ness custom bike, but they could certainly afford a set of Ness bars, mirrors or grips, and the rest was two-wheeled history.

All Arlen had to do (a bit of an understatement) was keep coming out with incredible customs and fabulous parts year after year (which is all he really wanted to do in the first place). One thing he learned along the way was to recognize his own shortcomings and make up for them by enlisting outside help to achieve what he envisioned. Consequently, when the business was still small, he enlisted help from the best people out there like Bob “Mun” Munroe, Jim Davis, Danny Gray, Jeff McCann, Horst and Dick DeBenedictis. Arlen came up with the tag line “Quality Motorcycle Parts from California Craftsmen” and always gave them credit for their efforts. Appreciating Arlen’s sense of honesty, fairness and respect, they responded by striving for perfection and producing the highest quality work possible.

Following those fourteen years of working and reworking “Untouchable,” new bikes featuring his parts and accessories started coming out on a more regular basis. The first major custom bike to follow “Untouchable” came out in the form of a 2,000cc twin-engine supercharged Sportster with two-Weber carbs, four-oil bags, two-batteries, and center-hub steering. “Two-Bad,” as it was named, certainly startled the crowds, especially when they got close to the bike, as Arlen would use a remote garage door opener to start the beast up from a distant vantage point. It was pure Ness.

It was still the late 70’s when Arlen, Dave Perewitz, Donnie Smith and a few others started the Hamsters MC. This was a fairly loose fun-group in the early years, but as time went on, it became a full-on club that focused on builders linked by their addiction to custom bikes. The Hamsters still get together at rallies and events all around the country, although now their ranks have grown into the hundreds. Some of Arlen’s closest and oldest relationships have come through the Hamsters, which now includes both his son Cory and grandson Zach. To this day, when you’re in Sturgis, Daytona and other bike events, you’ll likely see a large pack of Hamsters riding amazing customs as they pass through town in their distinctive yellow T-shirts.

Back at Arlen’s Motorcycle Ness-Eccities on East 14th Street in Sean Leandro (their 3rd location on the same street by this time in 1978), major customs were unveiled on a regular basis. The antique inspired “Nesstique” with its thin 5/8 chrome moly tubing and 21-inch front and back wheels took a very different direction from its antique inspiration. The next decade saw incredible bikes like the 93-inch Shovel/Knuckle “Orange Blossom” that came out in 1984 in time to be included in the “California Dream” exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California. In 1986, there was the corporate-sponsored street digger “Accel Bike” with its 90-inch Knuckster motor (Knucklehead top end with Sportster cases), and then the drag inspired “Blower Bike” came out in 1987.

The 1990s saw huge growth in custom motorcycling, and concurrent with this was Arlen’s most productive decade ever. It started with a bang with “Ness Café” (possibly inspired by Willie G’s XLCR), as well as the “Ferrari Bike” that he had been working on for several years, coming out in 1990. A number of “signature” bikes reflecting different inspirations followed. Looking back to the 60s, he came out with “Yellow Knucklehead Chopper” (1990), “Red Flame Chopper” (1993) and “Green Flame Chopper” (1995). Two of Arlen’s more memorable customs followed, “Nesstalgia” (1995), which is often referred to as “The Chevy Bike” and the Art-Deco looking “Smoothness” (1995), that was initially sketched out by Carl Brouhard and based on a 1932 Bugati Roadster sculpture Arlen had in his house.

It was in the 1990s that the idea of a custom bagger was imagined, and Arlen’s twist on this were his “Luxury Liners” as exemplified by “Orange Luxury Liner” (1997), and the green and white Pete Ardema-powered “Overhead Cam Luxury Liner” (1998). Another one of these Ardema OHC engines made expressly for Arlen was used in the “All-Aluminum OHC Evo” (1998). By 1999, Arlen’s theme bikes started appearing like the “Ness County Fire Engine Bike” (1999) and “Ness Patrol” (1999). Finishing out the decade was another art deco-inspired signature custom named “Arrow Bike” that took inspiration from open fendered cars from the 1920s and ’30s. 

By 2000, Arlen entered the new Millennium by making his son Cory vice-president of Arlen Ness Inc. with the understanding that he would be responsible for the daily running of the business. Arlen’s daughter Sherri headed up human resources and other aspects. Arlen was then in his early 60s and had even more time to do what he loved, play with his bikes.

The decade started with a very practical bike, “Screamin’ Nessessity” (2000) that he rode to Sturgis several times. This custom bagger, on a heavily modified FXR frame with a 21-inch front wheel, six-speed transmission, and a nine-gallon fuel tank, was geared high so the engine only had to turn 2,700 rpms at 80 mph. Perfect for those long trips to Sturgis that Arlen so loved.

The Discovery Channel’s “Biker Build-off” TV series followed, and Arlen was featured in two of the specials. The first was a head-to-head against Cory that was shot in Hawaii in 2002. While Arlen lost this bout to Cory, it was a big “win-win” for Arlen Ness, Inc. with all the publicity it brought. For the second build-off against the then very young Roland Sands, they filmed the ride and finale on location in Puerto Rico. Arlen’s Banana Bike started with a unique, one-off frame that enveloped a 145-inch S&S motor. The engine itself was modified to an OHC design with a supercharger and two S&S carbs added to maximize performance. Roland Sands also made a spectacular bike for the show, but in the end, Arlen was announced the winner. On the positive side for Roland, he really didn’t lose because the episode helped launch his career and RSD (Roland Sands Design)

One more major theme bike of the 2000’s that needs mentioning is Arlen’s “Jet Bike” (2005) for which Arlen’s good friend Barry Cooney found the helicopter engine that was used. Bob Munroe hand fabricated the all-aluminum body and Carl Brouhard painted realistic graphics that were so detailed, it looks like rust is built up behind the painted rivets from so many flight hours. While the paint may be “faux,” there is nothing fake about the afterburner exhaust that shoots ten-foot flames.

After “Jet Bike”, Arlen continued to release one or two customs each year, although his focus moved to touring bikes, especially since he wanted a new custom worthy of riding to Sturgis with his Hamster buddies every year. Many of these bikes were on the Victory platform, since Arlen and Cory had a strong relationship with the brand by then; most notably in designing the Ness Signature Series Vegas and Kingpin models. Arlen’s last custom build named “Magnum” was unveiled in 2018, just a year before Arlen died. It featured a Flathead bottom end with a “Sportster” top end and then an electric starter and Softail transmission was somehow worked in.

Arlen sadly passed away on March 22, 2019, just a few short months before his 80th birthday. He will forever be known as one of the most esteemed and accomplished custom motorcycle builders in the world and will be the benchmark against whom all other builders are measured.

So, what was Arlen’s secret to success? Really, it wasn’t much of a secret at all. It all started with his manner and attitude: easygoing, honest, and always there with a smile. Add to this the team he assembled, which included not only those “California Craftsmen” he sought out from the very beginning, but also his many employees and incredibly supportive family.

This “King of Customs” will be missed by all of us who so love and admire his work. He was the best of us.

Michael Lichter
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