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The Legacy of Arlen Ness: The American Avant-garde Motorcycle Designer
“Motorcycling has been a great ride. My whole life since I’ve been motorcycling has been wonderful. I’ve met so many nice people. Friends all over the world. We can go almost anyplace and stay with friends. It’s been great.”
America
December 2022

Arlen Ness. A name well-known throughout the motorcycle industry. Having pioneered the world of custom motorcycle builds. Known and acclaimed for his low-body bikes, outlandish paintworks and gold trims, it’s hard to not double-take an Arlen bike. They are undoubtedly an art in motion, built from steel, aluminium and raw talent.

Arlen Daryll 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.

Arlen Darryl Ness “The King of Customs” (1939-2019)

Photo by Michael Lichter Photography

“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.

A young Arlen with an early iteration of his 1947 Knucklehead, “Untouchable.” The bike took several forms throughout the ’60s and is still in the Ness family collection.

Photo by Arlen Ness Motorcycles

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 motorcycle 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 shop, which created some of the most dramatic, head-turning bikes ever straddled by a rider.

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 newly 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.

Sadly, Ness passed away in March 2019, 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 safe 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.

Arlen and his wife, Becky, had been married for 59 years at the time of his death. His dual-engined digger, called “Two-Bad,” was one of his earliest builds and the first of many to be built in the long, low, and lean dragster style

Photo by Arlen Ness Motorcycles

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, and have a sense of bravado. But with Arlen, you were always struck by 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.”

A gallery of Arlen’s custom bikes

Photo by Arlen Ness Motorcycles

Being from the same East Bay neighbourhood 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.”

Here, three generations of Ness men enjoy being part of a well-timed photograph. That’s Zach up front, Cory in the middle, and Arlen bringing up the rear

Photo by Arlen Ness Motorcycles

“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 to almost any place and stay with friends. Motorcycling has been a great ride.” – Arlen Ness

With a passion and purpose to continue improving and creating the best quality motorcycle parts available, Arlen Ness Motorcycles has steered towards creating, testing and delivering leading performance and custom-bolt-on parts repeatedly. Having ingenuity in transforming motorcycles into works of art for an array of customers and celebrities, it’s clear why Arlen continues to be celebrated today.

Click here to watch the full video of Arlen Ness’s life behind his history and creativity in customizing one-of-a-kind motorcycles.

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