Arlen Ness is one of the best-known builders in the world of custom motorcycles. He went from customizing his own 1947 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead in the late 1960s to becoming a trendsetter whose designs have been studied—and copied—by everyone from other bike-builders to factory engineers. He also founded a mail-order empire that bears his name.
Ness grew up in Oakland, California. He was always attracted to hot rod cars and motorcycles.
"When I was in high school, there was a kid who had a Harley, and I thought that guy was cool," Ness recalled. Under pressure first from his dad, then from his wife, though, Ness was locked out of the two-wheel world. "I was into cars—hot rods. On Friday nights, we'd cruise East 14th Street. 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."
By the mid-1960s, Ness was married to his wife, Bev, and the couple had two children. Ness was working as furniture mover. He also competed in bowling leagues that paid prize money and he saved his earnings from bowling to buy his first motorcycle.
"I used to keep that money tucked away in the back of my wallet," he says. "Then one day, I was driving through Oakland, and I saw a bike sitting there with a for-sale sign on it. The bike was $300, and that's what I had saved up, so I bought it."
Ness took a lot of grief at first from Bev for buying the old Harley, but the modest purchase would ultimately change the path of his life forever. He immediately set to work on the machine, giving it a new look with a stretched gas tank and custom paint. Then he entered it in a show, where it earned the attention of magazine photographers.
The attention his custom bike got from the show led to him being asked to paint other bikes. That gradually led to a motorcycle painting business that allowed him to quit his other job. As a one-man operation, Ness put in long hours, but his hard work paid off and his reputation grew.
There was just one problem. With a family to support, Ness had no money to buy another bike that he could build into a new showstopper. So he turned to the '47 Knucklehead again and again.
"I kept recustomizing it every year," he says. "I'd paint it and fix it up so a magazine could shoot it, then I'd redo it for another magazine.
"Finally," he says, "I saved enough money to buy a second bike."
Years later, Ness restored his first Knucklehead to the way it was in the late '60s. It is now the heart of a California lifestyle exhibit at the nearby Oakland Museum.
Soon after he opened the shop, Ness added a new line to his business: custom parts. Today, that's the heart of the company. But not back then.
"There wasn't much you could do to a bike," he notes. "You could make a bobber by putting the front fender on the back tire, but there weren't many parts available for customizing."
Ness started small, getting some used wheels chromed and offering "ram's horn" handlebars that he designed.
"I was living on the paint jobs," he says. "When I'd sell some parts, I'd just take that money and buy two more. I didn't take any money out of the store for a long time."
But then came an incident that changed his mind about the future of the parts business.
"A guy I knew was in the military, and he was about to ship overseas," Ness says. "He found out that he got something like $2,000 for shipping out, so he came into the store and bought a whole lot of parts.
I made $100 profit on that stuff in one day. I took my wife out for a drink to celebrate, and I remember thinking that if I could make $100 a day regularly, I'd be a millionaire."
As his parts became known in the custom-bike world, Ness started to get calls from customers wanting to buy things that were only available in his store. So he created his first catalog.
"Actually," he says, "it was just a list that Bev typed up. We had the ram's horn bars, some glass fenders—stuff like that, with a price next to each one."
Ness admits that he had no background in business, so he had a lot of new knowledge to accumulate.
"I had to learn about shipping and all that," he says. "For a while, I would run everything down to the UPS office every day. Then I found out they'd come and pick it all up. I had to learn every step of it."
He got into the business at the height of the late-'60s chopper era, when the Captain America bike from "Easy Rider" was the height of cool. Ness built his share of choppers, but he had a different vision.
"I liked the dragbike performance look—stretch ‘em out and lower ‘em down," he says. "Still do to this day."
Ness developed that style in bikes like Two Bad, a double-engine Sportster with hub-center steering and a frame longer than many cars.
That look, combining performance and style, would become a hallmark of Ness design. It was, in many ways, the opposite of the laid-back chopper. An example of one of Ness' concepts was the twin-engine, dual-supercharged, four-carb, 2,100cc machine with dual belt drive and red bodywork reminiscent of a Ferrari.
Then there's the Quad Cam bike, an engineering exercise with a Harley-style V-twin motor sporting a pair of toothed belts driving dual overhead cams. The Ness County Fire Truck, built in early 2001, looks like a custom tourer, complete with fairing, saddlebags and a fire-engine theme carried through in red paint, gold-leaf insignias and painted gauges. But underneath is a 100-cubic-inch V-twin with a supercharger and a nitrous bottle.
He's kept those bikes and dozens more—every showbike he's ever built. Many have become significant enough that they're on loan to museums and collectors. Together, they form a timeline of the custom-bike movement in America.
Although Ness' machines were some of the wildest customs of their era, the earlier bikes still incorporated plenty of stock parts. But then came a revolution in the custom-bike field, resulting from the introduction of CNC machining. Ness was among the first people in the motorcycle industry to recognize the potential of this technology, which he picked up from hot-rod fabricators. He quickly tested it with carved-billet aluminum mirrors. The question, though, was whether anyone would pay the premium prices billet parts would command.
"At the time," Ness says, "our mirrors were probably $50. And we thought, ‘Who's gonna pay that for a mirror?' But we made some, and they sold."
So did the billet grips and levers and engine covers and triple clamps that followed. And what started as a small, typed order sheet turned into a major, 270-page four-color catalog.
In time, the company built around Arlen Ness' painting skills was gradually transformed into a national mail-order house with dozens of full-time employees, including every member of the Ness family. Arlen remains the head of the company, while his son, Cory, became vice president and the man in charge of day-to-day operations. He's also become a skilled motorcycle customizer in his own right, with his work recognized alongside that of his famous father.
Bev, the woman who slammed the door on Ness when he brought home his first motorcycle, is now the company's chief financial officer, and their daughter, Sherri Foxworthy, serves as Arlen's administrative assistant.
Amazingly, all of this growth took place within the company's East 14th Street headquarters. Walk through the showroom, and you entered a labyrinth of narrow aisles, all crammed with Arlen Ness products.
With the custom bike business booming in the '90s, Ness took the opportunity to build two of the most memorable creations in a highly memorable career.
The first is officially called "Ness-talgia," but to just about everyone, it's the '57 Chevy bike. It recalls that classic car almost perfectly, with lines that are so flawless, you'd swear the parts came directly off the original. Except for the headlight bezel, they didn't.
"There's a guy who does graphic work for us—Carl Brouhard—and that was kind of his idea," Ness says. "We thought we'd do it for fun, but it ended up being a bike that's known all over the world."
Ness-talgia was unveiled in 1995, and a year later, Ness trumped it with Smooth-Ness, a flowing design that is art from any angle. He says the bike was inspired by a bronze that he found of a Bugatti automobile. Ness sketched out the design on paper, then turned over his drawings to Craig Naff, a fabricator who regularly makes parts for his projects. The parts came back so beautifully formed that Ness first showed the bike unpainted.
To many, those bikes represent the pinnacle of the custom-bike world. And even Ness himself admits that if he could keep only three motorcycles from his entire career, he'd chose those two plus his original '47 Knucklehead—the bike that started it all.
Ness never stopped evolving his company. In fact, in the fall of 2005, after 36 years in the business, Ness moved to an all-new shop that seems more appropriate for what his business has become. Arlen Ness Enterprises' new home is a 70,000-square-foot facility under construction about 10 miles away in Dublin, California. The building will feature a huge showroom where new parts for sale will be arrayed around classic Ness designs of the past. Behind the scenes, there'll be more space for catalog inventory and more space for creating new customs.
He's also branching out in new directions through a partnership with Victory motorcycles. Ness has become a Victory dealer, and he's created a couple of customs based on that platform. In addition, Victory is selling an Arlen Ness Signature Line of parts and accessories for its bikes, and the company has said that Arlen and Cory Ness will serve as design consultants on future Victory models.
But there's more. Working with Harley dealer Bruce Rossmeyer, Ness recently opened new Arlen Ness Motorcycle stores in Daytona Beach and Miami, selling various brands of American cruisers plus the full Ness line of parts.
And, he says, "If the stores go well, we might build a motorcycle of our own to sell in them."
He admits he's done some preliminary work in that direction, and has a powerplant in mind. The rest of the bike, of course, won't be a problem. After all, he's got a catalog full of every part a person might need to build a motorcycle.
"We're in a better position to make a motorcycle than anybody in the industry," he says.
What's perhaps most amazing, though, is that through it all, Arlen Ness, the king of the customizers, remains grounded in the place where it all began. After 36 years, he still turns out new designs in an office that's only a sidewalk-width away from East 14th Street—the road he once cruised, wondering if he'd ever have a motorcycle of his own.
He was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1992.
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