On Saturday morning, March 23, motorcycle industry professionals, riders, and custom bike enthusiasts around the world learned of the passing of industry luminary Arlen Ness, who died peacefully in his home the night before surrounded by family and loved ones. First and foremost, Ness was a loving husband, father, and grandfather, but to motorcyclists around the globe he was a visionary, leader, and considered by many to be the godfather of the modern custom motorcycle.
RELATED: Arlen Ness’s Early Work
Arlen Ness’ motorcycle empire started with a single bike, a 1947 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead that he purchased with the winnings from his semi-professional bowling league. By the late 1960s, choppers had taken over the streets of California, and although Ness was primarily into four-wheeled hot rods, he couldn’t escape the bug. The ’47 Knuck was given what would now be referred to as the “Ness treatment” in the family garage in San Leandro, California. It didn’t take long for his first custom to catch the eyes of magazine photographers and the public fell in love with Ness’ fresh take on the American chopper. The paintwork on the Knuck alone led to his taking custom painting work and eventually opening a storefront and painting motorcycles full time.
With a family to support and a burgeoning business to grow, there was no money for new motorcycles to show every year. Ness continuously built and rebuilt his original ’47 every year in order to stay competitive at local shows and keep his work in the public eye. In doing so, he made the discovery that there wasn’t much variety in terms of parts available to customizers.
Ness took it upon himself to provide that necessary variety to the custom motorcycle market by selling chromed rims and handlebars of his own design. His shelf stock continued to grow, with painting still the primary business, and the local biker community supported both of Ness’ ventures. Before long, word of his custom parts had spread outside of the local area and calls came in from all over from customers looking to add that unique Ness touch to their bikes. To support his long-distance customers, his wife (now of 57 years) Beverly typed up the company’s first “catalog,” which was a simple list of parts and prices.
The business grew, and although it remained in his ownership, the ’47 Knuck, named “Untouchable,” retired from show duty and now he could afford to purchase more bikes and take customizing even further. Choppers may have ruled the road in the late ’60s, but long, low, and lean diggers were on the horizon and were championed by none other than Arlen Ness himself. This general style would go on to be one of the hallmarks of a Ness build through to present times.
For decades, every Arlen Ness build somehow managed to outdo the previous one with Untouchable being one-upped by “Two Bad,” a dual-engine Sportster that used a car-style hub front wheel. Later bikes capitalized on the Ness reputation like the classically styled “Ness-Tique,” the Chevy Bel Air-inspired “Ness-Stalgia,” the modern hypercar-inspired “Smooth-Ness,” and one of his most popular builds, “Mach-Ness,” which used a jet helicopter engine rather than the usual V-twin.
The custom motorcycle world grew bigger and bigger, and Arlen Ness became one of the first parts manufacturers to use CNC machining to produce high-quality, show-ready components that individuals could easily bolt onto their Harleys or customs. The nearly unlimited manufacturing potential allowed Ness to develop a thick catalog of parts, which today stretches across several hundred pages and a website. Along the way, every custom bike Arlen built was saved, and today the museum at the company’s 70,000-square-foot Dublin, California, headquarters is home to dozens of his builds.
In nearly all of his tributes, the word “legacy” is used at least once, and rare it is that a legacy like Arlen Ness’ is seen in this world. He not only left a mark on the custom bike industry, but is in large part responsible for what it is today. His mail-order business with a real-world build background set the standard for dozens of custom parts manufacturers today. He also leaves behind a strong legacy in the Ness name, with son Cory having been a major part of his dad’s company for more than 30 years, and grandson Zach, who started building custom bikes in high school and has become one of the industry’s top builders in his own right. Undoubtedly, Arlen Ness, the brand, has a strong future of pushing boundaries and setting standards in the custom world under their leadership.
A celebration of life for Arlen Ness will be held Saturday, April 27, at 10:30 a.m. at CrossWinds Church in Livermore, California, which will be followed by a group ride to the Arlen Ness dealership in Dublin.