Arlen Ness has been called “The King of Choppers” and “The Harley Grandfather” which fits nicely, because he now has a total of four grandchildren. And even though Ness is 71, he’s still going full bore, running his multiple businesses and surely not thinking about slowing down anytime soon.
It all started when Ness began designing and manufacturing his first custom motorcycles in his home garage in San Leandro, California. By the early 1970's Ness had moved his operation to a storefront located on East 14th Street. Rather quickly, Arlen’s Ness expertise and creative zeal for his unique painting style and for developing a line of custom motorcycle parts caught Harley fans attention worldwide. His popularity grew as he built new custom bikes that wowed even the tough critics and then had those displayed on the bike show circuit and featured in motorcycle magazines.
After more than three decades of custom bike building and developing his business to the point where it supported a 300-page parts catalog, Arlen Ness, Inc. moved to a Dublin, California facility that includes a museum featuring more than 40 of his custom motorcycles.
The museum displays his famous Untouchable; the twin motor Two Bad; the antique inspired Ness-Tique; Blower Bike; the Italian sports car-inspired Ferrari Bike, the '57 Chevy sports car inspired Ness-Stalgia; the Bugatti-like Smooth-Ness; the Discovery Channel's Biker Build-Off bike Top Banana and his jet powered Mach Ness.
The Mach Ness is a motorcycle Ness built in 2005, inspired by Jay Leno's turbine-powered bike that incorporates a jet powered helicopter engine as its power plant. The design, concept, paint, and graphics were created by Carl Brouhardand the hand-made aluminum body work was by Bob Monroe.
Arlen has received recognition and awards including Builder of the Year, induction into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame and Lifetime Achievement Awards. His son, Cory Ness, has worked with Arlen for more than 30 years, and now runs the day-to-day business operations at Arlen Ness, Inc. Cory has himself been recognized as a top custom bike builder and even defeated his father in a 2004 episode of The Great Biker Build-Off. Carrying on the family tradition to a third generation, Cory's son, Zach, has built several beautiful high-end customs before finishing high school in 2006.
Ness received a patent for the Big Shot, a method of altering the motorcycles fuel injection system, is used to personalize a motorcycle's performance.
HoggTrader.com talked to Arlen recently to find out what he’s currently working on while also taking an opportunity to look back at more than four decades of his involvement with Harley-Davidson.
Q: Do you ever take the time to look back at what you’ve achieved in this industry?
A: Well, I do, because I have a museum here. I have a lot of my bikes that I can look at whenever I want, so I go down memory lane now and then. It’s been a great ride and I’m still in good shape at 71, so I don’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. I’m going to Sturgis for my 39th year in a row and I never get tired of it. I’ve got a few appearances to make there, but this year I’m planning on just having fun. During certain times of the year, I’m on the road all the time, but I never tire of it. I usually like to ride 300-400 miles per day when I’m out on one of my trips, but 500 miles makes for a long day, so I do a little less.
Q: When did you realize that you were becoming a brand name in the Harley community?
A: Probably 25 years ago. We’ve grown steadily over the years, but in around 1985, we could see that people were really starting to know us and the media started writing more about what we were doing. Some of the motorcycle magazines did some great stories about us during that time and it really helped our business. When I started my business, I was just happy to be working for myself. I was surprised when I started to see that it was turning into a pretty big deal.
Q: What do you think is the most significant thing you’ve done in this industry?
A: Our catalog business has really had some major impact, which was developed by my son Cory, who has run the company for the past 15 years. You start reaching so many more people when you do a catalog business, and that’s when the company started rolling. My son and daughter have been involved in the business and now my grandson Zack is working here.
Q: What is the story behind the Mach Ness?
A: That was a lot of fun. I was down at the Love Ride for the charity event, and Jay Leno drove up on one of those jet bikes he owns. It’s so cool that I decided I had to have one, so I went on the Internet and found a turbine helicopter jet and bought that motor and then built the Mach Ness. It is fun; when you fire up that thing, because people come running from everywhere when they hear it. It sounds like an airplane starting up.
Q: How many bikes do you own?
A: Well, close to 85 and most of them are either in my museum or on loan to other museums. I don’t believe that anyone has a collection of custom-made motorcycles like I have. I’ve got some pretty fancy ones, like the Smooth Ness, which people describe as an Art Deco Bugatti-like bike. Then, of course, I still have my first bike, the Untouchable, a play off my name Ness. The Two Bad is also fairly well-known, the double-engine bike that’s pretty wild. I would build 1-3 new bikes every year and then I’d use it for one season before building some new ones the next year. That’s why I probably ended up with so many motorcycles over the years.