Arlen Ness lived in way that speaks volumes to his character and values. A man who has long been associated with the churn of an air compressor and the fizz of a paint gun, the clang of tools on a workbench, the staccato first firing of a straight-piped high compression rabble rouser, and a clan of like-minded loud and proud riders on gleaming custom American V-Twins. After a career and life in motorcycling, Arlen wanted to be in his home to peacefully take his last breath. Following a battle with cancer, Ness passed away after a full life of friends and motorcycles, with loving family at his side.
The platitudes for Arlen Ness the custom builder will be rolling in for some time. His impact on the motorcycle world was certainly made through bodacious designs and trend shredding / trend setting / parts selling / and a global presence in the American V-Twin custom scene. However, the dogged determination, quiet confidence, and humble affect of the man is what will undoubtedly stand out to the many people all over the world that he called friends.
Ness was raised in Minnesota where he was born into hard work. A family move to the West Coast just before being a teenager also uncovered a desire to stay warm, as well as exposure to the Bay Area custom culture. His parents forbade him to own a motorcycle because of the pervasive “evil biker” stereotype of the era. Nevertheless, he was drawn into the custom scene – it fired him up before he even knew how to ride. While working as a postman, Arlen rode a $300 knucklehead into the garage only after his friend had to start it for him up the street. Partner since high school, (wife of 59 years) Beverly was not amused and refused to speak to him for a few days.
Soon however, his bike won a contest and was promptly torn down to rebuild into his “second” bike, which also won contests. His attention went from late night parties and motorcycle club “runs”, to custom painting and developing accessories. Thus started a custom parts empire that decades later was significantly accelerated through his son Cory taking the business lead. Jump to the present, and the offices in the massive Dublin, CA, HQ are not only filled with a lifetime of creative execution, printed articles, accolades and endless cool stuff, but also daughter Sherri and Grandson Zach holding key roles in the company. Grandson Max built bikes there, Arlen’s 15 year younger brother Kevin found refuge helping after school at Arlen’s first shop and worked on and off with him for decades. Kevin died in a motorcycle accident a few years ago, devastating his older brother. One of Arlen’s last projects was restoring his little brother’s custom Victory Vision to add to the museum in tribute to Kevin.
Ness was a founding member of the vaunted Hamsters Motorcycle Club, a tongue-in-cheek yang to the hard-living hard partying biker yin of the ’60s and ’70s. The Hamsters have some core rules – your bike must be American, it must be customized, and you must go to Sturgis. Forty-five trips there, countless roads, friends, drinks, and some stories best forgotten. The Hamsters are an impactful and now legendary organization, inducted into the Sturgis Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2018. The Hamsters leave their mark not by tossing TV’s into hotel pools, but by donating tens of thousands of dollars through charity events, rides, and generous business relationships.
Ness loved running with the Hamsters to Sturgis, building custom bikes to be ridden not just showboats – though he admitted a few were “really not great to ride.” Preferring to work with his hands and analogue imagination, guided by a unique vision that typically leaned on long, low, and smooth principals, Ness creations have become highly collectible globally, with enough still on hand to fill a second story museum in Dublin. Any gearhead visiting the Bay Area needs to see the collection that includes a turbine bike, an electric chopper, double-engined and supercharged leading link sleds and sidecars. Noting when they were built shows you how ahead of the curve he often was. Toss in a rare bike, Hulk Hogan’s custom Harley and his iconic SmoothNess… even if his was not your style, the execution, craftsmanship, volume, and vision are worthy of your respect.
Ness noted that when he started, “My shit was all welded and bonded you know…” The modern rapid prototype stuff, CAD design, and global manufacturing blew his mind. Ness prided himself in bucking trends to the point that he confidently claimed inventing the now common custom bagger class. His Dyna-based “Luxury Liners” were so popular that he ended up building fifty or so for customers who loved the new look. The King of Customs credits son Cory for creating bag extensions that led to custom tooling for fully formed flowing bags now imitated by dozens of companies.
While the enduring visual buffet left in his creative wake will continue to be well documented, it’s really the loss of the man that will be felt the most. One could imagine that the quiet silver-haired dark glasses wearing custom straddling elder statesman would be a trusted advisor for the likes of James Dean. The Most Interesting Biker In The World. He hung with motorcycle royalty including Sonny Barger, Willie G, Mondo Porras, Dave Perewitz and countless others, but he would take the time to shake the hand of any random fan and snap a photo or two. His celebrity was accelerated through articles about the builds, TV appearances, and being hosted at events all around the world, but the respect from the industry and committed enthusiasts is something that was earned one-on-one. Ness took pride in “always doing what we said we would do and not copy – we have respect because we are honest and take stuff back.” Known for hiring in talented young builders, designers (he called the “drawers”), and emphasizing that being confident but humble is always the way to go, he led by example, sacrificing personal retirement funds and motorcycles to keep the doors open in 2008/09.
Arlen Ness would be a worthy addition to a Mount Rushmore of motorcycling. Words often fail a life well led, but the appreciation for a good living intensifies as you get older. There comes a point where you start losing more good friends than you make, and today there are thousands of Arlen’s friends who know that there will never be another King of Custom Motorcycles. They also smile at the good fortune of knowing a man in dark sunglasses whose white hair flowed freely while astride a one-off motorcycle built from his imagination, riding alongside family and friends on the way to another epic day.
Arlen Ness, The King of Customs is dead. But his unique inspiration will never fade.