Legendary Motorcycle Customizer Arlen Ness Tribute

Celebrating the life of one of the industry’s greatest luminaries

Arlen Ness sits on his dual overhead cam chopper.
Arlen Ness takes it all in astride one of his dual overhead cam choppers. The industry luminary passed away on March 22, 2019.Photo by Michael Lichter, courtesy Arlen Ness.

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.

Arlen Ness with an early iteration of his 1947 Knucklehead, “Untouchable.”
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 courtesy Arlen Ness

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.

Arlen Ness sitting on one of his custom bikes.
Many Ness builds started off with Ironhead Sportster powertrains. On this particular build, barely anything but the unit engine was used.Photo courtesy Arlen Ness.

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.

Arlen and Becky Ness on his dual-engined digger, called “Two-Bad.”
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 courtesy Arlen Ness.

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.

Arlen Ness in his shop.
Arlen obviously enjoying being his own boss in the business’ infancy. The shop may have grown over the years, but that signature grin never left.Photo courtesy Arlen Ness.

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.

Arlen Ness with the “Hulkster,” a custom Shovelhead built for _The Incredible Hulk_.
The "Hulkster," a custom Shovelhead built for The Incredible Hulk by the incredible Arlen Ness.Photo courtesy Arlen Ness.

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.

Arlen Ness with “Ness-Stalgia,” which takes design cues from a ’57 Chevy Bel Air.
Cars and hot rods remained a passion of Arlen’s throughout his life; several of his builds managed to fuse both his loves like “Ness-Stalgia,” which takes design cues from a ’57 Chevy Bel Air.Photo courtesy Arlen Ness.

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.

Arlen rides under a plane with his son and grandson.
The Ness firm’s recent years have seen a fruitful arrangement with Indian Motorcycle and the now-defunct Victory. 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 courtesy Arlen Ness.

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.

Arlen Ness, Becky Ness, Christine Le Pera, Cory Ness, Michael Lichter, Zach Ness, Willie G. Davidson, and Nancy Davidson at Michael Lichter's annual Motorcycles as Art show at the Buffalo Chip.
Two great motorcycling families come together at Michael Lichter's annual Motorcycles as Art show at the Buffalo Chip. From left to right: Arlen Ness, Becky Ness, Christine Le Pera, Cory Ness, Michael Lichter, Zach Ness, Willie G. Davidson, and Nancy Davidson.Photo by Tyler Greenblatt.