Cool Motorcycles Were This Designer’s Stock-in-Trade

July 12, 1939

Motorcycle designer and entrepreneur Arlen Ness was born in Moorhead, Minnesota. When he was in the sixth grade, Ness moved with his family to California. Prior to his motorcycle career, Ness worked in such positions as a pin setter at a bowling alley, a post office employee, and a furniture mover.

Over time, Ness developed a strong enthusiasm for motorcycles. By the mid-1960s, Ness was competing in semi-professional bowling leagues in California and he saved the prize money won in those games to buy his first motorcycle. “I used to keep that money tucked away in the back of my wallet,” he later recalled. “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.”

The motorcycle was a 1947 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead, and it proved to have a life-changing effect on Ness. He worked on upgrading the motorcycle, refurbishing his new mode of transportation with custom paint and outfitting it with an extended gas tank. Ness subsequently entered his modified motorcycle in a local show, where it attracted a great deal of attention. Consequently, Ness received numerous requests to paint other motorcycles. This new line of work became a full-time job for him, and eventually, people also began asking him for customized motorcycle parts he had developed.

This steadily increasing demand for his service and products led Ness to come up with his first catalog, which his wife Bev typed up for him for distribution. Ness explained, “We had the ram’s horn bars, some glass fenders – stuff like that, with a price next to each one.” Ness’s business thrived as motorcycles, thanks to the movie Easy Rider and other 1960s cultural touchstones, became even more popular with the public.

Ness initially ran his business out of the garage at his home in San Leandro. By the early 1970s, however, he moved his operations to a storefront on East 14th Street. Along with providing unique painting styles and a line of customized parts for motorcycles, Ness ultimately built his own models. These creations gained widespread exposure and renown via both the bike show circuit and various motorcycle magazines. Arlen Ness Motorcycles continued to expand, eventually necessitating a move to larger quarters at its current location in Dublin, California.

The custom motorcycles built by Ness and his company over the years included the Untouchable, the twin-motored Two Bad, and the jet-powered Mach Ness. His creations Ferrari Bike and Smooth-Ness were inspired by European sports cars, while the design for his motorcycle Ness-Stalgia was based on the iconic 1957 Chevrolet (better known as the ’57 Chevy). Ness’s other accomplishments included receiving a U.S. patent for his method of enhancing the performance of a motorcycle through readjustments to its fuel injection system.

“Motorcycling has been a great ride,” Ness once noted. “My whole life since I’ve been motorcycling has been wonderful.” He was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1992. In 2016, Ness was given a lifetime achievement award by the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame in South Dakota. “Arlen truly is the ‘Godfather’ of the custom bike movement,” said Myrick Robbins, executive director of the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame. “No one has done more to influence the look of what a custom motorcycle is.” Ness died on March 22, 2019, at the age of 79.

For more information on Arlen Ness, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arlen_Ness and http://www.motorcyclemuseum.org/halloffame/detail.aspx?RacerID=351.

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