Custom Motorcycle Luminary Arlen Ness Passes Away At 79
The motorcycle industry lost an icon last week with the death of
Arlen Ness. The unfortunate announcement of his passing on March
22nd 2019 was posted on the company facebook page the
Arlen was a master craftsman, skilled painter, and trend setter. He was well liked and well respected by everyone he knew and met, not just because he was an incredible custom bike builder, but because he was a truly genuine and kind hearted person who loved sharing his passion for motorcycles with anyone and everyone. With kind eyes and always a gentle smile, Arlen made you feel welcome into his world of motorcycles.
From his early years in the custom motorcycle world cutting, raking, and flaking 60s era choppers and spindly low-slung diggers, to outfitting the latest luxury baggers with the perfect mix of parts, Arlen had done and built it all. Arlen was always progressing not just his skills and business, but the motorcycle industry as a whole. Beyond his skills with a torch, paint brush, and hand tools, Arlen was also a smart business man that was able to turn custom bike building into a multifaceted family business that included a parts line, apparel, motorcycle dealership, design consulting, and his own signature motorcycle models with Victory Motorcycles.
Very few bike builders have built motorcycles that have stood the test of time and become iconic pieces in the annals of custom motorcycle history. Arlen however, has created multiple bikes that other builders and fans constantly refer to or reflect upon for inspiration. Of course there's his first build, the 1947 Harely-Davidson Knucklehead which was later dubbed "Untouchable". There's also the Ferrari bike, the 1930s Bugatti inspired "SmoothNess", the two wheeled version of a '57 Bel Air "Ness-Stalgia", the "Hulkster" bike, "2 Bad", and "MachNess" are just a few of his more famous builds.
Arlen's accolades and achievements are endless: AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame, Sturgis Hall of Fame, named "Legend of the Sport" by The Quail Motorcycle Gathering, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from Sturgis Motorcycle Museum, just to mention a few. From being featured on national cable programming like Biker Builder Off to having a hard cover book published with famed motorcycle photographer Michael Lichter's photos showcasing some of Arlen's most popular bikes he accomplished more through his love of motorcycles than imaginable.
Arlen's journey was never about getting recognized, winning custom bike shows, or being the best, it was just about love of motorcycles and providing for his family. From the beginning with that first Knucklehead there was no plan or road map, Arlen just fired the bike to life and let the motorcycle take the lead. And lead it did. For more than five decades Arlen kept the throttle twisted and charted his own course.
Story time: When I first started out as a motorcycle journalist many years ago one of my first work trips was to Daytona for Bike Week. One day while out there my editor at the time told me he lined up a few bikes for us to photograph for features in the magazines we were working for, Hot Bike and Street Chopper. We ran a very lean ship in those days so all the editorial staff both wrote and shot pretty much everything in the magazines.
I wasn't aware until we arrived at the backside of a strip mall along the Halifax River that one of the four bikes we were shooting was Arlen's latest creation a pro-street style, rubber-mounted chopper based on the company's new Y2k frame. Being new to the whole motorcycle photography thing, my editor said he would handle three of the bikes and I could go down a ways and shoot Arlen's bike.
Nervous excitement doesn't even begin to explain how I was feeling. Not only was I shooting this incredible custom chopper but it was but by none other than Arlen Ness himself. I was a wreck. I can't recall who built the other bikes but I feel like there were other custom motorcycle heavy hitters present like Donny Smith or Dave Perewitz, because I remember them all huddled together laughing and telling stories.
I also don't remember if it was a work policy or just one I instituted myself but I rarely if every move someone's motorcycle when photographing it-I don't want that responsibility or guilt on me if it were to fall over. So Arlen wheels the bike down the backside of the strip mall to get out of the way of the other photoshoot and just hung out there with me as I began setting up my tripod and camera. I remember feeling like I was being watched by the principal while taking a test. I tried to calm my nerves by chatting with Arlen a little as I got prepared. He was so personable and friendly, I was able to collect my composure and calmed my nerves.
Over the course of the shoot while I was absorbed into my camera and trying to make sure I hit all the right angles and covered every single detail of the bike Arlen would meander over to his group of friends (the other builders whose bikes were getting photographed) and I'd hear him chuckle as someone brought up another story.
Every 15 minutes or so he'd walk back over to check on me and we'd chat a bit and then I'd have to ask him to move or turn the bike a bit. It was like being in a dream. Here I am shooting one of my first bike features, it's an Arlen Ness bike none the less, Arlen is watching me shoot his bike, and I have him moving the bike around like he's my assistant. It was surreal. I felt awkward that this legend in the industry was pushing his own bike around for my photoshoot, but Arlen had no qualms about it. He just smiled, asked where I wanted the bike parked, how I wanted the handlebars, and then would stand back and talk with me or watch for a bit before walking back over to the other bikes.
When the shoot was over Arlen walked over, shook my hand, and thanked me for photographing his bike and I think I was a little caught off guard. Here he was doing all the grunt work pushing the bike around every which way making sure everything was how I wanted it and all I was doing was pushing a button, and he's thanking me? This had to be like the millionth time one of his bikes was being photographed and he was just as gracious and appreciative as he probably was the very first time. I thanked him profusely for the amazing opportunity.
Months later, when it came time to publish Arlen's bike feature in Street Chopper I was stunned to see that the editor had chosen one of my photos to be the cover image. I could not believe my eyes! My photo of an Arlen Ness bike was the cover for a magazine. I have taken photos of a lot of motorcycles since that time, but that photo session with Arlen and his bike has always stuck with me as one of my most memorable and favorites. Not because of the end result, but because I was so start struck and nervous, yet Arlen was so gracious, personable, genuine, and kind. Just like he's always been.
The custom motorcycle scene and motorcycling industry as a whole will greatly miss Arlen. But for all his great successes and accomplishments in life, his greatest achievement is that his class, kindness, and deep appreciation for motorcycles will live on through his wonderful family.
May the King of Custom forever ride in peace.