Back in the day, circa 1970 B.C. (Before Catalogs), when custom bike parts were the homespun products of some local dude with a hacksaw and a rattle can of flat-black paint, Arlen Ness was going for baroque. He gold-plated wheels and handlebars, engraved the aluminum fascia of drivetrain components with ornate filigrees, splashed outlandish colors on sheetmetal, and upholstered seats with plush velour. Some of his period chops look as though Louis XIV of France had gone psychedelic with a rococo rocket sled for tooling around the Tuileries. Ness combined flower power with horsepower by embracing the aesthetics of hippie counterculture that flourished in the San Francisco Bay Area. He once crammed two supercharged Ironhead Sportster engines into one frame, their canoodling making ungodly heaps of horsepower. Such eccentricities became hallmarks of early chopper style.
The late Denver Mullins in Southern California popularized the kind of chopper that was seared into pop-culture consciousness by the silver screen. Back on Arlen’s turf the digger was de rigeur. It was a bobber with a Northern California twist—Arlen’s own. His own idea of a chopper meant apes on a stretched-out Sporty—not too much rake—with a short springer supporting a tall front tire. Arlen later popularized the idea of going against the grain of the bobber with gargantuan “street-dragger” fenders—rear only; still nothing up front.
Arlen Ness was born in 1939 in Morehead, Minnesota. His family came to San Leandro, California, while he was a sixth-grader. He was “just a local guy,” he says, who didn’t stand out. His first bike was a 20-year-old Harley-Davidson Knucklehead he purchased in 1967 when he was 27. “My wife really didn’t like motorcycles,” Arlen said. “Something you can’t have, you want more than anything else. So I bought a motorcycle and brought it home.” He hadn’t yet learned how to ride it. “My wife didn’t talk to me for a couple of weeks,” he laughed. With only his high-school shop experience, Arlen took it apart, added a peanut gas tank and painted it metalflake green by converting a vacuum cleaner into a spraying rig. It won first prize in a local bike show.
Arlen’s reputation spread quickly throughout the Bay Area. He found himself painting other people’s hogs to bring home some much needed bacon. Working nights in his garage, he made deliveries by day for his father’s furniture store. His wife complained that strangers were hanging around the house at all hours dropping off and picking up bikes. When the empty beer cans piled up too high, Arlen leased a storefront in San Leandro that remained his headquarters for 33 years. He capitalized that new enterprise with winnings from a semi-professional bowling career.
Ness expanded his business by handcrafting custom parts for a growing list of customers. He was one of the first manufacturers to market a line of signature billet parts to consumers. Other builders grabbed them up, and by so doing helped Ness achieve an even broader influence over the look of custom motorcycles. He single-handedly invented the “theme bike” with voluptuous designs modeled after famous automobiles and with other examples of what came to be known as “body bikes.”
Ness has kept every bike he built since 1967. Actually, he had to buy back a few that were sold in leaner times. He has 60 of them in his collection today. He makes as much time to ride now as possible. He meets up several times each year with his buddies, Dave Perewitz and Donnie Smith, with whom he founded the Hamsters Motorcycle Club, a fiendish name that was obviously chosen to strike terror into the hearts of law-abiding citizens. –Tom Zimberoff, Art of the Chopper.com