Arlen Ness is the godfather of custom motorcycles. While there are and were many customizers out there who can use an English Wheel and make perfect welds, it was Ness who was the first to really push the boundaries in the 1970s, and push them very hard, on a consistent basis. If you opened any number of motorcycle magazines on a consistent basis from the 1970s on through to the 1990s, chances are good you came across a Ness creation in all its glory. And there was glory to spare.
Not content simply with fancy paint schemes, fat tires and extended forks, Ness separated himself from other customizers not only with his wild design ideas, but with his marriage of those ideas to performance. Indeed, his most iconic bikes were rarely choppers, they were a mashup of power, aesthetics and never-been-there-before form factors. Ness’ legacy is long and deep enough that there’s even a fantastic book about him and his bikes.
Ness opened up engines and then added all manner of devices to improve mixing gasoline and air. He was a big, big fan of superchargers, and one was not always enough. Exposed belt runs, lengthy carb plenums and circuitous exhaust plumbing are all Ness hallmarks. The way he wrapped outrageous yet functional power increases in eye-popping designs was what lifted him above the rest.
After an enjoyable ride from L.A. to S.F. on a new Indian, I had to drop the bike off at Ness’s bustling dealership in Dublin, which is nestled near Silicon Valley east of the Bay Area right off the 580. Ness sells Victory and Indian models as well as a selection of used machines and custom-made parts. There’s an expansive service center for all manner of bikes, both mundane and insane. But up on the mezzanine, he has a jewel-like museum crowded with many of his most famous creations. More of his iconic bikes are scattered around the dealership.
After dropping off the Indian and with a few minutes before a cab came to whisk me off to the Oakland airport, I got out my camera for a too-short visual tour of several decades of Ness’ endless creativity.
If you ever pass through Dublin, California, the Ness dealership and museum should be a mandatory stop. Prepare to be blown away.
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