Oil Change & Museum Tour: Pit Stop at Arlen Ness Motorcycles

Five-hundred miles had come and gone on the new engine. Still 500 to go before home. But if you’ve gotta make a pit stop for a service job, Arlen Ness Motorcycles isn’t a bad place to have to stop.

Backside of the building I roll up to the second-story garage on the Indian Chieftain Dark Horse. They’ve graciously got me in on short notice. The job left me a couple hours to wander around the Ness compound.

Arlen Ness Museum Untouchable

The “First” bike, aka “Untouchable,” has taken many forms over the years before Arlen returned it to this late ’70s rendition.

Walking in the building is like the Pearly Gates of custom motorcycles, the split staircase rising from the foyer leading to the land of Arlen Ness, twin-engines, superchargers and a larger-than-life picture of the man himself. He deserves to be supersized. His ingenuity and artistry is a benchmark of the industry, as is his humble ambassadorship.

It takes talent to reinvent the same bike again and again to make amends. Makes you appreciate “Untouchable” that much more. Besides, it’s the “First,” the bike that helped put Arlen on the map. Not sure what’s finest – the flow of the frame, the belts of the Magnuson Supercharger boosting the big-bored Knuckle, the stretch of the tank or the paint that’s on it. Then there’s what’s not seen, like the oil running through the frame and the brake line run through the fork.

I don’t know where to look. There’s “Ness-Stalgia” next to “Mach Ness,” the Biker Build-Off “Overhead Cam Sportster” ready to battle the “Hulkster.” There’s the orange and matte grey bike he went to town drilling out. Shovel lower, Knuckle upper, it was one of the first with belt drive. Arlen bead-blasted it to get the matte-to-gloss effect, blasting trim like the fender struts, too. Ness bucked trends.

Arlen Ness Shovel/Knuckle combo

With a Shovel lower and a Knuckle upper, this Ness custom was one of the first with belt drive.

Had to virtually tear myself away from the museum. Zach, the third-link in the Ness trifecta, kindly gave me the grand tour. Zach is moving on up. Literally. He’s moving his office upstairs near Arlen and Cory. Smart and ambitious, he’s also moving up in the industry, leaving little doubt the Ness empire will be in good hands for a long time coming.

In a back room he shows us one of his latest projects. The frame is a modern take on a digger, 27 pounds of chromoly with Arlen’s axle plate design anchoring its tail. The Victory Freedom 106 engine has been cracked open and built up by Lloydz Motorworks and outfitted with a B Class race blower. Words like 250 horsepower entered the conversation, straight-line acceleration and Point A to Point B.

Zach Ness project bike tank

Zach Ness holds up the mock-up tank for his latest project bike.

Zach Ness Modern Digger project bike

Zach’s latest project uses a modern digger frame with a Victory Freedom 106 given the Lloydz Motorworkz treatment then boosted with a B Class race blower.

In another chamber we meet Jeff Border, who’s been with the company 26 years. He uses what he’s learned in those 26 years to lead research and design of Ness parts and accessories, a lucrative part of the Ness portfolio as Big Sucker sales can attest to. Zach says Border “makes things work” around here.

Work is one thing there’s no shortage of. While Zach’s project sat downstairs, Arlen’s build for Born Free was taking shape upstairs. The company is in the process of producing Octane parts. They’re fine-tuning a new saddlebag and topcase combo for Victory Visions, the Ness design more traditional, changing the complexion of the bike in a good way. Resources are being spent on wheel development. The warehouse was full and shipping trucks were hustling in-and-out all morning, operations running like a fine-tuned machine.

Speaking of fine-tuned machines, we take one last trip around the upstairs garage before hopping back on our freshly serviced Chieftain Dark Horse, walk by treasures like the chopped and slammed red Ness van called the “Harley Hauler.” Above it, the one-off, hand-built roadster race car powered by a motorcycle engine hangs ornamentally on the wall. Another fine example of Ness’s hand-formed aluminum bodywork, the Roadster features a tubular hand-fabricated frame to boot. As for the engine, it’s also been given the Ness touch, the 104 cubic-inch S&S V-Twin outfitted with a Magnuson Supercharger and Twin Weber Carbs. The iconic duo needs to be squeezed into the museum somehow instead of gathering dust in a storage area.

While I would have been happy to spend more hours there, time to hit the road. A long day through the Shasta range awaited. But what a pit stop. Not every day you get a behind-the-scenes look at an industry leader, from the research and design department responsible for their hot-selling parts to the paint booth tucked in the back of the building. Better yet, how many other oil changes come with a free museum tour of world-class customs from three generations of builders and display cases overflowing with more than 40 years of trophies and walls of magazine covers? Going above and beyond seems to be the Ness way.

Knights at the Roundtable: Allstate’s Bike Week Moto Masters

We were a motley crew. A spunky South Dakotan girl in knee-high boots and flared vintage riding pants standing next to a tie-dye shirt and Chuck Taylor wearing long-haired Texan. There was the steely-eyed Northern Californian with movie star looks, thick arms and a hat sitting backwards on his head chatting with an ultra-hip SoCal urbanite with close-cropped hair, tattoos of motorcycles on her arms and an ever-present smile. And then there was me, a denim-wearing, middle-aged Oregonian hiding behind black Oakleys and a Vans hat. Yup, we were a funky bunch.

Allstate's Moto Masters Roundtable Bike Week 2016

The motley crew of Allstate’s Moto Masters Roundtable (L-R) Zach Ness, Brittney Olsen, Alicia Elfving, Rick Fairless, and me, Bryan Harley.

Somehow, though, Allstate Insurance saw something of value in us. Why else would they invite us to be the five panelists on its Moto Masters Roundtable at Daytona Beach Bike Week? The Roundtable was a live-streaming event from Allstate’s Rider Protection Zone at Daytona International Speedway. The five Moto Masters were each asked questions in their particular area of expertise, the questions coming from Allstate’s Facebook page, the live audience, and pre-prepared ones from moderator Courtney Lambert. Topics ranged from safety tips to trends in the industry, favorite routes and favorite bikes. Live-streaming the event gave people who couldn’t attend the 75th anniversary of Bike Week a little taste of the rally thanks to Allstate. And Bike Week wasn’t the only one celebrating a big anniversary. Allstate was celebrating its 50th year of insuring motorcycles and wanted to do something big at Bike Week. Hence, the Moto Masters Roundtable was formed.

And though motley might we be, we brought a breadth of experience to the table. The spunky South Dakotan? That was Brittney Olsen, a girl wise beyond her years. Olsen is the co-owner of 20th Century Racing, proponents and torchbearers of antique motorcycle racing. She’s a fearless boardtrack racer who’s passionate about old motorcycles and can talk shop with the best of them. Being married to Knucklehead savant Matt Olsen doesn’t hurt any in fueling her passion.

Brittney Olsen Bike Week 2016

Beneath Brittney Olsen’s smile lies a fearless boardtrack racer. 

The long-haired, tie-dye and Chuck Taylor-wearing Texan? None other than Rick Fairless, one of the hardest-working men in the industry. Fairless is a renaissance man, a master with paint, custom bike builder, writer, TV personality, entrepreneur, and big chief at one of the most popular biker bars in the country, Strokers Dallas. Fairless’ empire was once the fodder of a truTV series called “Ma’s Roadhouse.” His colorful style has become his signature as there’s no mistaking a Fairless custom.

Rick Fairless Bike Week 2016

Rick Fairless has no shortage of flair. 

The steely-eyed Northern Californian with the movie star looks and burly arms? Zach Ness, third-generation custom bike builder and part owner of Arlen Ness Enterprises. Yes, Arlen is his grandpa. And sure, Zach was born into this industry, but he doesn’t simply ride coattails. He’s paid his dues, sweeping the floor of the shop, picking up tools, listening and learning. Zach’s come into his own. Most recently Victory enlisted his services in creating a prototype to its new liquid-cooled cruiser called the Octane, Zach’s take an American muscle bike called the Combustion. He teamed up with the National Geographic Channel for a TV series called “Let it Ride” and proudly carries on the Ness bike building tradition of his grandfather and father.

Zach Ness at Bike Week 2016

Zach Ness having a little fun at Bike Week during Allstate’s Moto Masters Roundtable.

As for the uber-cool SoCal girl with the half-shaved head, cool tattoos and ever-present smile? Most know her as the MotoLady, Alicia Elfving. She’s a road warrior, loves to wrench, loves to ride. Elfving honed her skills on the mean streets in and around Portland, did a stint with MotoCorsa, customized a Ducati Monster 750 that was featured in BikeExif, then moved to sunny Southern California so she could ride year-round. Now she runs one of the hottest moto-sites for women riders, engages fans on her various social platforms, and inspires female motorcyclists by fully immersing herself in the lifestyle. She has energy and zeal that’s infectious, evident by her rising popularity in moto circles.

Bike Week 2016 The MotoLady Alicia Elfving

Alicia Elfving, aka The MotoLady, visited Bike Week for the very first time to be a member of Allstate’s Moto Masters Roundtable.

As for me. I’ve been lucky enough to be a motojournalist for almost the last ten years. I’ve ridden and reviewed more motorcycles than I can remember, crashed a few, and lived to tell the tale. I’ve earned my stripes by covering bike shows big and small, from the AMD World Championships to the Rat’s Hole. I make the rounds at motorcycle rallies around the country and call the Sturgis Buffalo Chip my home-away-from-home for 10 days every August. Now I’m American Iron’s Online Editor and a contributor to the magazine, a new role I’m beyond excited about.

Allstate’s Moto Masters Roundtable took place in the shadows of Daytona’s renovated International Speedway. I’m still in awe every time I visit the Speedway as I can sense the spirit of the racing history it has hosted. It was an honor to be a part of Allstate’s history, its first Bike Week Moto Masters Roundtable. Hopefully it will become an Allstate tradition at the rally.

Over the course of a live-streamed hour, our Roundtable fielded a gamut of questions. When asked what he anticipates will be the next trend in custom bikes, Fairless said he sees choppers making a comeback. Zach added that rallies and bike shows are a great way to see what’s coming next. Hailing from South Dakota, Olsen was the perfect person to talk about winterizing a motorcycle, from emptying fluids to putting batteries on trickle chargers. Elfving, a big proponent of “All The Gear, All the Time,” encouraged riders to wear a full-face helmet, listed some of her favorites (Icon, Shoei, Arai, AGV) and shared sources to research before buying. When questioned about helpful tips for riders, I emphasized the importance of a pre-ride check – tire pressure, blinkers, cables, leaks. When asked for tips that would help novice riders, I recited my mantra – ride like you’re invisible. Never assume when it comes to other drivers. If you can envision something happening, act on your intuition and do what it takes to make sure it doesn’t.

Allstate also used the event to unveil the grand prize for this year’s “Motorcycle Sweepstakes,” a 2016 Polaris Slingshot given the patriotic red, white and blue treatment by Fairless. The Slingshot is a blast to ride. It’ll lay down a pretty good patch of rubber in the first couple of gears, sticks to the road like glue but can still be drifted it when time comes to have some fun. Somebody’s going to take this rig home. Why not you? Click this link for a shot at winning. :https://www.allstatemotorcyclesweepstakes.com/

While we may have arrived at the Roundtable as casual acquaintances, we left as friends, the love of motorcycles and our industry a common bond that brought our panel of Moto Masters together. I’m honored to have sat at the Roundtable with each of them and look forward to when our paths cross again.