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Ride In Peace, Arlen Ness

Buzz Kanter Columns Harley Magazine Blog This Months Column

Ride In Peace, Arlen Ness

Shifting Gears with Buzz Kanter
Shifting Gears with Buzz Kanter


SHIFTING GEARS, by Buzz Kanter, Publisher

He designed off-the-charts builds with clever names like Ness Cafe, Mach Ness, and Smooth Ness

I was very aware of Arlen Ness and his many accomplishments long before we met in the early 1990s. I was honored to introduce him, quoting from Tim Remus’ excellent book about Arlen, at his induction into the Sturgis Hall of Fame. I had bought this magazine a year or two earlier and was a bit awestruck by Arlen. On the other hand, Arlen was humble, polite, and friendly, characteristics I have always associated with him since. And that wasn’t just his public persona—I can’t ever remember seeing him acting counter to those values.

As a young man, long before he got involved in motorcycling, Arlen worked as a pinsetter in a local bowling alley. A fun fact is that Arlen, as a semiprofessional bowler, earned enough money knocking down pins to buy his first motorcycle, a 1947 Knucklehead. It wasn’t long before he was tinkering with the bike, customizing it to his tastes and style, in his simple garage in San Leandro, California. When friends and local bike owners asked Arlen to customize their bikes, he was too polite to say no. And … well, you know where that led.

Unlike many other builders who specialize in one style, Arlen never seemed to limit his vision. After starting his career working mainly on Harleys, he eventually teamed up with his son Cory, expanding his custom style to Victory motorcycles; this even included design work for the company. His designs ranged from mild to wild, and to well beyond radical: single engine, twin engines, and even turbocharged creations long before they became popular. Diggers, choppers, bobbers, and baggers, he designed off-the-charts builds with clever names like Ness Cafe, Mach Ness, and Smooth Ness.

I recall seeing Arlen, a huge fan of hot rods and the custom culture, riding a stock motorcycle only once, when he was a guest on our Fantasy Weekend. AIM had invited six people to ride six different new Harleys over four days for an article in the magazine. We swapped bikes twice a day and shared comments and opinions on each of the bikes for our readers. When we got stuck in a massive downpour during rush hour traffic only 30 miles from his house, he invited us all over to dry off and wait for the weather to pass. When we rolled into his driveway, his wife, Bev, was ready at the door for us with lots of dry towels, hot pizza, and world-class hospitality.

After accomplishing more than most people can even dream of, Arlen passed away, age 79, March 22, 2019, surrounded by his family and loved ones. Bev was an active supporter for Arlen throughout his entire career, and his son Cory is an accomplished builder and designer in his own right. Both helped build Arlen Ness Enterprises, in business for more than 30 years. And Cory’s son Zach shares his grandfather’s and father’s passion for motorcycles and design. Arlen left this world a better place, knowing his family will carry on his legacy for years to come.

Fun Motorcycle Events
American Iron Magazine is honored to once again sponsor and support the motorcycle fields for the Greenwich Concours June 1-2 in Greenwich, Connecticut. This is a high-profile Concours show, with a solid reputation of promoting and supporting motorcycles. In fact, last year The World’s Fastest Indian was on our field and the owner fired it up a few times. Each day is different, with American vehicles on display Saturday, and an entirely new field of imports on Sunday. Plus, we have a special two-day display of orphan motorcycles for motorcycle brands no longer being made. More info at GreenwichConcours.com.

Details are still being finalized as we go to press, but there are plans for a free classic motorcycle hill climb at Tower Hill Road in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire, on June 11. If I can get my act together, I plan to run my Team American Iron 1937 Indian Sport Scout racer up the steep paved road during the Laconia rally. More info at Race-USCRA.com. Hope to see you there.

Ride safe, ride smart, have fun.


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