Motorcycle legend Arlen Ness dies

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Mar 27, 2019, 1:38:56 PM3/27/19

SPEARFISH — Custom motorcycle legend, and entrepreneur Arlen Ness passed away Friday comfortably in his home surrounded by his loved ones.

Ness is survived by his wife of 59 years, Beverly, his children, and grandchildren.

Ness is described as a visionary in the motorcycle industry.

“Motorcycling has been a great ride … my whole life since I’ve been motorcycling has been wonderful. I’ve met so many nice people. Friends all over the world. … We can go almost anyplace and stay with friends. It’s been great,” Ness once said.

Everyone who knew Ness respects him for his achievements and for who he was as a person, both of which are superlatives. That respect is how Ness came to deserve the commonly spoken nickname “The King of Custom Motorcycles.”

Ness was inducted into the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum’s Hall of Fame in 1992.

He rarely reflected on his own success. This was apparent at the 2016 Sturgis Motorcycle Museum’s Hall of Fame ceremony when he received the first ever Lifetime Achievement Award.

He simply said, “Thank you very much.”

Born July 12, 1939, Ness has touched the lives of many people throughout the country.

He was instrumental in founding Hamsters USA, a group of philanthropic motorcyclists who have made LifeScape Children’s Care of Rapid City a major source of their charity. Over the past 13 years, Hamsters USA has donated more than $3 million to the center that assists children with disabilities in western South Dakota. Hamsters USA members have long considered the Black Hills a second home, and have been active in other charitable work in the area.

“I’ve known Arlen since he had his little shop in Oakland. His story is the American story,” said Scott Peterson, of Belle Fourche, a family friend and fellow Hamsters USA member. “He started with nothing, married his wife Bev, raised his family, made a living doing what he loved by building custom bikes, and he was highly successful in all of the above. He lived his dream.”

“Everyone liked Arlen Ness. Whether they were a Hells Angel or a Hamster. Everyone liked him and he was known all over the world,” Peterson continued. “He always had time for every fan, and he was so approachable. One of the treasures I will have for the rest of my life is the bike that Arlen built just for me in 2016. He personally built three custom Victory Vision motorcycles over one winter. One for himself, one for Jeff Erb, and one for me. I am honored to have been part of his true inner friendship circle.”

Greg Wick, of Rapid City, who along with Ness and Peterson, is also a longtime member of the Hamsters USA, reflected on knowing Ness for over 20 years.

“What a kind gentleman. He was so generous with his time,” Wick said.

Because of his expertise in custom motorcycle building, other guys would often ask Ness for advise or his opinion on what they had done with their own bikes. Ness was known for always being ready to help out. However if something had “missed the mark,” one of Wick’s favorite comments by Arlen was, “Well, you know the motor is the best part of that motorcycle.”

Wick went on to say, “Arlen never really planned it, but these guys, he and Donnie (Smith) and David (Perewitz) in particular, took riding custom bikes in the 70s to a point so that it isn’t seen that same way today, as it was then. He made rolling art. Without trying, he bridged the gap between the bad-boy chopper image and the mainstream for bikers. The average person all of a sudden wanted to be into custom motorcycles.”

Wick commented further about the Hamsters group.

“You make deep, deep connections revolving around custom motorcycles. And it’s probably overused, but it’s a brotherhood. It’s family,” Wick said. “I’m one of the most fortunate guys on the planet to have called him a friend.”

Ness was born in Moorhead, Minn., to Elaine and Ervin Ness, and moved to San Leandro, Calif., as a child.

With the money he won as a semi-professional bowler, Ness bought his first Harley. Ness started operating his custom motorcycle shop out of his garage in 1967. Now, Arlen Ness Enterprises, is a third-generation custom v-twin motorcycle, parts design and service company operating out of Dublin, Calif. The location also includes a museum and showroom, filled with original Ness creations.

With more than 50 years of ground-breaking custom bike-building and custom painting experience, Ness brought a unique understanding of the historical evolution of motorcycle production and design to his work. Ness received a patent for the Big Shot, a method of altering the motorcycle’s fuel injection system, and thereby enhancing a motorcycle’s performance. Among his many honors the customizer counts induction into the Sturgis Motorcycle Hall of Fame, placement of two bikes in the Oakland Art Museum’s permanent collection and interviews and essays about him in numerous editions of Hot Bike, Easy Rider, American Iron and other international periodicals.

Memorial services have yet to be announced.

The Ness family and Bikernet blog contributed to this report.

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