In the larger-than-life monochromatic photograph that hangs on the top floor of his 60,000-square-foot motorcycle empire in Dublin, Calif., a clean-shaven Arlen Ness beams the smile of a man sensing his own destiny. The snap was taken nearly 40 years ago in Ness’s first shop in San Leandro, near Oakland. It was a one-room affair that could barely house two of his slinky, color-crazed iron creations. “I had no idea, zero, that what I started then would turn in to all this.
In the larger-than-life monochromatic photograph that hangs on the top floor of his 60,000-square-foot motorcycle empire in Dublin, Calif., a clean-shaven Arlen Ness beams the smile of a man sensing his own destiny. The snap was taken nearly 40 years ago in Ness’s first shop in San Leandro, near Oakland. It was a one-room affair that could barely house two of his slinky, color-crazed iron creations.
“I had no idea, zero, that what I started then would turn in to all this.
“I guess I got lucky.”
Not really. Ness worked hard to become one of the pioneers in the custom-motorcycle world. Beginning with a talent for eye-catching graphics, he slowly worked his way into styling the entire motorcycles, eventually becoming the reigning guru for anyone hoping to make a personal statement with two wheels.
When former wrestler/entertainer Hulk Hogan needed a motorcycle to ride into the ring during his heyday, Ness whipped up the hard-charging Hulkster. Today, you can nab your own piece of the Ness story so long as your own life smacks of at least moderate success. His bikes begin in the $45,000 range.
But for all Ness’s passion for bikes, it all began with cars.
“My first claim to fame was back in high school when they put my customized ’51 Mercury in the school paper.”
That might explain why a healthy chunk of Arlen Ness Motorcycles, located in San Francisco, is given over to a half-dozen automobiles that still stake a claim to Ness’s heart.
Ness eagerly leads a tour of these babies. The first car he strides up to is a deceiving number. From 20 paces you would lay odds it’s a mid-1980s Ferrari Testarossa. But it seems a tad small for that massive machine.
“I always wanted a Testarossa, but I thought certain things about the car were just too extreme or strange looking, so I had this made.”
The black car is actually a 1977 Ferrari 308 GTB that is cloaked in an all-steel body that replicates most of the Testarossa’s exotic lines.
“I feel like it’s more of a personal custom car than a Ferrari.”
The nearby Dodge Viper was used for a while by Ness’s son Cory, who helps oversee the company, who then
sold it to a friend. But Arlen felt a tug and bought back the car.
“It’s really a race car, frankly. It rides real stiff, and my wife just hates being in it.”
Sandwiched between the two black sports cars is a vehicle of an entirely different stripe. The 1959 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud I is a mammoth beast that Ness has owned for 38 years and represents the first true symbol of his early success.
“I always wanted one of these things. I think at the time I bought it it cost me $14,000, and my house set me back $12,000.
The car’s a bit dusty now. It seems like it’s kept around mostly for its sentimental value, though Ness swears its six-cylinder engine is still called upon from time to time to sail around the neighborhood.
Decidedly less dusty — but nevertheless with a battery-charger cable snaking under its front hood — is a 1987 Porsche 911 Turbo that he picked up five years ago. It’s in classic German racing silver and its previous owner, a Ness customer, had it tricked out with a number of racing goodies.
Three cars remain in Ness’s show-and-tell session, and each one is something special. The first looks ragged, for a reason. It’s a 1956 Ford F150 pickup that Ness dropped and chopped decades ago to satisfy his personal desire for one of these classic hot rods. Time then intervened and the truck disappeared from his life. Then Cory found it on ebaymotors.com.
“Cory and I are going to restore this back to the way I had it, but add something modern, too.”
A different sort of emotion — cue the libido — is stirred up when Ness slips behind the wheel of what clearly emerges as a favored toy for sunny days, a 500-horsepower Matador Red 1995 Lamborghini Diablo VT.
Its ability to shock, both with its looks and speed, is what hooked Ness. “I mean, look at this thing,” he says, trying to slip his toes under the front skirt and barely succeeding. “It’s just too much.”
As is another Ness car, which, when push comes to shove, the man himself would likely admit is his favorite. Stunning in black, it’s manacing. The 1932 Ford Roadster has a body by Zipper Motors and overall structure-chassis, rear end, etc.-by Kugel Komponents. The massive wheels are hand-turned affairs featuring Ness’s famed “A” logo in each spoke.
“I had it built about four years ago. I needed something for those hot summer nights.”
Sometimes, even die-hard twowheel fans have to admit that there’s magic in cruising on four.