Published In C&K Magazine: Vol. #2 – Issue #1 – Date: 2007 Arlen and Cory Ness are icons in the motorcycle industry. Perhaps no one business enterprise better represents the extent to which custom bike builders have come in the last forty years. Transitioning from a sideline business representing a personal passion to an international corporation with worldwide interests, the Arlen Ness Corporation is at the pinnacle of this industry. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to personally meet with both Arlen and Cory at their 70,000 square foot facility just south of Oakland in Dublin, California. There, with the help of almost one hundred employees, they manufacture custom production motorcycles. One new bike every day and a half is the norm. Rest assured that when you walk into this building that they personally designed, you can’t help but smile. Bikes are everywhere. Form the showroom to the museum, the Ness’s artwork makes a statement. If while walking through the facility, the rumblings of a v-twin engine being turned over doesn’t jump start your day, well, get checked for a pulse. They are fast, powerful and of course “cool.” I found both Arlen and Cory to be extremely accessible and willing to discuss a variety of topics. It is not unusual for Arlen to be found on the showroom floor talking with customers. During my visit he was kind enough to take me on a personal tour. If you are into bikes or just take pleasure in stories that represent the American dream, I hope you enjoy their comments as much as I did my visit.
Arlen Ness Bio
Arlen bought his first Harley in 1967 with the money he won as a semi-professional bowler. Armed with no more than a spray gun and a dream, Arlen stripped down his bike and gave it a paint job of his own creation. After many an appraising eye set sight on his creation, Arlen entered it in a custom show, where it won First Place! Faced with a growing list of customers, Arlen rented his first store on East 14th Street in San Leandro, CA. While still working at his full time job, Arlen worked the store in the evenings. With the help of his family, he took a big step out onto thin air, leaving his job and going out on his own full time.
In March of 2003, Arlen Ness opened the new World Headquarters in Dublin, CA. This 68,000 sq. ft. building has a sales showroom, parts department, apparel store, service department, shipping & receiving warehouse, photo studio, museum of Arlen’s famous builds, production area for the new line of NESS MOTORCYCLES, LLC, and Arlen’s and Cory’s workshop where you can actually see the masters working their motorcycle magic. His refusal to imitate others, his sense of style and his willingness to take risks is still seen today in their slogan of “Always innovate, never imitate”.
Cory Ness Bio
Raised in steel and chrome since birth, Cory Ness is the business and key design arm of Arlen Ness Enterprises. He has a unique perspective of the Motorcycle industry. His success in custom designed motorcycles is only rivaled by one person…his father Arlen. Born with the Ness innovation gene, Cory is the chief designer behind all that is Arlen Ness Enterprises today. He runs the day to day business, designs new parts and accessories, and still finds time to design his own style of motorcycles. His award winning innovations can be seen on the covers and interior spreads of National and International Motorcycle magazines.
C&K: What inspires your designs?
AN: When you’ve done it so long, you just want to try different things and when we build a bike a lot of times, a product idea will come out. Cory and I are the two designers for the company.
C&K: Do the mechanics or the design of your bikes excite you more?
CN: Actually both. Whatever it is, it has to work properly but it’s also got to look good. We have a few performance items that we have patents on but we’re generally cosmetic guys.
C&K: You were both fortunate enough to be born and raised in Northern California, where the way of life is music, wine, sports … is there anything from that culture that influences your designs? Do you think your business might be different if it started elsewhere, another part of the country?
CN: I don’t know. Maybe just being in California might make you push the envelope a little more. Cause you see more.
AN: There is neater stuff in California; Lamborghini’s, Ferrari’s, and Bentley’s. You don’t see a lot of stuff like that when you go to Iowa.
CN:You see more toys out this way but, otherwise, after you get going, I don’t think there is much of a difference. Basically, we are an international business. It’s just a nice place to live and we like being here.
C&K: Is there a lot of international demand for the bikes?
CN: Not so much for the bikes but we do a lot of parts in Europe, AN: We have an Arlen Ness in Japan, and actually this last month we just shipped some bikes to Korea. Also, we have been dealing with Russia for about a year. We have been selling a few bikes over there.
CN: The Luxury market in Russia has been picking up. We sold about 15 bikes last year.
AN: Yeah, their expensive bikes.
CN: We decided to hold off but there are investors that would like to place an Arlen Ness in Moscow. We decided we didn’t want to do it. Let them go ahead and get business going for a year or two. Make sure they got what it takes to make it happen. If it works, then maybe they can have the name.
C&K: Is China on the Radar screen yet?
CN: Not as far as… AN: Bikes.
CN: I was there in November, more so for product stuff.
C&K: American Motorcycling can pretty much trace its roots to either Harley or Indian. From the perspective of an outside professional, what do you think caused the third decline of Indian motorcycles?
CN: They used the name, but they didn’t build the motorcycle. The motorcycle they built was just a hodgepodge of parts from Tom, Dick and Harry. The most economical thing they could get. That’s why it didn’t fly.
AN: Truly I think it was more of a stock deal, they wanted to put it together and go public, but they could never make enough money to do that.
C&K: Do you think they have a chance to be successful?
CN: They have an uphill battle, if they can do it good for them. I mean Polaris started the Victory division which we work real closely with and they are doing things the right way, with the right money behind them.
AN: The right tools.
CN: They got it going, and still, even having all those tools at your fingertips, it takes a smart group of people to make that thing happen. They got the key elements. They got the dough, the engineering base and the networks. You could have the greatest motorcycle in the world, period, but that means nothing if you don’t have a good dealer base. There is a hell of a lot to it. You know, it’s quite a job.
C&K: You’ve both been in business a long time and have witnessed all kinds of changes in this industry. Do you ever concern yourself about saturation with all the builders that are out there now?
CN: Not so much for us.
AN: We have a good foothold on things; we’ve been in business for so long.
CN: If we didn’t have an established brand, it would be tough that’s for sure. There are a lot of guys doing a lot of great things, a lot of good things, but I think there is also a lot of starving artists in our industry. We’re a whirlwind company that actually has lots of different parts, from our dealerships side, to building a production motorcycle, to doing parts for Harley, for Victory, for metric bikes.
AN: We’re doing design work for Victory, we’re actually on the payroll. Then we have a licensing store, we have a store in Vegas, we have a store in Daytona; Arlen Ness stores.
C&K: When Arlen was nice enough to walk me around your facility, which is again, just amazing, he had mentioned that you do both production and custom work. But, you don’t do customs as frequently as you used to. How would you decide to do a project for somebody that is a custom?
AN: They usually contact us.
CN: We don’t go out looking for business.
AN: For instance, last year we did a real special bike for the Xerox Company.
CN: If it’s the right thing, we do it but, otherwise, it’s just building one-off customs. The emission laws and the registration issues have become a lot stricter. It’s a lot more difficult to build a custom bike. It’s much more difficult now, that’s hurt our industry quite a bit.
AN: Now they can’t register them. That’s putting a lot of the small guys out of business actually. Guys are scared to build it if they can’t get it registered.
C&K: When you run into registration problems; is it primarily because of emissions & noise restrictions?
AN: The worst one in California is CARB – California Air Research Board – Their just getting people out of business right and left. Coming in, fining you, Jesse James just got fined $275,000, it was in the Newspaper.
CN: So they are cracking down, they did it on the cars a while ago.
AN: And only in California.
CN: It’s a California thing. Yeah, so it makes it harder if you are a custom bike builder in California. You got to be a more professional organization in order to survive.
C&K: Have you ever come up with a design that’s just too outrageous to pursue?
AN: Well, the outrageous ones, we usually build for ourselves or for our TV show.
CN: We try to do at least one really special bike a year.
C&K: A lot of people might think that customs are just basically show bikes, that you really can’t use them for cruising or distance riding. In general, how functional are custom bikes?
AN: I’ve never built anything you couldn’t ride. I have only built a couple over the years that maybe were hard to ride far. But, most of our bikes, the main thing, they have to work. It’s always been that way from day one.
CN: We always do stuff that were comfortable with. We could go crazy sometimes, but we want to make sure it’s rideable. It may end up in somebody’s hands someday, so we want it to be safe.
AN: That’s always a must. The bikes always must work.
C&K: Okay, your production bikes, the price tag starts at?
C&K: And it goes up to?
CN: 44-50 grand is pretty much how it works.
C&K: So, the customer just comes in, picks out a style and tells you what they want to trick out?
CN: There are limitations.
AN: We try to sit down with them.
CN: But there are limitations on the production bikes because we keep them legal, so we make sure they leave here with reflectors and proper exhaust and proper emissions and all those things. So there is some things that you can’t play with.
C&K: When you build a bike, do you have a preference as far as fuel injection vs. a carburetor?
AN: Well, just now, the last few bikes have been fuel injection. It’s getting better and better, so the comfort level is there now.
CN: The comfort level in the industry is getting there now. People know that their carburetors are going away, so when it comes to performance kits and things like that, it’s going to change.
AN: It’s going to be fuel injection in the future.
CN: It’s being accepted. It works killer.
C&K: Since you build in California, if an out of state customer orders a bike, do you still have to manufacture to California specs?
AN: No, we don’t have to have a small canister on it.
CN: We still build to the same specs, but we don’t put a charcoal canister on it is the only thing. Otherwise, it’s still the same motorcycle.
C&K: Arlen had mentioned when we were walking around that he travels almost 200 days a year. With all that travel, and your various other commitments, is there still one event you both set aside time for and just don’t miss?
AN: Sturgis, I’ve been going there probably 35 years, without ever missing Sturgis. We love riding back there and riding around there through the black hills and Yellowstone.
C&K: When you leave California to go to Sturgis, South Dakota, will you trailer or ride?
AN: We ride. It takes about 6 days, but we take all the back roads and stay 2 days in resort towns, like Sun Valley. Some of the guys like to golf. We’ll probably leave here with 50 bikes, and by the time of the last night at Sturgis, there is probably 150. You keep picking up people on the way.
CN: We generally ride around 300-400 miles a day, so it’s not bad. You get a good start, and stop every 100 miles or so, but before you know it, you get into town by 2:00
C&K: Do you have a favorite Southern California ride?
AN: We go down there usually for the Love ride, its just more of a gathering and a party time then more of a ride.
CN: We will go cruising around while we are down there in different areas but its more L.A., not so much the outskirts of L.A., not the rural area.
AN: We’ll ride up to the Rock store, or the Cantina.
CN: We don’t get to Southern California like we used to. We are always back east, or somewhere else.
C&K: Thank you very much for your time.