This article was originally published in the December-January 1998 issue of Cycle World's Big Twin magazine.
Had you been able to ask Michelangelo why he sculpted the sublime David, he might have replied, “Well, I just wanted to try something different.” The same answer could also have come from Mozart, the Wright Brothers, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol or any number of others who operated at the vanguard of their professions. Because that’s what creative people do: create something different.
All of this certainly helps explain the latest work to spring from the imaginative mind of master bike-builder Arlen Ness: a one-of-a-kind, virtually all-aluminum custom powered by an 88-inch Big Twin fitted with overhead cams. When we asked Ness why he spent untold thousands of dollars and countless man-hours building this unusual machine, he thought for a moment, then matter-of-factly said, “Well, I just wanted to try something different.”
It’s safe to say that he succeeded.
One important way in which this Nessbike differs from other Harley customs is that it’s fabricated almost entirely of aluminum. Lots of people have done customs in wall-to-wall chrome, but Ness says that this approach just doesn’t appeal to him; all-chrome bikes are too gaudy, too brash, too...too something for his tastes. But aluminum! Now, that’s a different story. So, with a little help from his cadre of talented friends, Ness crafted yet another custom that not only turns heads everywhere it goes, but is sure to be one of his landmark creations.
Ness has been at the forefront of custom-bike design for nearly 20 years, and his innovative bodybikes have inspired imitations all around the world. But he felt it was time for a change, time to get back to his chopper roots and back to basics. “We’ve done a lot of bodybikes over the past few years,” says Ness, “and now everybody else is doing them, too. We’ve been building quite a few choppers lately, as well, and so have other builders. But ours have short forks and tall bars, a style that I’ve been doing for a long time. I like that look a lot. That’s where I started, and I always kind of fall back on that design. So, keeping with the basics theme, I thought I’d do more of a performance-style bike; and with its light weight, this bike is definitely performance.”
And it’s definitely aluminum. In fact, just so everyone will always be reminded that this gorgeous custom is made predominantly of that light alloy, Ness eschewed paint in favor of a bare-metal finish. “Besides,” he says, “I can always paint it.”
In describing the alloy content of Ness’s creation, it’s easier to explain that the only non-aluminum parts are the ones that had to be made of something else—the tires, of course, and the fork tubes, the cams, the flywheels, the transmission gears, the axles, etc. But everything else is aluminum. The frame is a Dyna-style rubber-mount done in aluminum by Harold Walker in San Diego, California, and it weighs a mere 16 pounds. Accomplished metal-bender Bob “Mun” Munro pounded out the alloy fenders, and the aluminum gas tank was hand-made by Simon Parker for Battistini in England.
Crafting an aluminum Harley custom is an accomplishment in itself, but that feat is almost overshadowed by the bike’s engine, an 88-incher with overhead-cam top-ends hand-made by Pete Aardema from San Diego, a hot-rodding legend who has been building overhead-cam kits for Chevy and Ford motors for years. Two years ago, when Aardema and Ness first met, they immediately started discussing the feasibility of overhead cams for Harleys. Just 24 months later, the design is up and running, with results that have been very gratifying for both men.
“The motor works so good that it’s scary,” Says Ness. “Especially for this big of a project, right off the bat. We had the first prototype motor in an old Softail that Barry Cooney rode around San Diego for three weeks. It ran perfectly and we didn’t change a thing. Then we mounted the system on three more bikes and rode one of them to Sturgis. We were in such a big rush to get ready that we didn’t even have time to adjust the carburetor, but there were no problems whatsoever. On the entire ride to Sturgis, we didn’t have to turn one nut or bolt, and the engine never so much as coughed.
“We thought the overhead-cam setup would work slick on a Harley,” continues Ness, “and it does. It’s just so easy on everything—easy on the starter and Bendix gears, for example. It turns over with a battery that’s half the size of the usual one. And it’s really fun to ride.”
Ness says that the overhead-cam conversion is set for some extensive testing in the next year-and-a-half. If all goes well, the system will be on the market in 1999.
Meanwhile, you can bet that bikes looking suspiciously like this one will soon start appearing in custom shows everywhere. Arlen Ness has been the most influential person in the custom-bike field for quite a long time, and nothing about his latest creation is likely to change that situation. And interest in the overhead-cam conversion is strong, particularly among Harley drag racers, who are drooling at the performance potential of this setup.
So, another era of Harley customs has just dawned. Thanks to a man who just likes to try things that are a little different.
|Owner:||Arlen Ness San Leandro, California|
|Base Machine:||Hand-built custom|
|Designer/Fabricator:||Arlen Ness/Ness Enterprises|
|Paint & Chrome|
|Model:||OHC Ness Tech Billet|
|Displacement:||88 cu. in.|
|Lower end:||41/4” S&S|
|Heads:||Ness Tech/Patrick Racing Billet|
|Air cleaner:||None; velocity stack|
|Other mods:||Overhead cams driven by serpentine belt|
|Modifications:||Polished by Fernando Lopez|
|Modifications:||Chromed lower legs|
|Make:||Works Performance shocks|
|Swingarm:||Ness Aluminum Dyna|
|Tire size:||3.25 x 19|
|Brake:||Ness Tech/PM caliper; 13” Ness “Smooth 7” rotor|
|Tire size:||150/70 x 18|
|Brake:||Ness Tech/PM caliper; 15” pulley/rotor|
|Oil tank:||Aluminum side-covers by Mun|
|Front fender:||By Mun|
|Rear fender:||By Mun|
|Headlight :||Ness Tech with Tri-Bar headlamp|
|Electrics:||By Gary Lindemann|
|Speedo/tach:||Ness Super Mini|
|Foot controls:||Mini Floorboard Controls|