LOS ANGELES, CALIF., JULY 12-13–Over the years, there had only been two individuals given the distinction of being honored on their birthdays with a grand celebration and special exhibition of some their most ingenious creations at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, California: American race car driver Carroll Shelby and Italian race car driver Enzo Ferrari. However, these iconic automobile legends are now joined by motorcycle royalty, the “Chopper King” himself, Arlen Ness. All three of these men are considered remarkable and creative visionaries—and all three are extraordinary entrepreneurs.
We caught up with Arlen just before the festivities began on the day of his actual birthday, and he told us that he was very honored to be celebrating in such a grand way surrounded by his family, friends and colleagues. Arlen was excited about all that’s going on in the Ness family business with Cory running the operations, grandson Zach coming into his own with a new bike-building reality show titled Let It Ride (set to air in August 2013) and Arlen just finishing up on customizing a 2014 Victory Cross Country for the biker build-off at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally where he’ll face off with Cory and Zach, who are also customizing 2014 Victory Cross Country motorcycles. Arlen was quick to point out that he was already done with his build and had 300 miles logged on his custom Victory, while noting that the boys were still working on theirs with less than three weeks to go before they would all take off with about 100 others for a ride up through Washington before heading east to Sturgis. He was also excited about the new release of the Ness Signature bike for Victory’s 2014 lineup and their 15th anniversary celebration.
With over 200 guests arriving including Arlen’s fellow riders from the Hamsters Motorcycle Club, television celebrities, motorcycle enthusiasts, friends, family and representatives from Victory and Harley-Davidson were all coming together on this night to honor the birthday of this remarkable hall of famer and lifetime achievement recipient right in the heart of one of the most respected museums and educational institutes in Southern California, the Petersen Museum. This party was going to be off the hook.
The evening started with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres for guests while everyone was free to explore the entire museum, including a sneak peek at the exhibit “Arlen Ness: Art On Two Wheels,” which includes some of his greatest creations and a few of his favorites like the 2010 Aluminum Victory, the 2004 Top Banana, the 2005 SickNess, the Half & Half, the 2005 3-Headed Monster, 2005 Mach Ness, the 1977 Top Banana, the 1977 Untouchable and last, but definitely not least, the SmoothNess. The SmoothNess was designed after a 1932 Bugatti Roadster that Arlen owns, and it takes front-and-center stage of this impressive display. Along with this amazing display of motorcycle artistry are wall-sized nostalgic pictures of this creative genius and his humble beginnings.
The folks at Petersen Museum had a great dinner prepared and everyone sat down to an entertaining evening of celebration. The party emcee for the evening was an old-time friend of Ness, the wild and crazy Storage Wars TV personality Barry Weiss. Serenading the audience with fantastic blues music was singer and guitar player Teresa Russell of Oxnard, California, brought in as a birthday gift from Kurt Rumens, one of Arlen’s Hamster buddies from Washington. A few of Arlen’s friends came onstage to talk about their pal and his influence on the motorcycle world and in their lives including Dr. Juris Bunkis who met Arlen 30 years ago in the emergency room when Arlen came in for an injury to his finger and the good doc did not charge Arlen for his services. In appreciation, Arlen gave the doc a gold chain and Dr. Bunkis has worn it ever since. Arlen built Dr. Bunkis several motorcycles and even gave him some office space to consult with patients. His friends describe Arlen as genuine, honest, generous and humble.
His four grandkids all took the stage, joked about their grandpa and gave heartfelt words about the love and bond they share. Arlen’s son and daughter, Cory and Sherri, also took the stage and they boasted about their father. Cory said, “Dad loves motorcycles, and when he sets his mind to something, he gets it done. I learned how to be a man and how to treat people from my dad.”
Cory also divulged some secrets about Arlen including that he loves the blues, is now a “gym rat” because he goes to the gym about five times a week, has only fired one employee in 43 years, likes the TV shows American Greed and Law and Order, and he has bought only one new car over the years—a Cadillac, which of course he immediately slammed.
Arlen and his wife, Bev, then took the stage at the night’s end, joining Barry Weiss as Arlen answered a few questions from the audience. His favorite ride is to Sturgis, which he has done now for 41 years, his most difficult build was the double engine, and his favorite bike is the 1947 Knucklehead. He has built over 100 bikes for himself and of all the bikes he has built, the one he would like to have back is the Silver Lady. This devoted family man also shared that his first date with Bev took place on the beach of China Lake, he stole his first kiss at Lake Merritt and that he would let Bev slide into the front seat of the drivers’ side of the vehicle and then he would promptly jump in and sit on her skirt so she couldn’t move over. He then noted that his most important award or certificate of achievement was his “wedding license.” Arlen Ness—a true gentleman in every sense of the word.
After this momentous evening, the following day the Petersen Museum would open to the public for a special V-Twin Ride-In event and the grand opening of the “Arlen Ness: Art on Two Wheels” exhibit. The beautiful Los Angeles morning would bring motorcycle enthusiasts from all over Southern California to have the opportunity to meet the man himself and see this impressive exhibit. Hundreds of riders on Harley-Davidsons, Victorys, assorted sportbikes and custom choppers rode in for this very special event. Arlen was set to be there at 11:00 a.m. to greet his fans and sign autographs. He spent over an hour signing posters, motorcycles, T-shirts and other memorabilia as he had also done the night before for his friends and colleagues at his birthday bash. A very memorable moment that morning was watching a sea of yellow T-shirt-riding Hamsters filling Fairfax Boulevard and entering the museum parking lot to also pay their respects to the legend among them, Arlen Ness.
The proceeds from both days of this event, including the Ness-donated-and-auctioned items from the previous evening, will go to the Petersen Educational Fund, which helps thousands of underprivileged children visit the museum every year. The “Arlen Ness: Art on Two Wheels” exhibit will be on display at the Petersen Museum, located at 4060 Wilshire Boulevard (corner of Wilshire and Fairfax) in Los Angeles, until September 8.