Cory Ness Interview

December 8, 2005
Words and Photos by Billy Bartels
In contrast to the usual celebrity flash surrounding custom builders  Corey Ness is a soft-spoken guy for whom building customs is the family business.
In contrast to the usual celebrity flash surrounding custom builders, Corey Ness is a soft-spoken guy for whom building customs is the family business.

Arlen Ness casts a pretty big shadow across the custom motorcycle world. Back when I was first getting in to motorcycles, when Jesse James was just Madonna’s bodyguard and Harleymania didn’t extend much beyond the West Coast, there was only one bike builder that everyone knew: Arlen Ness.

So when I first spotted the Cory Ness creation featured here at the Las Vegas Bike Fest, I was blown away. I had known, somewhat subliminally, that Cory has been building bikes all these years while running the Ness juggernaut, but it never really struck me as something separate from his father’s art. Until this bike.

While Arlen has a flair for the overstated, with extreme fiberglass/sheetmetal work completely remaking the lines of the traditional cruiser, this bike was something different. Elemental.

I visited Cory at the family business up in Dublin, California (southeast of Oakland) to get an insight into this second generation customizer. What does it take to emerge from the shadow of a giant? What kind of pressure must you be under when you follow in the footsteps of greatness?

“None,” said Cory.

I was surprised at the answer, and he seemed surprised at the question. You see, to Cory, he’s just doing his job. Yes, it’s a fun job, but it’s a job. He grew up living this lifestyle, under the same roof with Arlen, so there’s no pressure; it’s just business. Much like the devoted offspring of a baker or butcher who helps out at the family store when they can, Cory just sees his contributions as helping to sustain his family in the manner in which they are accustomed. Growing up around this stuff just makes it normal…whatever that means.

When Cory was just a kid, father Arlen was a known painter in the hot Oakland custom scene. Their garage was a dedicated paint booth; their living room, the assembly area. Back then, his dad only had one custom. That one custom would be constantly done and redone for the shows, to gain notoriety and build the painting business. Eventually the family business would grow to include a shop, and it was all downhill from there.

The bug bit Cory early. At 10 he dissembled his bicycle, painted it, chromed some parts and entered it in the Oakland Roadster Show in the bicycle category. He got started with motorcycles a couple years later. His first motorized creation was a wrecked CB350 he picked up for very little. After building it alongside his dad’s creation du jour in the living room, he sold it before he ever got to ride it. Cory was 14.

Ohhmmmmmm.... Congratulations you have just achieve the state of motorcycle nirvana.
Right now this blue beauty is Corey Ness’ favorite creation, taking its styling cues from the old board track racers and combining some contemporary glitter.

Having made some good cash on the CB he bought his first Harley, a ’74 Sportster. He had this one for a little bit longer and he learned how to build on the cheap. He built a “digger” style sporty chopper, and made extensive use of bead-blasting and painting, and other inexpensive customizing techniques while scrounging parts where he could find them to make the machine complete. He entered this one in the Oakland Roadster Show as well, and though it didn’t win any trophies, it did get featured in Hot Bike magazine.

He kept his second bike for a few months, then sold it for a handsome profit. He decided that building bikes was far superior work compared to the burger-flippin’ high-school jobs all of his friends had. When the family business is rebellion, there’s no use rebelling, is there? In case you were wondering, his kids are well along the same path. Cory’s oldest son Kyle has already had some bikes in magazines (his first sale bought him a new pickup truck…at 16), while his youngest, Max, is building a lawnmower-powered chopper. He’s 11.

His greatest contribution to the family fortune, and one copied to great success in the motorcycle industry, was starting the Arlen Ness Catalog business. Still the bread and butter of the whole empire, getting some of his dad’s unique parts to a greater audience through a specialized catalog separate from the giant parts houses is the model most of the big name builders have followed in recent years. Everyone say, “Thank you, Cory.”

So where does the kid with a head for the business of the motorcycle business fit into the picture we have of a “customizer?” Customizers are the rock stars of the 21st century. Jesse is married to Sandra frickin’ Bullock for crissakes! In contrast, Cory is the anti-rockstaresque customizer. He’s a soft-spoken guy that, if anything, comes off as completely normal. “Normal” might equate to “boring” for many, and it’s true that Cory wouldn’t make the best TV personality.

But what really counts is the work, right? If there is some kind of an outrageous personality lurking inside this Ness, it comes out in his work.

Cory calls this bike his favorite, but then, his newest tends to be the one he likes most. This stunning little rigid (no rear shocks for you pedestrians out there) straddles a few different styles. Definitely a unique machine, it takes its cues from old-style board track racers, but adds some sparkle and glam that would almost look out of place if it weren’t so beautiful. The blue beauty was photographed in its natural habitat: the museum that houses some of Arlen’s and Cory’s historical creations at the Arlen Ness headquarters in Dublin.

A Morris magneto  coupled with a kick-starter  eliminates the need for a battery  making this one clean machine.
A vintage Morris magneto ignition, coupled with a kick-starter, eliminates the need for a battery and adds to the old-school charm while aiding the sleek design.

Perhaps its most stunning features are the wheels and the triple-disc perimeter brakes. Powered by single-piston JayBrake stoppers, the large discs add an exotic, modern flavor to the machine, while cleaning up the hub area. The wheel itself is unique in its bolted construction, with the polished spokes contrasting nicely with the painted hubs and rims. Bucking the wide tire trend, this rigid makes use of 21-inch wheels with a mere 120mm cross-section on the Avon Venom-X tires.

The hand-built front end has a number of details that continues the old-school racer theme. Foremost are the chrome versions of what would normally be rubber fork tube protectors, and clip-on handlebars finished with Ness Tech controls, all bathed in chrome.

The swoopy molded tank, with the stunning row of acorn nuts and allen bolts across its back, is actually divided into two tanks, the front part for gas, the rear for oil, somewhat like in the good old days when they were separated left and right. The paintwork, both on the tank and continued on to the wheels, headlight, frame and fender is breathtaking, and pictures don’t do the deep blue color or the pinstriping justice. Using half of the “gas tank” for oil freed Cory from having to mount up an oil tank, keeping the machine pretty simple, but he didn’t stop there. He also went with a very vintage magneto ignition, while a kick-starter eliminates the need for a battery.

The engine itself is one of Ness’ Patrick Racing-built billet motors, but crowned with faux Panhead valve covers to complete the old bike illusion/tribute. To keep up the stripped racer theme, both intake and exhaust are extremely brief, with just a billet velocity stack capping the S&S carburetor, and authentically-shaped straight pipes hugging the left side of the motor.

All told, Cory’s show-bike fantasy vision of what would normally be a very unglamorous racing machine is a visionary custom bike. True to Cory’s own style of clean machines with in-your-face details (his words), it dazzles with originality and the completeness of its creator’s vision.

It shines brightly enough to emerge from any shadow cast upon it.

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