Excile Cycles' Russell Mitchell did a great job of getting the soft spoken Arlen Ness to share stories from his past with the receptive crowd at the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum's annual Bike Week breakfast.
The industry was out in force for the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum's 20th Annual Daytona 'Friendraising' Breakfast Friday featuring Arlen Ness as the special guest speaker. Not a table was empty in the immense Grand Ballroom at the Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfont Resort as moto enthusiasts congregated to honor the godfather of custom building and to raise funds to help sustain the museum.
The event raised almost $10,000 for the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum. It also received sponsorship for two complete sets of tables and chairs, valued at $1,995. The current settings at the museum patio were past their prime and attendees didn't hesitate to step up to support the cause. The ballroom was filled with an air of camaraderie and generosity as the large round tables of the ballroom provided an opportunity to sit with friends and to make new ones. At the table I was seated, I had the pleasure of meeting Bill Baird, a Hall of Fame inductee and a former seven-time enduro champion. He was one of 13 Hall inductees in attendance who were introduced to the crowd to ovations honoring their achievements.
The highlight of the event was the interview session between Arlen Ness and Exile Cycles' Russell Mitchell. Museum president Mark Mederski was curious to see how the generation gap between the two builders would play out, but selecting the outspoken Mitchell to interview the soft spoken Ness resulted in an engaging exchange between the two. Mitchell prepared himself by reading Michael Lichter's Arlen Ness: The King of Choppers
and helped pry personal stories from Ness' past out of the modest man. Ness is the type of person whose work speaks volumes on its own and is never the one to brag or boast and seemed almost embarrassed at times by all of the attention he was receiving. But as slide after slide was projected on two huge screens of bikes Ness had created in a chronicle of a master builders' evolution, he became more at ease and offered humorous anecdotes from his past.
With a wry smile, Ness admitted that his first motorcycle had a suicide clutch which he had to have someone ride home for him because he didn't know how to operate the clutch. The room filled with laughter. But the best story Ness shared had to be when he met Harley-Davidson patriarch Willie G. up at Sturgis when "his hair still had color to it."
The two happened upon one another at a bar back at the rally, and Willie G. asked him what he was riding. Ness had ridden a vintage boardtrack-inspired bike with a Harley-Davidson motor, so he asked Willie G. if he'd like to check out his motorcycle. While they were walking outside, a couple of guys handed them two beers. As soon as they walked out of the bar, beers in hand, the police were standing outside the door and arrested them on the spot. They had to go down to the station to pay the $37.50 fine. Willie G. didn't have any money, so Arlen paid the fine for him. He didn't say whether Willie G. ever paid him back.
While he may not feel the most comfortable speaking in front of large crowds, Arlen shines when it's time to meet and greet the fans.
The event offered a glimpse into the life of a man whose work in the custom world is unparalleled.
"I still love doing it, even after all these years," Ness said.
He also noted that he foresees baggers continuing to be the hot trend in the industry right now.
"People are riding more and really liking the baggers. There'll probably be a lot of aftermarket parts and accessories for that segment," said the 1992 Hall of Fame inductee.
Mitchell, a talented builder in his own right, put what Ness means to the industry in perspective with his closing statement.
"When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told them I wanted to be Arlen Ness."
Wouldn't we all, Russell. Wouldn't we all.