A Custom Arlen Ness Aluminum Motorcycle

An overhead-cam original that's mostly aluminum and all very cool

Arlen Ness wanted to try something different with “Light-Ness” and we say he succeeded.

Jeff Allen

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.

With this build Ness wanted to get back to his chopper roots and back to the basics. Though distinctly different, the bike exudes typical Ness styling touches, such as the slotted turnsignals integrated into the rear-fender rails.

Jeff Allen

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.

From the left side, only the taller, blocky-looking rocker boxes imply that something different is going on in the engine bay of this chopperesque Big Twin.

Jeff Allen

“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.

Bike Name: Light-Ness
Owner: Arlen Ness San Leandro, California
Base Machine: Hand-built custom
Designer/Fabricator: Arlen Ness/Ness Enterprises
Paint & Chrome
Molding: None
Painting: None
Graphics: None
Polishing: Fernando Lopez
Year: 1997
Model: OHC Ness Tech Billet
Builder: Jeff Border
Displacement: 88 cu. in.
Cases: S&S polished
Lower end: 41/4” S&S
Pistons: Ness
Heads: Ness Tech/Patrick Racing Billet
Cams: (2) custom-made
Pushrods: None
Lifters: None
Primary cover: Ness
Coils/wires: Crane
Carb: S&S
Air cleaner: None; velocity stack
Pipes: By Mun
Mufflers: Polished
Other mods: Overhead cams driven by serpentine belt
Year: 1997
Type: Dyna
Primary drive: Chain
Clutch: Barnett
Year; 1997
Make: Ness
Type: Aluminum Dyna
Builder: Harold Walker/Ness
Modifications: Polished by Fernando Lopez
Front Fork
Year: 1997
Make: Ness Tech
Type: Mid Glide
Modifications: Chromed lower legs
Rear Suspension
Year: 1997
Type: Dual-shock
Make: Works Performance shocks
Swingarm: Ness Aluminum Dyna
Front Wheel/Tire
Wheel: Ness Tech
Tire: Metzeler
Tire size: 3.25 x 19
Rim width: 2.15”
Brake: Ness Tech/PM caliper; 13” Ness “Smooth 7” rotor
Rear Wheel/Tire
Wheel: Ness Tech
Tire: Metzeler
Tire size: 150/70 x 18
Rim width: 5.5”
Brake: Ness Tech/PM caliper; 15” pulley/rotor
Handlebar: Ness Speedo
Risers: Ness
Grips: Ness Tech
Mirrors: Ness Tech
Gas tank: Battistini’s
Oil tank: Aluminum side-covers by Mun
Front fender: By Mun
Rear fender: By Mun
Headlight : Ness Tech with Tri-Bar headlamp
Taillight: Ness Tech
Electrics: By Gary Lindemann
Speedo/tach: Ness Super Mini
Seat: Danny Gray
Foot controls: Mini Floorboard Controls