Arlen Ness grows by homogenizing V-twin with other motorcycle markets

Publish Date: 
Apr 25, 2011
By Arlo Redwine

Arlen Ness — both the legendary man and the Dublin, California-based company — has been at the forefront of the Big Twin market for decades in almost every capacity: star custom builder, motorcycle dealer, maker of production customs, and (most important for other dealers) aftermarket manufacturer. So when the “chopper craze” ended in 2007, followed closely by the collapse of the rest of the industry, Arlen Ness felt the sting on multiple levels.

Today the company is growing again. Its catalog for 2011 is two to three times bigger than it’s ever been due in part to product expansions in each of Arlen Ness’ product categories: Harley, Victory, Metric and Street/Race. The company is especially eager to promote its rapidly growing line for metric cruisers. Even a sportbike line is planned for late this year.

For a rundown of the company’s recent history, and details on the new products, Dealernews spoke with Zach Ness, whose father, Cory Ness (Arlen’s son), has run the day-to-day operations of the company for years. The 23-year-old Ness describes himself as his father’s right-hand man, with particular focus on marketing and product design.

And what about the man who started it all? “He’s still the face of the company and the owner along with my father,” Ness says. “He comes in pretty much every day to see what’s going on. He’s got at least four or five bikes going at one time just because that’s what he enjoys.”

Boom, crash, rising sanely
Ness is just old enough to provide a firsthand account of the Big Twin market’s flameout.

“In 2005 and 2006 we were still pushing out hundreds of frames, along with custom parts not meant for OEM [bikes],” he remembers. “Then the downturn hit, and it definitely hurt us as it hurt everyone else. Orders plummeted at first.”

The company downsized heavily during 2007 and 2008. At the same time it took the energy it had spent on frames, one-off bikes and “crazy production parts” and redirected it toward nice-but-affordable parts made for OEM bikes, particularly baggers. “Luckily, our main focus throughout the years was product for Harley-Davidson and V-twins,” Ness says. “We were running on a skeleton crew for a while. Then gradually, as the economy got better, we made the right product at the right price point. We’re putting more focus on the manufacturing side, on efficient processes. Especially within the last year, our fill rates have steadily been improving. Within the next week, we should fill pretty much every order.”

So Arlen Ness has bounced back because, even while the company’s custom half was getting all the publicity, its foundation rested on the making of cool parts for OEM bikes. Many of the larger Big Twin aftermarket manufacturers survived for the same reason — “guys who had been in the industry for 30, 40 years and have been through a recession,” Ness says.

On the other hand, the majority of the small mom-and-pop custom builders went broke. The survivors, Ness contends, are the tiny few who were able to produce one or two popular products for OEM bikes.

Arlen Ness continues to sell custom production motorcycles, though of course at a much smaller volume than it did during its heyday. The company offers four models: the pro-street-style Low Liner; the Speed Liner with a 4-inch upstretch in the neck; the High Liner with an 8-inch upstretch; and the Low Liner V, a model using a Victory engine and transmission.

Speaking of Victory, Arlen Ness this year signed another three-year contract to produce special editions under Arlen’s, Cory’s and Zach’s names. “Those models are a several-month-long process,” Ness says. “We do a ton of product with Victory as well.”

Arlen Ness is a Victory dealer and can testify to the brand’s recent spike in sales. “We’ve literally had to buy Cross Countries off any Victory dealer in the area because we can’t keep them in stock,” Ness says. “As soon as they come in, they’re gone the next day.”

Inventory of Arlen Ness’ own production bikes is limited to mostly just what’s on its own showroom floor, but the company can make to order a basic model within about a week.

As a 70,000 sq. ft. dealership, Arlen Ness also continues to do one-off jobs. “We’re doing a lot of bagger builds and a bunch of custom builds,” Ness says. “A lot of guys are taking Harleys and taking them to the max. And surprisingly every custom we’ve built of late goes out the door sold. So there’s definitely a good sense that people are used to this [economy]. This is normal life now.”

This attitude extends to the buying of parts and accessories. No longer will the finance companies allow new-bike buyers to roll additional purchases into their loan. “Some guys would add on $20,000 worth of aftermarket product onto their bike,” Ness remembers. “But now they’ll start with maybe some grips, floorboards, stuff like that. More and more, they’re piecing it piece by piece. People know what their limits are and are a little more comfortable spending.”

The bike being modified is most often the one the customer already owns. “A real big thing is people using what they have and making something cool, because they don’t have the money to go buy a 2010 or 2011 motorcycle,” Ness explains. “Instead they’ll take their 2006 bike and reinvent it, which is going back to he roots of what my grandpa did starting in the ’70s”

Ness is referencing Arlen Ness’ first bike, a 1947 Knucklehead that he customized five or six times because he couldn’t afford to buy multiple stock bikes. Today that model, called “Untouchable,” roams the country as a museum piece.

“So it’s cool,” Ness says, “especially with the younger generation, my generation. You see a lot of that: cutting up a stock bike whether it be a Big Twin, a metric cruiser, an old BSA, and making something cool out of it.”

Particularly lucrative for the dealership is when bagger owners decide to replace their bike’s entire theme. “Family lines of products for baggers is real big,” Ness notes. “For instance, if you have Deep Cut Floorboards, you’re going to want to have that same shift rod, bag latch, heel/toe shifter, brake arm, etc. So it’s definitely good for business.”

To help frugal customers further, Ness’ dealership now sells a lot of used Harleys.

New products
As mentioned earlier, the Arlen Ness catalog, at 240 pages, is much longer than it’s ever been. This is mostly because the company has combined its Harley, Victory, Metric and Street/Race catalogs into one. But there are also many new SKUs across the board.

As you’d expect, Arlen Ness expanded its Harley line the most, but because most dealers are aware of that division, the company is spending more time talking up its greatly expanded line for metric cruisers. “The metric market can’t be ignored in any way,” Ness says. “They’re cool bikes and there’s a lot of them on the road. We think a lot of our Harley styles can be transferred over to metric, and we’re doing some individual metric styles.”

New to the metric line is the Deep Cut Comfort Series grip that features a comfortable rubber and retails for just $89.95. “That’s going to be a real-big-volume mover for us,” Ness predicts. “We’ve had nothing but good response.”

Other new products for metric cruisers: several styles of billet grips, Soft Touch Grips, pegs, pit pegs, master grips and more than 20 styles of mirrors. “Mirrors are one of our best sellers to date,” Ness says. “Every mirror comes with a U.S. and metric adapter so it will fit on any bike. It just makes it easy for dealers to stock them.”

Making one SKU fit several bikes is a general strategy for the company, Ness says, because the OEMs are continually making minor fitment adjustments. Another example: Arlen Ness foot pegs that come with several different clevises for attachment. “Strategies like that will make it a little easier to get a better price for the consumer and still have a superior-quality product,” Ness claims.

Arlen Ness’ best-selling part, period, is the Big Sucker air cleaner kit. “We’ll sell 20,000 to 30,000 of those a year on the Harley side, so we wanted to expand it for the metric line,” Ness says. The company now offers metric owners six different styles of covers with a standard red filter or a stainless steel one. New cover styles are on their way.

A Big Shot adjustable fuel tuner is the perfect add-on to a Big Sucker purchase, Ness points out.

Arlen Ness is the exclusive U.S. importer of Xenolen indicator lights. “We expect those to be a huge thing,” Ness says. “In Europe and Asia they’re selling tens of thousands of those lights.”

Looking ahead: sportbike products
When American bikers think Arlen Ness, they don’t usually think sportbike racing. But Ness says the Ness Racing line of race suits, boots, gloves, jackets and shirts have been a good source of revenue because of their popularity on the other side of the pond. Says Ness, “I remember we were in London sitting at the Hard Rock Café, and the waiters and waitresses were going up to grandpa trying to get his autograph because people are wearing the Arlen Ness apparel all around Europe.”

Several years ago, Arlen Ness licensed his name to a longtime friend who owns Madif Industries, a Hong Kong manufacturer that also makes the Berik brand of apparel. “Our partner overseas is one of those guys who’s in it to win, and he gets the best people possible from the start,” Ness says. “He makes incredible product, from the price point to the materials like magnesium titanium and kangaroo leathers.”

Madif Industries has distributors in 27 different countries, and racers who’ve worn Arlen Ness leathers include Troy Bayliss, Ben Bostrom and Ruben Xaus.

To complement the apparel, Arlen Ness will be introducing a line of sportbike accessories late this year. “There will be several styles of grips at a price point that will be hard for a lot of people to compete with,” Ness says. Other products will include pegs, handlebar control accessories, bar ends and mirrors.

Arlen Ness sells dealer-direct and through several distributors. “We like to have a good relationship with dealers, showing them what the product can do and how we can help them out to make some money and make some money ourselves,” Ness says. Call 925-479-6350 for a free 2011 catalog, or visit www.arlenness.com to download a PDF of it.

Ness admits the company’s current website is “subpar,” but he’s quick to add that a brand-new one is in the works. “It’s been about two months into the process so far, and it’ll probably be another two months,” he says. “But our new website will be light-years ahead of what it is now, from imagery to video to content to the way you search through it.” Site visitors, for example, will be able to see what products look like on certain motorcycles.