Ever since the early days of motorcycles, individuals have been altering the appearance of their machines. The first bikes specifically labeled “Custom” started appearing in the late 1950s.
Since that time styles have changed dramatically, but they all have that same individuality and pioneering spirit. Here’s a look back at some high points of the last 50 years.
One of the most prevalent custom trends of this era was the British based café racers. These stripped down machines were built to pass the 100 mph mark and featured clip-on bars, elongated gas tanks with knee pockets, swept back pipes, and big carburetors.
Café racers were gorgeous and to the point—comfort and luxury weren’t in their DNA. They are still very popular today.
"Digger" custom motorcycles, a style pioneered and made famous by my grandpa Arlen Ness appear. These long, low, drag-style bikes were full custom machines mostly housing Sportster engines. Engraving, springer front ends and gold plating were damn near standard on these customs.
Diggers leave the door wide open to creativity and they are a part of the Ness DNA. To this day, these bikes are some of my favorites and are making a huge comeback, especially with the growing popularity of shows such as “Born Free.”
Harley Davidson introduces the FXR, the best handling frame they’ve ever been produced. They feature dual rear shocks and frame design built purely to take on the fast Japanese bikes gaining market share in the U.S.
The Arlen Ness original fairing was originally designed to work with FXR customs and is very difficult to keep in stock. These days FXRs are built for performance and are well known as “club style”, but I refer to them as performance style bikes.
Billet aluminum accessories (the majority of the Arlen Ness product line) started to hit the market.
My dad, Cory Ness, developed the first ever billet grips in the industry and many other aluminum based products. This was a major change away from steel accessories. Billet still reigns supreme in the custom world.
These were great years. I was in high school and just started building motorcycles at the age of 15. The major TV series “Biker Build-Off” was doing very well and started a massive chopper craze.
Wide tire full custom motorcycles dominated the scene. Rear tires ranged from 200mm to 330mm and stayed popular until the economic crash.
This is the time of custom baggers. From big front wheels to the custom style reminiscent of the 2000’s chopper, these bikes go from rideable customs to full show baggers.
I see them staying for a long time—maybe not the large front wheels—but we’ll definitely be seeing lots more from the baggers’ category.
I think performance-based customs is what we’ll be seeing in the future. Whether it’s a full custom motorcycle, bagger, or modified OEM bike, I believe they’ll be the standard.
Technology and the spread of information are so prevalent today that there isn’t an excuse to not provide a premium quality product. We buy and build these things to ride. Style will always be important, but the function will be the core.