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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Heavy Metal

Monday, February 9, 2004

Ness' most popular motorcycles, "Ness-Stalgia" and "Curveceous-Ness," sit proudly on display in the lobby of American Thunder. The bikes have been featured in the Smithsonian Institute and are some of Ness' most recognized work. Lynn Hamilton Photo

Arlen Ness was customizing motorcycles long before network bigshots decided to bring the skill into the limelight.

In fact, Ness, one of the practice's innovators, was customizing motorcycles before some of today's more mainstream customizers were old enough to drive them. His work has been featured in magazines, and on television, not to mention in the Smithsonian.

Brazil cycling enthusiasts may think they'd have to go to California, where Ness's museum is, or to a major bike rally to see his legendary work. Fortunately, some of his most popular bikes are a lot closer to home -- for a limited time.

American Thunder, located behind Honey Creek Mall in Terre Haute, has 10 Arlen Ness bikes on display through this weekend.

"It's great to have these," Store Manager Brian Butts said. "I've been friends with Arlen forever."

Butts said that Ness, who does not generally display his work in motorcycle shops, allows American Thunder to do so because of their friendship.

The bikes sit under the store's bright lights, in plain view from the front windows. They come in a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes, but Ness wouldn't have it any other way.

"These are something special that people don't usually get to see," Butts said. "Arlen Ness is the innovator, period. (The bikes) are just the ultimate in detail."

Butts motioned to one of Ness's most popular motorcycles, titled "Ness-Stalgia." The bike, a bright yellow beast, was one of the two featured in the Smithsonian. It is fashioned after a 1957 Chevy. The waxy finish on the machine more than justified the "do not touch" sign sitting on its seat.

"You can't just go buy a fender that looks like a '57 Chevy," Butts said. "He makes these parts."

Butts explained that many of the cycle's pieces were taken directly from a '57 Chevrolet and molded to fit the bike.

The other Smithsonian bike, the "Curveceous-Ness", holds true to its moniker. The blue motorcycle, the brainchild of Ness's son, Cory, is apparently devoid of a single straight line in its design. Butts said that these two bikes, along with the other eight, have drawn large crowds of onlookers to the shop.

"The people keep piling up," he said. "People who have never been here before... the parking lot keeps filling up."

While seeing the bikes himself is a treat, Butts said that the store provides events like this for the customers.

"We can fly to California and see the bikes whenever we want," he said. "They're at bike rallies, big trade shows, and stuff, too. We just know that the casual customer doesn't get very many chances to see stuff like this."

Other standouts in the display include "tribute" bikes with 145-cubic inch engines. Only 45 of these engines were made, 18 of which went to Ness. As of now only two bikes have been built with these engines implemented.

Butts admires the creator of the bikes just as much, if not more, than the cycles themselves. He recounted the story of the time he was playing golf with Ness at the Sturgis Motor Rally, saying that Ness continually paused to see the bikes that drove by.

"You'd think he really wouldn't care about that," he said. "But every single bike that came down the highway, he stopped and looked at. He never gets tired of motorcycles... that story shows that he still loves them.

"He's a really good guy, too," he continued. "If you see him at a rally, stop and talk to him. He'll show you his work, take a picture, sign an autograph, anything. He appreciates his fans."

Butts himself was tinkering around with customization in the mid-1980s when he came across Ness's work. He said that there weren't a lot of options for the customizer then, because many shops didn't carry the pieces needed to make a machine truly unique.

He came across an ad in a magazine for Ness's pieces and ordered a few. Later, he met him at a bike rally, and they've been friends ever since.

There are other perks to being friends with a legend, too.

"He sends us experimental pieces sometimes," Butts said. "We get to test them out. That's what's kind of cool about the whole thing... you come in looking for some rare, exotic part, and we might be able to get it."

Butts said that the bikes are worth approximately $4 million. They have a few more stops to make before going back home to Ness' California museum.

Paul Walker, who does business with the store "three or four" times a year, stopped by to see the bikes Thursday afternoon.

"It's just awesome... you see the stuff on TV and in magazines, but right here... this is just great," he said.

American Thunder is located on Honey Creek Drive in Terre Haute. It deals in various motorcycle apparel, as well as cycles from American Iron Horse, BMC Choppers, Independence, and Titan. Ness' work will be featured in the shop through this weekend.

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