ARLEN NESS’ SECRET WEAPON DURING THE ’70s CHOPPER BOOM | JEFF McCANN

Jeff McCann, who discreetly signs his works with his hidden signature “Motorcycles Forever” got his first bike back in ’65, at the age of 20.  An accomplished artist, McCann began customizing motorcycles a few years later, and soon found himself with a steady side-gig of painting and customizing friend’s bikes.

By the 1970s, with his incredible skills and the Easy Rider chopper boom in full force, McCann was in hot demand.   He opened his own custom bike shop in the San Francisco Bay area – as did Arlen Ness. Arlen, a master builder, was also a good painter– but nothing like McCann. McCann also brought serious design, photography, and printing skills to the table–  contibuting heavily to the first Ness catalog and logo.  It was a partnership that benefitted both sides, and that lasted for years.  McCann’s saved personal images and memories of that time are truly priceless–

Catalog Cover Shoot. Jeff McCann ~ This is a full view of the setup in my garage for the cover shoot for the second edition of our parts catalog. That’s me waiting to see if the photographer needs the bike moved, which is also why I am in my stocking feet so as not to mar the paper drape. I purchased two white paper background drapes and taped them together to get a wide enough “infinite” background for the bikes and models.  After advertising in the local newspaper want ads we hired two women who were inexperienced models but eager to work with the local “chopper guys”.  Scanned from a 37 year old 35mm negative shot by John Reddick in September 1972.  You can see the calendar this session produced here.

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Theme Girl Julie. Jeff McCann ~ In the fall of 1969 my friend Chris and I decided to open a retail store selling “Chopper parts”. We had built and sold 4 custom bikes that year and all our friends were asking how to buy the parts mail order. Ed Roth published “Choppers” magazine which contained ads including one for AEE Choppers of southern California. We had purchased parts from them for my first panhead chopper that same year. Deciding on the name ” CJ custom cycle parts” we made a business plan and went to the bank for a start up loan. To say the bankers laughed at us would be exaggeration but they declined our request. I complained of their shortsightedness to my co-workers at the newspaper and Fran Walling, a fellow artist in the display advertising department, offered to loan me the money from part of her husbands life insurance settlement. We agreed to pay her 1% more than bank rate on a two year repayment plan.

And so with $5,000 in the bank we rented a small store front and made plans for a January 1970 opening.  The plan was for Chris to man the retail store on the weekdays while I worked full time at the newspaper, then on Saturdays I would be behind the counter. We really had no clue how the profit margin of a retail parts business should have worked, both of us had only high school educations and in 1969 I was 23, married with an infant daughter and Chris was 19 and two years out of school. To say we were more lucky than smart is an understatement.  This photograph of Julie, our theme girl, wearing our logo t-shirt was taken on January 10,1974 by John Reddick.  Exactly four years to the day after we had opened our first store and at the height of our business success. Scanned from a 35 year old 35mm negative.

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Wheel Truing Shop. Jeff McCann ~ Work area in our first Stockton store, note the vise holding a threat rolling machine attached to a reversible drill. We cut the blank spoke to length with a small bolt cutter, ground the end round on the small grinder next to the vise, and then inserted the blank into the roller. The sign says we charged $28.88 for a set of spokes custom made and chromed to fit your application. Hundreds of wheels were laced and trued each year by either Chris or Kurt Bacon, a highschool kid who hung around my garage paintshop at home. He worked after school at the store and got school credits for “work experience” on his report card. After graduation he came to work for us full time and was a valuable employee and friend. Scanned from a 1971 b/w print.

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Jeff McCann, Circa 1980. Jeff McCann ~ My neighbor took this photo in 1980 as I was preparing to load the bike for the trip to Arlen’s store. He sold all my bikes on consignment until Oakland Harley Davidson sold my ’69 shovelhead in 1985. Photograph by my neighbor, Walt Ghio, scanned from a 29 year old B/W Kodak print and post processed in Photoshop CS

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Munroe “Rocket Tank” Jeff McCann ~ Holding less than 2 gallons of fuel, Bob made each tank by hand using a break/shear in his shop.  I had him make mine with a traditional HD filler neck, which reduced the capacity further.  Spent a lot of time in gas stations where “cagers” always asked “how much does that thing hold?”  Changed the bars after the second wreck and had Jim Davis take 3 degrees out of the rake.  As you can see from the previous photo it was a tiny, small everywhere digger.  Rode it many miles, including a trip to Yosemite National Park.  Never failed to put a smile on my face each time I kicked it to life.  Photograph by my neighbor, Walt Ghio, scanned from a 29 year old B/W Kodak print and post processed in Photoshop CS.

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Modesto Store Jeff McCann ~ April 1972 we opened our second store in Modesto,CA. That’s DQ, (beard and vest) my long time riding partner and friend who managed the store for us. The chopper boom was still building and we were one of the leading retailers in the country. Using mass displays of merchandise and putting many parts “out front” where the customers could pick them up and examine them. We sold parts only, no installation available. Every other month I drove to LA in the shop van with a briefcase full of cash. Manufacturers were always glad to see me knowing I paid cash and bought in quantity. The face to face way of doing business assured us of the very latest product releases in a business that was adding new items every week as consumer demand exploded. Scanned from a 1972 b/w Kodak print and post processed in Photoshop CS, best viewed large.

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Iron Cross Mirror Jeff McCann ~ We bought these mirrors a hundred at a time and sold out repeatedly. That’s a fiberglass replica of a Sportster tank, real bombs if you crashed. But hell, we were bulletproof…who needs a front brake? Some of us lived to tell these stories about “back in the day”. Scanned from a 1971 b/w Kodak print and post processed in Photoshop CS.

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Handlebar Display Jeff McCann ~ Each part was labeled with a price sticker and you could hold the bars out in front of you to get a feel for the fit. The top three gas tanks are fiberglass, the four lower units are steel. The pegboard was painted royal blue making a nice contrast and reflection in the chrome parts. Scanned from a 1972 b/w Kodak print and post processed in Photoshop CS, best viewed large.

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Catalog Cover Bike Jeff McCann ~ This Panhead was on the cover of our first 1971 parts catalog for dealers and retail mail order customers in the US. We were one of the first distributors of chopper parts for Paughco, Santee Industries, Cycle Shack and others. At one time we were the largest reseller of ARCO brand motorcycle tires in the country. I molded and painted this bike in my garage during my “metalflake” period. That’s 20 over Wayne Engineering girder fork that we sold exclusively from our shops. Arlen’s very first handlebars and 2 inch D&D Distributors drag pipes were cutting edge parts at the time. Scanned from a 1971 b/w Kodak print and post processed in Photoshop CS, best viewed large.

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The Real Deal/David C’S Panhead Jeff McCann ~ David did all the welding, motor work and assembly himself, even sprayed his own paint. The striping was by Louie Fredrico, a Hollywood movie studio artist who came home to Stockton between jobs. Built on a budget the biggest expense was the complete front end assembly which came from my shop and which he was justifiably proud of.  The derby cover is off because he had ridden it to the shop for these photos as soon as it ran the first time and he wanted to adjust the clutch “hot”.  The unusual seat is from AEE and had been on display in my shop marked “sold” while he made deposits over a period of several paydays. David was murdered several years later by his own brother in a drunken rage. DQ and I often talk about him to this day. David let DQ ride this bike…his first time on a “74″ Harley ever. Scanned from a 1971 b/w Kodak Print and post processed in Photoshop CS, best viewed large.

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Theme Girl Julie Circa 1974 ~ Jeff McCann’s “CJ Custom Cycle Parts” t-shirt modeled by Julie in a photograph by John Reddick. Scanned from an 8×10 print and post processed in Photoshop CS.

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jeff mccann swimsuit model 1970s harley chopper

Chopped CHP Shovel, Jeff McCann ~ This was one of the many CHP bikes we bought at auction in Sacramento. Most we resold to shop customers but several we chopped and rode as shop bikes, then sold. We had a used vehicle dealers license and sometimes sold customer bikes on consignment. This is one of the few bikes I didn’t paint as I was busy traveling to socal on buying trips and overseeing two retail stores plus the wholesale/mail order business. That’s a 20 over Wayne engineering girder fork with a Santee 21″ half brake front wheel. These tiny brakes were useless but satisfied the vehicle law requiring brakes at both axles on bikes manufactured after 1965 (current law in 1973). Paughco Mustang tank, oil tank and pipes, our own “butt bucket” seat made by Cheetah Engineering of socal. Scanned from a 1973 8×10 Kodak print.

Go check out the rest here.

12 thoughts on “ARLEN NESS’ SECRET WEAPON DURING THE ’70s CHOPPER BOOM | JEFF McCANN

  1. I am a motorcyclist. I think I can safely say that as I have been riding 30 years. 300,000+ miles around the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and I am not done yet.

    Choppers and such have never really done it for me, but I do appreciate good work and artistry. Great article.

  2. This was a very interesting article, since I grew up in that era (with no money)! I had a strong desire to ride cross country as well as FAST!!!! I built my Panhead with little, to no regard for safety (No front brake, mechanical rear, no crashbars or front fender, tiny headlight, & mirror, & taillight, & a 22″ extended Harley springer) I`ve since ridden through every state (except Hawaii) at least twice, & almost 600,000 miles on that panhead!!! I`ve gradually added a LOT of safety features to the Pan, though! They have become more important as my “invincibility” wore off! (a lot of you know what I mean) I`VE BEEN ONE OF THE LUCKY ONES TO LIVE THROUGH THAT PERIOD! Ross

  3. Thank you for your kind words. Your blog resulted in over 5,000 views of my flickr images on the day you posted it. I found it only after viewing the referral stats. Please contact me if you are interested in the actual calendar shoot images, they are R rated and as such not appropriate for my flickr stream.

    Jeff

    • Dear Jeff,

      It was an honor to feature your fine work, just hope I did it justice. The artistry of your work and the images themselves, along with the personal commentary you put down for each image, is simply invaluable. I grew up in a biker household, so these images and the stories behind ‘em mean a lot to me.

      Your an amazing talent, and by all accounts, a helluva guy.

      Be well,

      JP

    • Great article. Jeff, I recently imported a 2003 Night Train to Australia with your artwork on it. I got it buffed locally and the spray painters were in awe of the flames.
      Congratulations on an excllent career.
      Regards, Peter

  4. What a great story, I am lovin your website and visit it regulary for this historical stuff, Thanks for the effort

  5. really enjoyed this feature, how refreshing to see a custom parts business staffed/owned by people who ride for pleasure and the love of bikes-rather than the more usual these days -image addicted fashion slaves we scrape off our streets these days.
    great stuff.

  6. An extraordinarily humble individual. Having learned that I was to visit California (I live in Dominican Republic) he was kind to offer us (wife and me) a ‘private tour’ of Arlen’s new store in Dublin, CA.
    When we showed up at Arlen’s store, sure enough there he was, we shaked hands and he toured us and gave us the story to many of the bikes in the showroom / museum many of which showcase his work. Better yet, we got into the actual shop, where we saw a few of his more recent work, plus some ‘secret’ (at the time) projects. There we met Cory Ness and master engine builder also named Jeff. Also we got to see some of his frequently used bikes at the garage: the Eagle bagger was there as well as an old Rolls Royce, a black hot rod and an assortment of goodies every nut-head would love to own.

    A funny thing happened while touring the offices, we actually walked into Arlen’s spacious office (he was not there at the moment) and since both him and I had a camera we looked like outsiders trespassing.. soon enough an employee shows up and asks us (very politely by the way) if he can help us, to which Jeff responds that he is touring us, the young employee is kind of confused and Jeff then proceeds to introduce himself. The employee immediately apologized for interrupting and explained that he was relatively new at the office.

  7. I just wanted to say I freaken love your blog…Better than mine!

    Being born in ’71` and having much the same likes makes this a score. Thanks for the great stuff!

  8. Hey Jeff, don’t know if you see this blog, but went to SEMA with Arlen and Grady and hoped to see you there. If you see this give me a call. BC

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