OK, quick quiz, three things happened in 1939 that would have a huge impact on the custom bike world. The Triumph Speed Twin was introduced in 1938, so that’s not one... The Knuckle came out in 1936 so that’s not one either. Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany and England was drawn into World War Two, but in this case that’s not relevant.
Give up? OK, the answer is that three people were born this year, people who would influence custom bike building from the sixties onward. I, of course, refer to Sugar Bear, Ron Finch and Arlen Ness. This is as diverse a group as you could come up with but I don’t think you can discount their contributions over the years.
Admittedly, Arlen Ness has strayed away from what a lot of us consider aesthetically pleasing since the mid eighties. Ron Finch’s customs over years are definitely... unique. Sugar Bear has refined his style over the years, but remains probably the closest of the trio as far as sticking to the original concept.
Mr. Ness has undoubtably had the most financial success. Starting out as many do working out of a garage, painting motorcycles in San Leandro California. He began producing parts for custom bikes that he was able to showcase by ‘recycling’ the same 1947 Knucklehead over and over because finances wouldn’t stretch to a different bike. His early work was radical for the time and very influential. According to Irish Rich on our online forum recently when we were discussing the 1973 iteration of the Ness Knuckle: “As far as his style, he was right up there in the forefront of the Bay Area style of bike, and for ‘73, that bike was pretty much state of the art for that area.”
Personally, after the 57 Chevy-ish “Ness-Stalgia” little of his work has appealed to me. Especially his work with Victory and those rocket-ship looking baggers, but that doesn’t diminish the impact he has made over the years.
Ron Finch also made a name for himself making custom parts for choppers. Starting in 1965 with Finch’s Custom Styled Cycles in a building that was only a thirty minute ride from our Global Headquarters here in Michigan. In 1972 they moved to the Finch Castle in Auburn Hills and it became a showplace for Ron’s unique vision. I never did see the original shop, but the building was legendary for its decor. It’s a Home Depot now, but Ron started on new digs about twelve years ago and continues to add on to it on a regular basis. We did a little feature on it in issue #120. Ron Finch is just a different kind of guy, his mind doesn’t work the way anyone else would expect and at the same time he always has a smile and will take to time to chat. Pictures of him from the 70s and recent shots are eerily similar. If it wasn’t for the grey hair now, you’d think he had his own “Dorian Gray” portrait in the attic... or maybe he just looked like he was in his seventies forty years ago.. I dunno. He’s a great guy though and his parts are still bought and sold on a regular basis, even though he doesn’t actually make them any more. You can still see his springers and carriage tail lights etc. floating around on eBay and such.
Sugar Bear gets a lot of ink in this magazine, but it wasn’t always so. Sugar Bear was building kickass bikes that were actually meant to be ridden, but he never got the recognition he deserved in the motorcycle press of the day because of the dominant ‘whites-only’ attitude that prevailed for the first twenty five years he was in business. While most other springer manufacturers were content to not worry about the effects of rake and trail when fitting long front ends, Sugar Bear devised a system of different rockers that corrected trail for any given rake. Most of you probably associate him with the big #4 rockers that his long front ends usually have, but the Baker Drivetrain Panhead has the #1 rockers, my Triumph chopper has the #2 rockers and Sugar Bear’s most beautiful creation “Gorjus” has the #3 rockers. If anyone has a reason to be bitter about his treatment by the press, it’s him. Thankfully, he’s not, he recalls his mentor Benny Hardy telling him that he’d better just do this for the love of it all, because there would never be ‘mainstream’ recognition. Luckily on that point, Benny was wrong. People are still lining up for one of Sugar Bear’s springers. I believe he’s the only one of the three that still hand builds parts the public can buy.
They are all going to hit 75 this year, they deserve to be able to slow down a little but that doesn’t mean they will and their drive is what generated the influence they’ve had over the years. There have been many others of course, but I think you’ll agree these three are real stand-outs.