Jeff McCann: the world's finest custom motorcycle artist
Words by: Nigel Saxon
California’s Jeff McCann was quite simply one of the most talented painters the custom motorcycle world has ever seen.
Justifiably celebrated and revered in his home country, he could never have imagined how his work and enigmatic personality would inspire the founders of Battistinis Custom Cycles in Europe and, even now, continue to influence the JetsForever style.
He sadly left us in 2012, aged 67, but if you are into custom bikes then it is almost certain that you have admired his work, perhaps even without knowing it.
Throughout the late seventies, eighties and nineties, Jeff quietly managed to stay at the top his chosen field, producing paintwork so radical and innovative that made him the painter of choice for the world’s best custom motorcycle builders.
One of the most striking aspects of any custom bike is, of course, the paintwork and Jeff was responsible for the paint and design adorning some of the world’s most stunning two wheeled creations, including from master builder Arlen Ness.
The association between McCann and Ness goes back to the early seventies when they both owned small custom bike building shops in the Bay area of San Francisco, when the Chopper boom was at its peak, fuelled by the success of the film ‘Easy Rider’.
Jeff owned his first motorcycle in 1965 at the age of 20 and began to experiment with customization in 1969 on a Triumph 650, followed later that same year with his first Harley.
His talent for art, first evident as a schoolboy, soon led him into a career in lithography and printing, however his part-time work on his own projects and paint jobs for friends began to take over. So much so, that in 1978, Jeff painted over 100 motorcycles, cars, vans and even two snowmobiles!
It was during this period that his association with Arlen Ness began to flourish. Arlen, a prolific painter in his own right with his own considerable skills, could not manage to achieve the sort of effects with pinstriping and gold leafing that's become the trademark of Jeff McCann's unique talent.
As Arlen's business started out, McCann helped his friend by turning his hand to designing, photographing, and printing the first Ness catalogue, including creating the classic wing logo. Increasingly, he would be given a free hand with designing the colour scheme on Ness bikes with Arlen's only proviso "Gimme lotsa leaf..!" which is how the distinctive style evolved.
The basic artistic principles behind McCann's use of colour, stem from his experience in the printing field. In this medium, all colours are created from yellow, red, blue, or black. He mixed hot and cold hues together, based on a common primary colour, to dramatic effect.
Two typical examples of this technique are Arlen's FXR, aptly named, ‘Simply Orange’ and Battistini's Sport Liner ‘Purple Haze’, illustrating how seemingly incompatible colours such as orange and turquoise merge and complement each other under McCann's skilful direction.
Jeff also counted "preparation next to godliness..." and relied on the expert hands of his friend and long-term collaborator Kirk Jennings, well known for his excellent fabrication and moulding work.
‘Purple Haze’ marked McCann's growing association with Arlen's European distributor Battistinis, who became respected bike builders in their own right. The first example of Jeff's work to cross the Atlantic was ‘JDOne’ a Lowrider, commissioned by Jeff Duval, one of the co-founders of Battistinis, in 1992.
Like Ness, Duval also gave McCann a free hand, but challenged him to somehow capture an essentially British bike feel and the result speaks for itself.
McCann went onto strengthen the Battistini link with ‘The Corsa’. Duval wanted to recreate the classical style of the '50's Italian racers using genuine Ferrari reds and yellows and, of course, plenty of gold leaf!
At one point in his career, due to personal reasons, McCann retired from painting altogether, but returned with a vengeance to develop his passion even further, to the point where it was his sole source of income, his biggest customer being his old pal Bob Dron of Oakland Harley Davidson.
In 1992, Jeff completed 25 bikes for Oakland, seeing a 40-50% increase on those numbers each year ever since, taking the customers dreams and applying his own magical skills. The appealing part for the rider is that he or she could still use their bike while the transformation is taking place, using an exchange set of bodywork until the metamorphosis is complete.
As the nineties progressed, Jeff had also become a regular Battistini collaborator, painting all their flagship machines including ‘The Showstar’ that went on to earn world acclaim. As his reputation in Europe grew, McCann made several trips to England to attend the Battistini trade shows. These were legendary events that were attended by the cognoscenti of the California custom scene such as Arlen and Cory Ness, Mike Corbin and Perry Sands.
Jeff was a fervent believer in passing on his skills and techniques and to the next generation and mentored Battistinis own in house prodigy, Terry Spencer, spending countless hours helping Terry hone his craft.
In 2008, McCann finally received official recognition of his artistic achievements, with two Ness bikes featuring his paintwork now permanently on display in the ‘California Dreaming’ wing of the Oakland Museum. An exhibition mounted to celebrate both the influence and the contribution of local artists to the creative world in such diverse mediums as movie making and vehicle customising.
That fitting endorsement finally rubberstamps his own signature which charismatically appears secretly somewhere on all his finished work. It simply reads..."Motorcycles Forever".
Be the first to hear about what’s going on at Jets!Sign up to our Mailing List