The True Story of the Triumph Hurricane
as Told by the Men Who made it Happen.

Text and Photos by
Don Brown and Craig Vetter, July 2004

Editor's Note: What eventually came to market as the Triumph Hurricane began as a secret design project initiated by Don Brown outside the knowledge of his superiors at Birmingham Small Arms. Over time, historically inaccruate reports of the project have been published and passed down through the historical record. At last, the only two men who know what took place prior to the "Vetter BSA" becoming public -- Don Brown and Craig Vetter -- have come together to create a dialogue that will, for the first time, tell what really happened. Before Brown and Vetter begin their dialogue, they list here the names and positions of important people who influenced the project:

Eric Turner
  Chairman of BSA Group; Early 1960s until Nov 2, 1971
Edward Turner
  “ET”, Long-time Managing Director of Triumph Engineering Ltd. at Meriden, the Motorcycle Division of the BSA Group, until he retired in 1969.
Lionel Jofeh
(pronounced Joe-Fee)
  Managing Director, Motorcycle Division of the BSA Group, Member of the Group Board from 1966 until July 1971
Bert Hopwood
  General Manager, Member of the Board, Triumph Engineering; Later Deputy Managing Director, Member of the Board, BSA Group
Jack Wickes
  Design Engineer, Triumph Engineering & BSA Group, known as Edward Turner’s “Pencil”
Don Brown
  Vice President, General Manager and Director BSA, Inc.1967 to 1970; reassigned as Vice President, National BSA Sales; resigned Jan 8, 1970; formerly, General Sales Manager Johnson Motors (JoMo) 1956-1965
Peter Thornton
  CEO US BSA/Triumph Operations Aug 1969- until terminated May, 1971
Denis McCormack
  CEO Triumph Corporation, Towson MD until May 1972
Harry Chaplin
  Sales Manager, BSA, Inc.

Doug Hele

 

Director of Engineering at Triumph

Craig Vetter
Designer, inventor, and motorcyclist. 1964 to present

 

The Triumph Hurricane: the Result of a Secret Project Initiated by Don Brown:

Don Brown begins: I have no idea how many books and articles have been written about the X75 Hurricane that contain important factual errors. I can't correct all of the errors, but with your help, Craig, we can restore some accuracy to this important story. I seek no special recognition per se, only that my part in this project be factually recorded - or stated or rerecorded or restated, as the case may be. Consider this:

  1. I conceived of the project and had certain design principles in mind, which I conveyed to you, with which you were in full agreement, such as my original bike, a customized 1950 Triumph Thunderbird, as well as Edward Turner’s design fundamental principles.
  2. It was a secret project funded by me out of BSA, Inc. petty cash on a weekly basis.
  3. While you and I may have worked as a team for awhile, I had absolutely nothing to do with your conception and styling of the X75 as we know it today, and I seek no credit for the design, per se.
  4. I wrote a letter to you on my personal BSA, Inc. letterhead that contains these fundamentals (Below is Craig’s original, never before published).


    Don's Letter to Craig

Craig adds: Don has never told me his side of this remarkable story. But I agree with him about the historical record. Most stories about the Triumph Hurricane are full of inaccuracies. Here for the first time, are the true facts, told in our own words, surrounding the development of the X75 Triumph Hurricane of 1973.

Don continues: In 1950, at age 21, I was in my second year in college, having already spent 18 months in Germany with the 385th Military Police. I had joined at 17 after my dad was killed in an air crash as a Naval aviator in 1946. I was still in the Army reserves, and called back for the Korean conflict. However, I had the good fortune of being assigned to Camp Stoneman, California, until discharged. A pal from high school, the late Jimmy Fator, who had started riding motorcycles, convinced me during a visit home to think about buying a bike.

While on pass one Saturday, I drove by a Triumph dealership in Oakland that had a custom bike displayed in its big window. It was the most beautiful machine I had ever seen! But never having owned or ridden a motorcycle before, what did I know? I met the owner, Mr. Vern Gardner, and it didn't take much for me to plunk down a down payment to purchase a new customized 1950 Triumph Thunderbird.

This sprung-hub Thunderbird was fitted with a James 2.5 gal petrol tank painted a rich cream and accented with hand-painted blue pin stripes. There was a big (probably Harley, but I'm not sure) headlamp with a tachometer and speedo mounted on a special clamp. There were alloy fenders, which are not very durable, but beautiful to look at; and a solo saddle and pillion pad. This, I think is when I realized that a motorcycle could be beautiful. It drew a crowd in front of the store as Mr. Gardner pressed me for a sale. I was hooked.

Eventually, I ruined the appearance of the bike when I began racing hare-n-hounds on weekends in the Southern California desert. Five racing buddies and I formed the Checkers AMA motorcycle club in 1951. In 1952, I won the AMA national championship cross country amateur title, finishing 7th overall. Then I started writing a column in Cycle Magazine called “So-Cal Motorcycle Sports.” In 1953, I was offered the position of assistant editor and then became editor a few months later. I seemed to be in hurry in those days, but I was truly having a lot of fun.

Then, newly married to my wife of today, Teri, I quit Cycle to promote a book that my colleague at Cycle, Evan Aiken, and I wrote about my racing pals Bud Ekins, ‘Feets’ Minert, Johnny McLaughlin, and Don Pink, an eastern enduro champion I had only corresponded with, but later met and stayed at his home in White Plains, New York. The book was appropriately titled “How to Ride and Win.” My trip across country put me in contact with the movers and shakers of the industry that I had corresponded with while at Cycle. When I returned home, I started a weekly radio show about motorcycle sports, which aired weekly on KHJ Radio in Los Angeles. The show was sponsored by Johnson Motors and was on the air for 16 weeks until my next job at Johnson Motors became too important.

Clearly, I was hooked on motorcycling. Bill Johnson of Johnson Motors (JoMo) offered me the position of General Sales Manager while I was racing at Catalina in 1956. I was 26. I stayed with JoMo for 9 ½ years until I was forced out in 1965 during a political struggle between Wilbur Ceder and the late William Johnson’s family. That summer I accepted a contract position as National Director of Operations at US Suzuki to help my friend and former JoMo sales rep, Jack McCormack, who was under contract as General Manager. I was fortunate, having had several job offers, but Jack wanted my help in order to gain corporate profitability, which had been elusive, and I wanted to gain broader corporate experience in disciplines other than sales and marketing. But, by 1967 I was back with the Brits, being hired by Lionel Jofeh to be VP/GM of BSA, Inc., replacing Ted Hodgdon, long-time president of BSA, Inc., motorcycle historian, and author.

I accepted the position at BSA because Jofeh convinced me the BSA Group was making the commitments necessary to compete with the Japanese, should they start building big bikes to compete with the British and Harley-Davidson. Obviously, I didn’t do my homework. Otherwise I would have known that such a claim was a near impossibility. Actually, I would have accepted the position even if they hadn't seemed to be so convinced they could compete. My time with Johnson Motors and Triumph had many difficult periods, but had been the best years of my life to date. I still like the classic British bikes today.

Some Background:
Triumph was owned by Birmingham Small Arms Ltd. which made rifles, motorcycles, taxicab bodies, and other metal products. BSA had purchased Triumph in the early 50s, but sales and manufacturing operations were kept strictly separate until Harry Sturgeon was appointed Managing Director when Edward Turner was in the process of stepping down. Part of the Group’s policy then was to acquire the independently owned Johnson Motors and Hap Alzina’s BSA distributorship in Oakland. Their first step was to acquire all of Alzina’s company and 51% of Johnson Motors. Pete Colman was appointed Assistant General Manager of JoMo by Wilbur Ceder and was assigned to close down Alzina and operate it from Johnson Motors, soon to be relocated in Duarte, California. Triumph and BSA were then consolidated in the US in 1970 under the new CEO, Peter Thornton, an MIT graduate with advertising experience with InterPublic of New York.

Craig asks: Don, was Edward Turner generally known as "ET?"

Don answers: Lots of his senior staff called him “ET,” but not to his face. He should always be referred to as Mr. Turner except when I may be talking about a particular situation. Mr. Turner was highly opinionated and wasn’t liked by many. But his 1937 Speed Twin revolutionized street bike designs. He had built a very light and relatively inexpensive bike with real performance that hundreds of thousands of Brits and Americans and others around the world could afford. The Speed Twin and the Ariel Square Four pretty much made ET. Later iterations -- such as the US inspired Bonneville -- are additional examples of Turner’s considerable ability.

I will never forget the night I was at dinner with him at one of his favorite restaurants in England. After dinner, over a brandy, I ask him what his philosophy of design was. He responded in a few words, "I like to keep it slender and light of weight, actually and in appearance as well. Also I try very hard to keep everything in balance and with symmetry." He went on with a grin, ”If I keep them light, I don’t have to put too much into the engine to achieve reasonable performance.” That was pretty much it, although I am sure I may have forgotten the exact words he used.

Craig adds: Jack Wickes was Mr. Turner’s assistant designer. When I met Jack in 1972, I sensed that there was great reverence for Mr. Turner. Jack told me that Mr. Turner had very strong opinions about design. "Never use a straight line," he instructed Jack, "Use a slight curve, like a 12 foot radius." Being a plastics designer, I already understood that. I am sure that Mr. Turner's dictums were in a large part responsible for the handsome look that characterized the Triumphs of his day.

Don continues: I had always been interested in design and I envied people who possessed the ability to be proficient in that field. One example is when I worked with a talented graphic artist by the name of Peter Violanti in Pasadena to produce the 1965 full color Triumph brochure. I wrote the copy and outlined the idea. I told him I wanted the brochure to be elegant and that the photographs would be taken in England with models on the lawns of grand estates and castles. Phil Cross, assistant to Ivor Davies, publicity director of Triumph Engineering, organized the photo shoot. That brochure is now a collector's item. Thirty-one years later, in 1996, when NBC ruined my only remaining copy of the brochure, they paid me $500 to buy another!

1965 Triumph brochure

That brochure won the Graphics Arts award of the year by theWestern Graphic Arts Association, and appeared 35 years later in the Guggenheim Museum’s catalog for The Art of The Motorcycle Exhibition. It was so much appreciated by the BSA Group that JoMo was reimbursed for its total cost of $32,000, which was my entire communications budget for the year. It was used nationally in the US and was adopted world-wide for two years. Triumph was becoming the big bike of choice in the western US among Honda dealers. We needed a brochure to match the ones being produced by Honda because Honda dealers had high floor traffic. We wanted Triumph dealers to have the best brochures, should they decide to take on Honda. It worked. My friend Jack McCormack -- who was with Honda by then -- framed and posted my letter to Triumph dealers telling them we favored Honda as a second line on the wall at American Honda's executive offices. Those were the honeymoon days!


Following my appointment with BSA, my first trip to the UK was early in 1969 to view the BSA and Triumph triples that had been developed by Bert Hopwood and Doug Hele. I remember those present included my boss Lionel Jofeh, the chairman Eric Turner, Bert Hopwood, Doug Hele, and others from the UK. On the American side, there was Earl Miller of Triumph Corporation of Towson Maryland, Pete Colman of BSA & Triumph West in Duarte, Californai, and myself, representing BSA, Inc. of Nutley, New Jersey. Various subjects were discussed, including a review of a new model being designed by Edward Turner as part of his retirement program. It was never produced.

Ogle Design BSA

Don continues: In many ways, the new tripleswere impressive to me, but they were also disappointing because they were still pushrod models with nothing very new, except that they were very fast. We knew by then that Honda was planning to introduce a big bike, probably a four. Another thing that was worrisome to me were the crankcases that were still split vertically. This meant we still faced the old problem related to British machines: oil leaking big-time. This was a warning signal that the Group hadn’t made the commitment to utilize pressure die castings necessary to go horizontal. Then there was the projected price, around $1,800, which caused me to grimace. But putting all of these things aside, there was one thing that really got to me: it was the rocket-shaped exhaust pipes, which reminded me of Bill Johnson’s 1959 Cadillac. I was very worried about such a design. Maybe it was not viewed that way by others, but it really got to me. Ted Hodgdon, who had shown me drawings of the silencers in 1968 before he retired, said that he had suggested a similar design and was proud of them and thought they were great. So, here I was, the new kid on the block, so I kept my mouth shut since the die had been cast. Interestingly, those silencers don’t really look that bad to me today. Maybe Ted was ahead of this time!

Lionel Jofeh had instructed each of the American vice presidents to develop separate plans for launching the BSA and Triumph triples in the US market. In addition, my job was also to develop a national advertising program for the BSA brand. I didn’t mind; it was fun . . .so far.

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