Hatching Plans, 1969

In March of 1969 I brought my Suzuki to Daytona and pestered every motorcycle company executive I could locate. "Look at this," I said, "You need me to design a bike for you. That's when Harry Chaplin took my card.

Don continues: The telephone number was in Rantoul, Illinois. On April 21, 1969, I called Craig to discuss a project he might be interested in. That set the stage for lunch on June 3, 1969, which proved to be interesting indeed.

Craig remembers: Don’s offer was to fly me to Nutley for a meeting. If he liked me, he would give me the keys to a BSA Rocket 3 and I could drive it home to Illinois. I bought a one-way ticket.

Don: The fellow walking toward my table was a long-legged hippie-type with hair to match, dressed in the requisite blue jeans and T-shirt. I felt over-dressed! But in less than five minutes I realized this so-called "hippie" was intelligent, clear spoken, and he knew his bikes. Craig informed me that he was a graduate of the Design School of the University of Illinois. I was impressed. He knew a lot about airplanes too, so that was the icing on the cake.

Craig remembers: It turned out that Don and I had many common interests including motorcycles and racing, but not clothing. The big topic of excitement was that Don and I both loved airplanes. Don knew my heroes! His daddy had flown the 1929 Travelair Mystery Ship -- designed by Walter Beach -- a name I later used for a motorcycle. We talked so long about airplanes that I almost forgot what I was there for. Eventually, Don got down to business.

1929 Travelair & 1980 Vetter Mystery Ship?
Two Mystery Ships: 1980 Vetter and 1929 Travelair

Don says: Craig listened politely while I outlined what I had in mind. "BSA is introducing a new triple, the styling of which isn’t to my liking, and it may not be that well accepted in the market place," I told him. "We can’t change the styling of this model - it’s done - but maybe we can influence the engineers in the UK how styling for this market might be done," I went on. We talked at some length about design concepts and I told him the story of my first bike, a customized 1950 Thunderbird, and what I liked about it, that it appeared to be slender - not heavy - and the lines seemed to be in near-perfect symmetry. Those were the principles I was looking for in the project I had in mind to restyle the 1969 Rocket 3.

Craig says: This is just what I wanted to hear.

Don continues: At the office we talked about the project and what sort of agreement was on the table. I explained that the job was to restyle the Rocket 3 along the lines of our discussion and that the project was to be done in secret. I didn’t want anyone to know about the project until I was ready. After all, I wasn’t sure at this point whether this fellow Craig Vetter would deliver what I expected, something worse, or maybe something brand new that wasn’t expected. No one at BSA Group was told about the project, not even my boss Lionel Jofeh, and certainly not any of my American colleagues. Only three members of our staff were told about it and they were admonished not to discuss it with anyone except each other.

Craig agreed to do the job as the styling engineer. He also agreed to be paid weekly for materials used and expenses for his assistant only, except he would keep track of his time and, should the styling ever be accepted by the factory and eventually put into production, he was to be paid at the rate of $27 per hour. He agreed to send snapshots, a brief report each week, and to record the number of hours he had accumulated on the job. I would send him any parts available from our company plus reimbursement for materials. There was mutual agreement and I gave him the keys to a Rocket 3 (engine number KC-00197 A75R), rumored to be one of the Rocket 3s that had just set speed and long-distance records at Daytona.


The Summer of Love when Craig redesigns the Rocket 3,
June 3 through September 12, 1969

Craig begins to redesign the Rocket 3


Craig recalls: The ride to Illinois was a great time to get to know the Rocket 3. I loved the engine and the sound of the BSA triple, but not much else. Riding it was like sitting on an ugly board. In 1000 miles, I pretty much knew what had to be done. Much of the story appears in "A Hurricane Named Vetter," so I will not repeat it here. This then, is my story from a perspective 35 years later.”

Let me first state that I design for motorcycles because motorcycles do more with less energy. Motorcycles got 40mpg while cars got 15. Virtually everything that I think is worth doing must first do more with less. The biggest reason for doing more with less is to make our resources last longer. The second is to reduce our purchase of foreign fuel which makes any country vulnerable. I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. I'm sure you understand.

 

The designer of a motorcycle for Americans should be an American motorcyclist.

Craig continues: People from different cultures and of different ages have different tastes. As similar as the English and Americans are, in 1969 we rode differently. They liked flat bars and rear sets. We preferred sitting up with wide bars.

I have always designed for me. Not you. Me. When Don Brown called me in 1969, I was 27, unmarried, and loved design work and motorcycles. I understand my generation. Don could not have called a better person to design a motorcycle for Americans my age.

Don made things easier when he asked for a slim, 1-1/2 person design. Somehow, motorcycles look better that way, but they may seem not as practical unless you understand how form follows function the way I do. For me, the function of the Hurricane was to make me stand out in a world of foreign motorcycles. The function of my design was to look American. Its function was also to make its rider be noticed by women. Further, I wanted my design to withstand the test of time. Something that looks new and exciting today will look old and tired tomorrow. My work must be classic and enduring. Museums should want to show it in 50 years. Its function was also to improve the financial position of BSA and the state of motorcycling in general.

The function of my design then, was to say "Look at me because I am special." The function of the Vetter Rocket was to make me get noticed for the right reasons.

I already loved the triple engine but somebody had emasculated it by shaving its cylinder head fins off. I put them back on. I also put as much space around it as possible, sort of like framing it with the bodywork as a prized painting would be, to make it the center of attention.

I am the first of the "Plastic Generation" of designers. We plastic designers are able to see more free flowing shapes, and are not as restricted in our thinking as, say, metal-stamp designers. Plastics salesmen had no objections from me. They did not have to show me why plastic was better than metal. I already knew it. So you can see that I had no fear in making a one piece seat and tank.

Computer Assisted Design (CAD) is great today, and I use it. But nothing beats sitting on your design, feeling it between your legs, holding the handlebars and making 'Rumm Rumm' sounds. I do a lot of that when I design a motorcycle. Sit on a Hurricane or a Mystery Ship and you will feel the result.

I wanted my design to be producible so I made no changes that I thought might jeopardize its production. It also was to incorporate a new Ceriani - style front end. Don sent me a set of Cerianis saying that it pretty much represented the English version coming soon. The problem was that he sent me short, road racing forks and I had to machine slugs to bring the bike back up level. And that seems to have led the English to believe that I had extended the forks, so they extended their Ceriani copies too. The fact is the Vetter Rocket that I made had stock Rocket 3 length forks.

The exhaust system was a nightmare. I don’t like arranging three pipes. Don, as I recall, said do whatever you want with the pipes and the engineers will make them work. The best I could come up with was the now famous, fanned out configuration that actually employed the real megaphones that Jim Rice had used on his BSA flat Tracker. The engineers would make them work as mufflers. Apparently, they did make them work, but only good enough for any motorcycle made through December of 1972. After that, they would not meet federal noise emission standards. This is probably one of the reasons that the Hurricane was produced only for that one year.

Well, I never really liked the pipes. If you notice, most of the photos I took of the Vetter Rocket in 1969 were of the left side, and not from the pipe side. But I was wrong. The pipes helped make the Hurricane famous! Somebody once said, "The three pipes make the bike look loud." He was right!

Don really wanted the bike to be yellow, and if you scraped the paint from the Vetter Rocket, you’d find that it was once yellow . . . for about ten minutes. I could not stand it. I think this was the point when Don gave up on directing me and finally realized that I was going to produce something good for him.

The AMA had just published a bulletin encouraging us to incorporate ScotchLite on motorcycle products for safety purposes. I loved the stuff and immediately used it on my Series 1600 Phantom Fairing. Now that the Vetter Rocket was not going to be yellow, I could use ScotchLite on it also. In summary, here was a motorcycle that resembled nothing else in the world. Was it good design or was it just different? What would Don be able to do with it?

1 2 3 4 Next--->