Don and Craig learn to work together

Don continues: Preparing for the Fall Dealer meeting in 1969 made this a very busy time for me, but the styling project being done by Craig was still on my mind. When Craig sent his reports, I would take pen in hand and send him my thoughts about what had been done so far. There were several things I didn’t like initially, and I made my views known to Craig. We argued politely by telephone and by mail.”

Craig,with the revolutionary tank/seat unit

Then, one day Craig’s report contained a Polaroid of what became the essence of his new design: the famous one-piece seat and tank, which was an entirely original concept. The picture only showed a mockup. It was not a finished product by any stretch, but when I saw it I realized that Craig was on to something of importance, and from that point on I backed away from micro-managing the project. To Craig’s credit, he hadn’t let my ‘barbs’ get in his way. He would answer each critique with an explanation of why I was wrong or whatever.

 

 

Don Brown wrote: "It’s not my bag but that’s probably good".

Craig says: When the bike was finished and I had sent the final Polaroid to Don, he knew he was beaten. "It’s not my bag," he wrote, "but that’s probably good." I had earned Don’s trust.

Don to Craig: I think I was referring to the long forks, or something else. I liked the seat/tank design from the first time I saw it.

Don recalls: By the end of that year I had had enough of Peter Thornton and his whole deal. I didn’t like him or his associates who were acting as “consultants”. I told my wife, Teri, that I intended to resign as soon as I had informed the chairman. I said nothing to Thornton about my intentions.

Rumors about the Rocket 3 design project had gotten to Thornton, and he called me into his office. "What’s this about a secret project?" he asked. "Oh that," I responded, then I had my secretary take all of my files on the project to Thornton. He ordered me to arrange for him to see the bike. I called Craig and he put the finished prototype in his van and drove it out to Nutley from Rantoul. When he arrived October 31, I informed Thornton, and the word traveled through the office.

Craig remembers: The bike and I waited in the BSA service room. Several hours went by as various BSA staff walked by. Typical comments were, "sure is orange" or, "never seen anything like that before." The fact is that nobody had seen anything like this and they really did not know what to make of it. Finally, Mr. Thornton walked in and there was an audible gasp, then he blurted out, "My God, it’s a Bloody phallus! Wrap it up and send it England!" And with that, everyone laughed and clapped and began to give me compliments. The boss had told them it was okay.

Wrapped bike, ready to go to England

Don adds: No doubt you are right. I do not recall the delay, but it was probably because Thornton and I were having a small battle right in the middle of it. Thornton thought he had caught me with my hand in the pot and that I had absconded with corporate funds to fund the styling project!

Craig recalls: In the next hour the bike was bubble-wrapped to be air freighted to England, and I returned to Rantoul, unpaid. I understood that I wouldn’t get paid unless it actually got made, but it sure sounded to me like it was going to be made. Only now, 35 years later, do I begin to understand the peculiar reception I was given at Nutley. There was a battle going on in the other room and Don was about to loose any ability to see his project through. How was I to know?

Was the Vetter BSA project the reason Don left BSA?

Don summarizes: Despite all of the good efforts, the BSA and Triumph triples were not a huge success in the market place. Just after our success at Daytona, Honda dropped their bomb shell by introducing the CB 750, a near perfect bike for its time. It was a four cylinder, five-speed, overhead cam beauty. Then, if that wasn’t enough, the chairman decided to reorganize. I was put in charge of BSA sales for the US, and the chairman asked me to assist Peter Thornton to close down BSA, sell property we had purchased to build a new facility, and merge with Triumph in the East. Supposedly, these measures would save the Group from disaster through more "professional" management and advertising (Thornton was an advertising consultant with InterPublic, the largest advertising agency at the time), but history proved otherwise. I sold the BSA property for the new facility at twice the amount I paid for it. The Chairman sent me a cable that said, “You are in the wrong business - thank you.” That was my last official act for BSA.

Peter Thornton and I had not gotten along from the beginning. But he put up with me because I had strong support from the chairman and Lionel Jofeh, my boss before Peter Thornton. When the secret project became known to him, Thornton was certain he had found an excuse to fire me. Around January 8, 1970, he called me into his office and accused me of misusing company funds to support the Vetter styling project. He summarily fired me after a lengthy dissertation as to why he was taking this action. "I have already resigned - just ask the chairman," I said with a big smile. Then I walked out of his office and began gathering my personal things.

I left Thornton with most all of my files on the project with Craig Vetter. That was the last of my direct involvement in the project I had initiated. Despite the enthusiasm about Craig’s creation, I honestly did not believe that it would ever find its way into the market place. The BSA Group was in dire straights. Would they actually launch this “radical design” as a last ditch effort?

The Vetter BSA was in England For Seven Months --
October 1969 to May 1970

Don continues: Years later, the late Pete Colman, formerly vice president for engineering of the merged BSA and Triumph company, told me he had seen Craig’s prototype in the basement of Umberslade, the Group R&D research center.

Craig comments: If this was true, it would have been in that seven-month period the Vetter BSA was in England, from October 1969 through May 1970. Steve Mettam would have been working on it, wouldn’t he?

Don answers: I simply don’t know because I was no longer at BSA for most of that period.

According to Pete, he made a proposal to use the BSA engines and frames that were left over when the BSA division went bust, to build a limited-production special that could be sold at a premium price. Those were the magic words: "at a premium price." Apparently, Craig’s original gamble had paid off!

Craig recalls: My last recorded phone conversation with Don Brown was January 5, 1970 when Don explained that Lionel Jofeh was here now to see Thornton. Don asked me to draft a Project Summary in order to help him get the project accepted so I could be paid. I did, and mailed it to him. On or about January 8, 1970, I was informed by Patty Wayngrecht that Don had left the company. What a surprise! I never understood until now why Don left.

Don explains: I resigned my position in January of 1970. Peter Thornton and I were nearly fighting by then. I realized too that I failed to keep you posted as to what was going on, although I now know that Harry Chaplin and Don Bridgette, the Midwest BSA sales rep, and perhaps others thought they knew what was going on and were probably telling you what they thought was occurring. I returned to California and started my own business with offices in the Hilton Pasadena.

Craig's letter to Peter Thornton

Craig comments: Nobody told me anything. In fact, I was being stonewalled. I wrote to Peter Thornton directly on January 11, 1970, asking for payment.

Don remembers: Eric Turner called me at my office in Pasadena one morning to ask me whether or not I had executed a valid contract with Craig. I told him the contract was valid and after a brief reflection on BSA affairs, he said he would arrange for Craig to be paid. Pete Colman’s secretary, Ruth Furman, also had called me a few days before the chairman to ask me if I had a copy of the contract I had signed with you. I said I had a copy but it was still somewhere in my archives from the move. Actually, I wasn’t certain I still had a copy but I was prepared to testify that my contract with you was a valid obligation of BSA, Inc.

Craig: I received my check for $12,000 March 9, 1970.

Don continues: Mr. Turner (Eric) was an honorable man whom I liked very much despite his unwillingness to listen to his American managers and his propensity to hire senior executives who had no experience with the motorcycle industry. Not long after that, the BSA Group filed for receivership. I am glad Craig was paid -- albeit a smaller sum than was earned -- before the Group collapsed. But I doubt it was the money that motivated Craig. It’s more likely that his recognition for having created a truly unique and original design was more than enough payment.

 
Vetter / BSA license plate
 
Billed as the Vetter BSA Rocket 3 at
Houston in 1971.


Craig:
Where did the name “Vetter BSA “come from? I put that name “Vetter/BSA” on the bike’s license plate. The name stuck. Cycle World called it the “Vetter Rocket” in 1970. BSA called it the “Vetter BSA Rocket 3” in 1971.

As late as August of 1972, Bert Hopwood refers to it in his book as the “BSA Vetter Rocket.” It wasn’t until October, 1972 that the name "X-75 Hurricane appeared." I liked the name "Hurricane" because it continued the heritage of British airplane names. I suspected that Don liked it too.

Craig continues: Before he left BSA, Don Brown had arranged with Joe Parkhurst to feature
my design on the cover of Cycle World with a feature article, but the bike first had to be brought back from England for refurbishing. The original Vetter Rocket 3 model arrived through Chicago customs on May 7, 1970. I drove to Chicago and picked it up.

In my Notebook # 12, p 9, I wrote: "The bike was in very rough shape and many pieces were missing. I had three days to make new pieces and fix this thing. On Monday, May 11, I returned the bike to Chicago where it was air freighted to Cycle World in Los Angeles. Duane Anderson (who helped fabricate the original metal parts on the model) and I flew out on May 21, 1970 to be interviewed by Dan Hunt, managing editor of Cycle World. Duane Anderson and I picked up new Kawasaki 500s to ride home to Illinois.

Cycle World Cover

Craig continues: The bike appeared on the famous September 1970 "white cover" issue of Cycle World
with the caption, "Is this the next BSA 3?" Joe Parkhurst, founder and editor, later told me that this was by far the most popular edition of CW to date and that all extra copies were sold out also. After the photo shoot for Cycle World, the bike was displayed in their lobby for a while. Between January 29-30, 1971, BSA displayed the Vetter Rocket 3 at the Houston Astrodome trade show, and then it was stored in Anaheim by my friend, Darryl Bassani, until he delivered it to me in Illinois.

A year later, on January 29, 1972 I was invited to Houston for a special presentation of the new bikes. From my notebook # 16: "I saw the Rocket 3 in a truck yesterday and was very impressed with it. I took lots of pictures. So this was it and it was really happening! This bike still said BSA on it and still had the "750cc" name on the side, just as I had designed it, not the "X-75" as on production bikes. They still referred to it as the "Vetter Rocket 3." There were no labels saying "X75" nor did anyone call it a "Hurricane.”

 

Vetter BSA 3 at Houston


I’d like to mention Bert Hopwood again. First let me say that Mr. Hopwood was very polite and respectful of me in December of 1972 when I visited Meriden. We discussed my Bonneville TT together. But, about my Vetter Rocket design, in his book, he says: "We planned a limited production edition of a BSA 'Vetter Rocket,' a variation of the triple cylinder machine but with a vastly different appearance. It had been styled by Craig Vetter, a young American, to appeal to what I can only describe as the ‘trendy' type of rider whose numbers were increasing fast in the States ( p. 265)." Bert didn’t get it. He should have because Ex-Chairman Edward Turner said so in 1973: "Machines sell on the whims of fashionable young men. These fads are constantly changing."

Don: Bert was a traditional engineer, not a styling engineer. I doubt he understood demographics or generational change. I too very much liked Bert. He was a gracious host and a good man to deal with in business. ET asked me to deal directly with Bert when he was assigned as General Manager of Triumph Engineering 1961 or '62. At dinner at Bert’s home, he showed me his famous modular designs. I confess that while I understood them and what they represented, I questioned whether they could be adapted to appealing designs over time. Still, the possibility of reducing manufacturing costs and of simplifying the manufacturing process was an appealing thought. Too bad he wasn’t able to test his theories.

I heard nothing of Craig’s design until seven months later when I picked up a copy of the September 1970 issue of Cycle World. The bike was beautiful indeed, like a super model is beautiful. I smiled, again and again . . . that is, until I read the feature article about the history of the project. It was nearly a complete fabrication and that did get to me. But I didn’t call Parkhurst, and the reason was simple enough. Upon resigning I had promised the chairman that I would not grant any interviews or otherwise communicate with anyone in the press about matters related to the Group or its problems, and I kept my word.

Nonetheless, I was perturbed by the fact that Thornton refused to simply tell the truth. After all, I left BSA on good terms, which is something that Mr. Thornton couldn’t say. It was Peter Thornton’s dislike for me that brought about a less than dignified end to a "secret project" that led to a successful design that has been emulated by manufacturers and appreciated by countless thousands.

Vetter BSA 3 at Houston
 
Vetter BSA in living room
 

Don and Craig with the prototype

at the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum in 1989.

Craig continues: In 1978, after Joe Parkhurst sold Cycle World, I hired him to write the story of the Triumph Hurricane. A thousand copies of "A Hurricane Named Vetter" were printed, one for each of our Vetter dealers. But I sold the company before the books were delivered. Today I have a few still in their original 1978 packing boxes (They are available at http://www.craigvetter.com) .

I married my wife, Carol, in 1977, and for a while the Vetter Rocket hung in the living room of our new house in San Luis Obispo, California

Eventually, we donated it to the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum in Pickerington, Ohio in December, 1998. Yep, and there is Don Brown being inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame.

(Editor's note: Both Don Brown and Craig Vetter are members of the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.)

The Hurricane’s fame was growing. In 1998 the Guggenheim selected it for The Art of the Motorcycle Exhibition.

Craig reminisces: British enthusiasts took notice of the bike that was never intended for them. In 2001, Bike magazine declared that the X-75 Hurricane was among the 100 greatest bikes ever! British enthusiasts began "mining" the States for Hurricanes. Sixty-four showed up at Cadwell Park at the Beezumph 12 Rally in 2003. And, in July 2004, Motorcyclist named the Hurricane among the top ten sexiest bikes of all time!

At Beezumph 2003, I learned more about how the Vetter Rocket 3 progressed through the BSA product planning process. An unsung hero named Steve Mettam was apparently given the task of turning the Vetter Rocket 3 into a real, production machine. The story is told in four 1997 issues of the English magazine, Motorcycle Classics. Apparently, Mr. Mettam is the person responsible for the Vetter Rocket 3 becoming the X-75 Triumph Hurricane, while still looking like the original Vetter Rocket 3. My friends at Beezumph did their best to have Mr. Mettam at Beezumph 12, but it was not to happen. I hope some day to meet him in person.

Thirty-five years later the bike that Don Brown initiated and I designed has fulfilled all my hopes. Anybody who has a Hurricane is certainly noticed for the right reasons. The Hurricane motorcycle has become recognized around the world for its design. Many are in museums. Who’d have guessed that it would someday be displayed in the Guggenheim?

And it is a design that "does more with less." It gets fifty miles per gallon, which is still better than cars (but with that small tank, you’d better find a gas station after 100 miles).

Remember, the Hurricane was designed to get girls? I got mine. Carol and I are happily married with two wonderful boys, Zak and Morgan. What more could a man ask for? Thank you Don.

At the Guggenheim
 
Beezumph 12 in 2002

Don closes: It’s seldom in life that you get a chance to be involved with a project that ultimately becomes so influential in design circles as the X75 Hurricane. In the beginning in 1969, I became interested in convincing BSA Group engineers that it might be better to match new model designs to the market trends in their most important market, which was America. This urge came as a result of my dislike for the original design of the 1968 Rocket 3, and concern that the BSA marque might fail in the market place. Craig Vetter came along at precisely the right time and with precisely the right ideas for restyling the BSA Rocket 3. I am proud of having decided to hire Craig to be the styling engineer for what started out as an unauthorized "secret’ project" and that the X75 Hurricane - often to be called the ‘Vetter Rocket 3’ -- turned out to be so successful, not in terms of sales quantity (it was too high priced and not everyone liked the long forks or the vertically split petrol tank and separate seat in the factory version), but rather for it’s exciting and unique appearance. Its design is being celebrated by magazines, owners, clubs, independent authors, and museums, such as the famous Guggenheim. Still, many articles and even books published about the X75 Hurricane over the years have contained gross inaccuracies about how and why the X75 Hurricane was conceived. Even its specifications were often wrong. For example, some stated that the bike was fitted with a Triumph Trident engine and frame.

I am pleased that Craig Vetter has agreed to join with me to publish the true story of the Hurricane. Often, the story behind the story is where the real action is. Thank you, Craig, for helping me present the true story of a secret project that ultimately became such a major design success.

-END-

Posted 6/26/2004

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