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Bikes You Should Know: Triumph X-75 Hurricane

X75-hurricane
Bikes You Should Know appears weekly as part of Two Wheel Tuesdays. Since Hooniverse primarily caters to automotive enthusiasts, this column focuses on historically or culturally significant motorcycles that are likely to interest a non-riding audience.


The Triumph Hurricane is significant not for what it was, but for what it portended. It was not a long-lived model. It was not a competition winner. It was not a cash cow for its maker. It did not offer any functional advances. But what it did do was change not only the style of motorcycles, but the process of how motorcycles are styled. And it would change for a generation how Americans viewed motorcycles, and how overseas manufacturers viewed the American motorcyclist.

THE BACKSTORY

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BSA/Triumph had developed a pair of 750 three-cylinder flagships in the mid-1960s, but their introduction was fraught with delays and missteps. One of those missteps was to hire the British design firm Ogle (which had zero experience with motorcycles) to style the new pair of triples. The result was a conspicuously over-styled, boxy appearance. Compared to the beautiful Bonneville, the new bikes were awkward, chunky, dated and unexciting. (The BSA/Triumph twins’ styling would unfortunately get a similar hack job two years later.) To make matters worse, their (expectedly) dominant 750 triples were quickly and completely overshadowed by the cheaper, much more advanced Honda 750 Four only a few months later.

Don Brown, vice-president of BSA’s distributor for the eastern USA, knew that the original BSA triple missed the mark, badly. He couldn’t do anything about the old manufacturing technology or the high price, but he could damn well correct the appearance. Without consulting the factory in England, he secretly hired a young, upstart motorcycle designer named Craig Vetter to undertake an “experimental design exercise” to make a “sports version” of the Rocket 3.

Craig picked up one of the first Rocket 3s in North America and took it home to Rantoul, Illinois. He spent the summer of ’69 in his workshop, transforming the dowdy Rocket 3 into something more pleasing to young American males.

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The changes he made were extensive, unconventional, perhaps visionary. The bodywork was a sensual, sculptural, wasp-waisted, single piece of lightweight fiberglass. The exhaust was wild, featuring three separate megaphones that all exited on the right side of the bike, dirt-track style. He repositioned the gauges and gave the headlight a mounting yoke that made it seem to float. He even went so far as to add fake extensions to the cylinder head cooling fins to correct what he saw as a too-rounded, too timid engine shape. Bright yellow and orange upped the bike’s in-your-face look even further.

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Once Vetter had his prototype complete, he shipped it to Don Brown. Nobody back in New Jersey had known about Don’s project — he’d been paying for Craig’s expenses through petty cash (a stunt that would cost him his job). No one was willing to endorse it until the CEO saw it for the first time and famously said, “My god, it’s a bloody phallus.” The bike was promptly wrapped up and shipped to England.

WHAT HAPPENED

 

CW-cover

Some of the suits in England found Craig’s design too radical, but everybody recognized that something had to be done to increase the appeal of the British triples in America. (The styling of both the BSA and the Triumph version were quickly revised to bring them more in line with traditional British styling.) BSA executives showed Vetter’s prototype to the press. Seven months after Vetter’s bike went to England, it showed up on the cover of Cycle World magazine. Americans went bonkers for it. Knowing they had a winner on their hands, BSA/Triumph made the decision to go ahead with a limited-run “halo” production version.

When the production model debuted two years later, the company was in trouble; just as the new model was ready for production, the BSA brand was axed. At the eleventh hour, the decision was made to call it a Triumph: The X-75 Hurricane. Other detail changes were made, many of which didn’t please Vetter. The production fiberglass was identical in shape, but was cast in two halves with a raised seam down the middle, which was covered with black tape. The rear grab rail was made of single-diameter tubing, rather than his prototype’s elegantly tapered tube. The mufflers were kicked up and fanned out significantly more, giving more ground clearance but causing the passenger footpeg to be mounted amidst them, and necessitating a perforated heat shield on the top pipe. Remarkably, the factory made an entirely new cylinder head casting to adopt Vetter’s more broad-shouldered finning. Most controversially, the front forks were extended a couple of inches, giving a slightly more “chopperesque” look. The motivation for this — whether it was deliberate change or a simple miscalculation on the part of BSA — is still hotly debated. More than three years had passed since Craig’s prototype was built, so many other various bits were updated to then-current items from the standard Triumph parts catalog. Still, for a design that hadn’t been produced with much consideration toward manufacturing practicalities, it had made it to production essentially intact. One thing that should have been changed more was the front brake. By the time the production bike showed up in 1972, drum brakes were outmoded, but Triumph had drums to use, and since that was what they’d shown people in 1970, that’s what the production bike had.

WHY IT’S SIGNIFICANT

The 1,172 Vetter Hurricanes produced are among of the most sought-after collectable motorcycles today. It routinely makes various “best” and “most beautiful” lists. It taught the motorcycle industry three vital lessons:

  1. Styling is a language. That language is different in different countries and cultures, and you can’t talk to your prospective customers in a foreign tongue. Today, nearly all foreign manufacturers have design studios in the USA, and around the world. Harley and Honda recently opened design studios in India.
  2. Engines need to be styled just like bodywork, not just engineered. Bodywork should flow together, sometimes literally. The whole thing is a package, and the details need to be given the same attention as the major components.
  3. At least in first-world nations, motorcycles are not transportation, they are recreational toys. Therefore, image is everything. The X-75 had a smaller fuel tank, smaller seat, and less cornering clearance than the original Rocket 3. But it worked, visually and emotionally. And that was all that mattered.

Image Sources:
Bonhams.com, James Cummins’s Flickr feed, morganwilhelm.wordpress.com, Vetter.com, Allposters.com

  • dukeisduke

    Excellent article – I read about it on Vetter's site awhile back, linking over from the Windjammer thread. It's hard to believe it took them three years to go from Craig's design, to a production bike.

  • mac350

    The first bike I really lusted after in a big way. I remember the Cycle World cover and kept that issue for years. The Hurricane influenced motorcycle designs for years to come. Honda used the design (modified for real-word production) in the Ascot and Nighthawk models.
    <img src="http://www.mcpoolen.se/images/mc/82/honda/ft500/rod-sida-hub.gif&quot; width="600">
    <img src="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/eb/Honda_CB250_Nighthawk_drum.jpg&quot; width="600">

  • Number_Six

    Is it heresy to say I preferred the BSA original?

  • Hopman

    I had the pleasure of seeing not only one but two of these fine machines at one event this past spring. A local bike dealer was celebrating their new Triumph franchise and had an open even with free food and a bike show. Having nothing better to do on a sunny Saturday, I headed over.

    On on display inside was a concourse restored X-75. Nice bike. I wander outside to take a look at what's rolled in for bikes, when a guy rides in on a barn-fresh, single-family owned X-75. The son (the current owner) had bought it from his stepdad about 15 years ago. Stepdad had bought it new. It was the first time the bike had been ridden in about 10 years he told me. The sound of that triple was very cool!

  • Rover_1

    What is/was it about Britain that so efficiently converts success into failure with so many manufactured things?

    • Johnny Ro

      Good historical question. I read Harvard Business School's case study on British motorcycle industry 20 years ago. Bottom line, failure to invest capital competitively. Honda was making millions of flawless tiddlers on modern computer controlled machinery while the brits were staying small scale, with kludgy parts and designs that required assembly line massaging to fit and leaked oil or broke after that. Brit Mgt. was well aware of the Japanese and chose not to compete with adequate capital, and maybe they did not really have access to that much capital anyway.

      • Rover_1

        The same answer to The British Cycle Industry, and The British Aircraft Industry and The British Car Industry. And no doubt entwined with questions of the value of work and workers, and the British class system?

        And only peripherally involved with "The unions did It'

  • So… why then did Yamaha, who faithfully followed in the footsteps of Triumph with their XS series, elect to ignore the styling lessons of the Hurricane when it finally squeezed out the XS750 in 1976?

    <img src="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/04/Yamaha_XS_750.jpg/1024px-Yamaha_XS_750.jpg&quot; width=550>

    I never did understand why they made the XS750/850.