The first factory special
1973 Triumph Hurricane X75
Years produced: 1973
Number produced: 1,172
Claimed power: 58hp @ 7,250rpm
Top speed: 114mph (period test)
Engine type: 741cc air-cooled, OHV inline triple
Weight (dry): 458lb
Price then: $2,295
Price now: $6,000-$18,000
The Triumph X75 Hurricane has been hailed as the first factory custom and the first cruiser. Its story is unique, and while it’s been told many times, its tellers have often gotten the facts wrong.
The Hurricane’s roots are in the BSA/Triumph triple, first designed by Bert Hopwood and Doug Hele in 1961 and 1962. Unfortunately, neither dared show the drawings to Triumph boss Edward Turner (who saw no need to update the product line) until 1964, when rumors of a Honda 750 began to surface. If they’d acted with haste, the triple could have been in showrooms in 1965. Instead, BSA Group management, figuring it had all the time in the world, handed the styling of the new design to the Ogle Group, then famous for award-winning toaster design. Ogle played with the triple’s styling for over a year, while Honda perfected its 736cc 4-cylinder engine.
When American dealers and distributors were finally shown the new triple in late 1968, there was widespread disappointment. Ogle had produced two versions, a BSA called the Rocket 3, with cylinders sloping forward and boxy, dark red bodywork, and a Triumph called the Trident, with upright cylinders and boxy, greenish-blue bodywork. Dealers and customers alike agreed the new bikes were ugly. They were also expensive, and sales were slow. Several months later, Honda introduced the CB750.
“When they put their marbles in the triples basket they made a huge mistake,” says Don Brown, then vice president and director of BSA’s U.S. operations, because “they could not afford to design the bike to employ the modern pressure die casting and modern transmission designs that would be great in the market place but proved to be way too expensive to build properly. By comparison, the Honda CB750 retailed for about $1,275 while the Rocket 3 sold for about $1,785. The CB750 had a 5-speed gearbox, the Rocket 3 had [originally] four gears. The CB750 had an electric starter and the Rocket had a kickstart.”
Brown decided something had to be done to boost sales of BSA’s new triple, so he rented Daytona Speedway and hired racers Yvon DuHamel, Dick Mann and Ray Hempstead. With four Rocket 3s at their disposal, the trio set numerous speed and distance records, certified by the AMA and the AMA Competition Congress. Later that year, the Triumph version of the triple set records at the Bonneville Salt Flats. But none of this was enough: The Honda 750 cut significantly into Triumph and BSA sales.
In early 1969, Brown, sipping a glass of wine while flying home from England, thought of his first bike, a customized Triumph Thunderbird, and decided he would take a stab at redesigning the triple on his own. Knowing the new regime loved the Ogle design, even if no one else did, and would refuse to consider a redesign, Brown decided to finance one in secret. He asked Harry Chaplin, BSA’s U.S. sales manager, if he happened to know anyone who was into custom bike building. Chaplin handed Brown a card with the name Craig Vetter on it, telling Brown he had seen Vetter at the last Daytona races showing several custom Bonnevilles.
On April 21, 1969, Brown called Vetter and made him an offer: He would fly Vetter to his office in New Jersey for a meeting. If Brown liked him, he would give Vetter the keys to a BSA Rocket 3 and he could ride it back to the Vetter factory in Illinois. The meeting, on June 3, 1969, went well, and Vetter rode home on the Rocket 3.
One of the things that had impressed Brown about Vetter was the fact that he was not only a dreamer, but also a practical industrial designer. “I wanted my design to be producible, so I made no changes that I thought might jeopardize its production,” Vetter says.
“The function of my design was to say, ‘Look at me because I am special.’ The function of the redesign of the Rocket 3 was to make me noticed for the right reasons,” Vetter explains. “Don made things easier for me when he asked for a slim, 1-1/2-person design. Somehow, motorcycles look better that way. 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.”
Vetter’s final prototype featured an innovative seat and tank unit set off with gold Scotchlite reflective tape, a simple chrome headlight, Borrani aluminum rims, polished stainless steel fenders and a 3-into-3 megaphone exhaust, supplied to him by Brown. Brown had also sent Vetter a set of Ceriani road racing forks, requesting they be used on the prototype. Vetter measured them and determined they had to be lengthened an inch and a half to maintain the stock rake and trail. He did not intend to extend the forks beyond the stock measurement. Vetter also suggested the cylinder head fins be extended to make the engine appear more powerful, a suggestion that was carried out on the production bikes.
Eventually, Peter Thornton, president of BSA/Triumph North America, got wind of the prototype and demanded to see it. “My God, it’s a bloody phallus,” he exclaimed. “Wrap it up and send it to England.” According to Brown, the only reason the bike was eventually produced in a limited edition was that Triumph needed sales, and that the company thought the publicity from the eye-catching custom would translate to new model sales that would lead, in turn, to service and parts sales.
When Brown first discussed the bike with Vetter, Brown called it “a sports version of a Rocket 3.” Cycle World referred to it as the “Vetter BSA” in its 1970 article, and in January 1971 the prototype was displayed in Houston, tagged as the “Vetter BSA Rocket 3,” which was probably suggested by Tony Salsbury at BSA. By the time Cycle Guide was offered a test of the production bike in 1972, BSA had fallen apart, so midway through the Cycle Guide test, the bike (which had started as a BSA) was officially named the Triumph X75 Hurricane.
Although the Hurricane was not a good seller at the time, it had a marked effect on contemporary design. Motorcycle designers began blending in the lines of the tank and seat, while a new type of motorcycle, the cruiser, started to become popular. To be sure, the Hurricane has been called the first cruiser, and it was undeniably the first factory custom.
Meanwhile, the 1,172 Hurricanes produced mostly ended up with collectors. A lot of them have survived, but the fiberglass on many has aged. Our feature bike, however, looks almost new. Classic bike broker and auction man Glenn Bator found it in New Mexico, with no traceable history. “It’s one of the survivors,” he says. The bike was in good shape, and needed no restoration; the only thing Bator had to do was a minor spruce up and tune to get it into great running order, and Bator says it’s an easy runner: “It’s easy to start, and the engine is quiet.” That last part is surprising, as many customs tend to be noisy, but all testers, from contemporary to retrospective, mention the Hurricane’s quiet exhaust note.
Some contemporary testers complained that the extended forks degraded the handling from the stock Rocket 3, but they don’t bother Bator one bit. “I have to be careful, since the bike has older, hard tires,” he says. “If it had a better set of tires, it would have better handling. But even with the old rubber, the bike handles well, you can really throw it into corners.
“The gearing is tall,” Bator continues. “I often have to drop down a gear to keep it in the right rpm range. I’ve ridden other triples,” Bator says, “and with the Hurricane, I could tuck in a little more, and throw my body into it a little more. I’m 6 feet tall, and I didn’t feel I was a monkey riding a football, and everything is easy to reach. The seat feels good, the bars are good, and the 3-into-3 exhaust sounds like a subdued MV Agusta going down the straight at Willow Springs.
“I think Hurricanes are undervalued.” Bator opines. “Vetter took a bike that was bone ugly and made it beautiful. The Brits came to an American designer because they were grasping at straws. It’s amazing what fiberglass does for that bike.”
Bator buys and sells, and Britbike enthusiast Royse Ader, a Vetter fan for years, just bought this Hurricane after buying two other motorcycles in about 30 days. “I first saw a Hurricane when I was a kid. I’ve been dreaming of owning one for a long time,” he tells us. Ader first bought a classic Norton from Bator, but then he saw associate editor Landon Hall’s Found on eBay blog in which Hall noted a Vetter Mystery Ship, Vetter’s race-spec, customized KZ1000 Kawasaki, then on the market. Ader decided he just had to have the Mystery Ship, and once that deal was final he decided to jump in all the way and buy the Hurricane so he’d have a Vetter matched set.
So what’s he think of the Hurricane? “The Hurricane outclasses the other triples by far,” Ader says with conviction. “Just sitting there, it’s sexier, sleeker, classier. It’s the ‘It’ bike, the American example of what Triumph meant in the 1970s.” MC
Myth One: BSA commissioned the Hurricane
This story was repeated in several period magazines, including Cycle World, September 1970, Cycle Guide, September 1972, and Cycle, March 1973.
Fact: BSA corporate knew nothing about the project at first. It was conceived by Don Brown, vice president and director of the BSA Group’s eastern facility, BSA Inc., in Nutley, N.J. It was financed out of office petty cash and kept secret from BSA Group management in England until it was completed.
Myth Two: Craig Vetter was a bright young thing fresh out of design school
Fact: Vetter had graduated four years previous to his commission to design the Hurricane, had started a fairing factory and was already selling his fairings nationwide. He had an ad in every issue of Cycle World from 1967 through 1970. At the time he met with Brown, Vetter already had 10 employees.
Myth Three: The Hurricane was intended to be a chopper
Fact: Craig Vetter is emphatic he neither intended to make nor actually made changes to the geometry of the Rocket 3. However, when he was reunited with his prototype in England this past summer, he examined the forks and found that a slug had been added to extend the forks an extra inch and a half.
Vetter then took a magnifying glass to the September 1970 Cycle World “white cover” — and there was that extra slug. The prototype had been in England from Oct. 31, 1969, the date Peter Thornton, then CEO of U.S. BSA/Triumph operations, first saw it, to June 1970, when it was shipped directly to Cycle World.
Tony Salsbury, then working for BSA, told Vetter the bike had been in the basement of Umberslade Hall, the BSA and Triumph R&D center, for most of those eight months. BSA had spent much of this time preparing the tooling necessary to put the bike into production. Who extended the forks, and why, has been a mystery, but Don Brown (who resigned from BSA in January of 1970), believes that BSA Group employee Pete Coleman decided to lengthen the forks to accentuate what many people thought of as the “chopper-like” quality of the design.