Mystery Ship: Craig Vetter’s Way-Out Kawasaki

Hardly something to disappear into the background, a Vetter Mystery Ship is something owner Alan Smith had wanted for over 30 years.

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by Nick Cedar

1980 Vetter Mystery Ship No. 3
Engine: 1,015cc air-cooled DOHC inline four, 69.4mm x 66mm bore and stroke, 8.7:1 compression ratio, 93hp @ 8,000rpm
Top speed: NA
Carburetion: Four 29mm Mikuni CV
Transmission: 5-speed, chain final drive
Electrics: 12v, coil and breaker points ignition
Frame/wheelbase: Dual downtube steel cradle/62in (1,575mm)
Suspension: Telescopic fork front, dual S&W “lay down” shocks w/adjustable preload rear
Brakes: Dual 9.4in (240mm) discs front, single 9.8in (250mm) disc rear
Tires: 3.5 x 19in front, 4.5 x 17in rear
Weight (dry): 495lb (225kg)
Seat height: 32in (813mm)
Fuel capacity: 6gal (22.7ltr)

Next to Willie G. Davidson, Craig Vetter is the American most responsible for motorcycle design in the last 40 years. He started on his life path very early. At the age of 8, he learned about Glenn Curtiss, the early speed record-setter and motorcycle and airplane designer. He decided then that he would be a second Glenn Curtiss, a designer and racer.

Now in his 70s, Vetter is involved in several different projects, most currently focused on electric motorcycles. He is also writing his memoirs, aided by several shelves of notebooks. Since 1965, Vetter has written and sketched his ideas in notebooks, which serve as an archive of his projects. Vetter often has several projects going at once, and is now up to 121 filled notebooks.

Vetter has always been interested in streamlining, and started on his career in 1966 by designing motorcycle fairings. In 1968, Vetter displayed a bike with what he called a “seat tank,” a one-piece fiberglass unit that served as a 5-gallon gas tank, a reservoir for 2-stroke oil, and a seat pan. This design came to the attention of the American BSA importer, who commissioned Vetter to design a more appealing styling for the new BSA Rocket 3, a fast bike with a stodgy exterior penned by Ogle Design. The Vetter Hurricane was unveiled in 1970 and was ultimately produced as the Triumph Hurricane in 1972-1973. As testimony to its influence, a Hurricane was one of the featured bikes in the famous Guggenheim Art of the Motorcycle exhibit.

Meanwhile, Vetter was busy designing his Windjammer Fairing – an aerodynamic fairing that would fit any bike then produced. Mass marketed in late 1972, the Windjammer was a hit, and thousands were sold. The profits from the company funded Vetter’s racing effort and, after he crashed and was seriously injured, a race team sponsoring Reg Pridmore, who won the 1978 Superbike Championship on a Vetter-prepared Kawasaki.

The market for Windjammer fairings started drying up when motorcycle factories started producing bikes with their own integrated fairings, and at any rate, Vetter wanted to work on some new and different projects. He sold the Vetter Corporation, the parent company for Windjammers, at the end of 1978, giving him the money and time to work on his next idea, a custom motorcycle design.

Mystery Ship origins

The story goes that in the late 1920s, aviation designers Herb Rawdon and Walter Burnham wanted to prove that a civilian aircraft built from scratch and designed exclusively for racing (as opposed to combat or passenger/mail service) could outfly a military airplane, so they built one. Under construction during 1928, the aircraft was kept under cover prior to the 1929 Cleveland Air Races, the builders going so far as painting the windows of the Beechcraft factory where it was built to keep curious press from getting a look at it. The local Wichita, Kansas, paper picked up on the secret program, with one reporter going so far as to scale a ladder to try to peek into the vents in the factory roof. The paper dubbed it the “Mystery Ship,” and the name stuck.

Craig Vetter heard this story, was captivated, and named his new custom motorcycle the Mystery Ship. “I wanted to do my own ultimate motorcycle,” Vetter explains. “I decided that a Kawasaki would be the best stock motorcycle for me to hop up. It had no known bad qualities.” At first, Vetter intended to use a Rickman frame, as along with everything else he was doing, Vetter had become the Rickman frame distributor for North America. A KZ1000 was to provide the power.

Kawasaki’s KZ1000 was a development of the Z1 launched in 1972. Sporting a double overhead camshaft inline 4-cylinder engine and a 5-speed transmission, by 1980 it produced about 93 horsepower and was one of the fastest motorcycles of the era. The Z1 was known for its brute horsepower and sometimes-imperfect handling; the KZ was smoother, had a beefed-up lower end, and handled better. Some riders complained that it was actually too civilized. Originally equipped with breaker-point ignition and a bank of four carburetors, it was upgraded to fuel injection and electronic ignition during the model run. It was replaced in 1984 by the liquid-cooled GPz.

The KZ sported a smooth, air-cooled, 4-cylinder engine, with an over-square bore and stroke of 69.4mm x 66mm. A lowish compression ratio of 8.7:1 allowed it to run on the less than optimum gasoline of the late 1970s. Carburetion was by four 29mm Mikunis, and the brakes were discs, front and rear. In 1980, the front stoppers were upgraded to double discs. It was a good, reliable machine, but a bit heavy with a dry weight of just more than 542 pounds. Even so, the KZ1000 was the basis of many Superbike contenders of the era, including the Vetter-sponsored Reg Pridmore effort. In stock trim it would do the quarter-mile in 12.5 seconds.

Eventually, Vetter decided to use the KZ’s own double cradle frame, but made some modifications, including removing frame tabs that wouldn’t be needed on the Vetter bike. “The plan was to produce a bike with the thinking and feeling that went into a race winner,” Vetter explains. “The frame mods were done by Sandy Kosman of Kosman Racing, a dear friend. The aim was to build a legitimate, serious racing frame, good enough for Reg Pridmore.” The problem, of course, was that a street legal machine needs to have numerous bits like lights, etc., that are unnecessary on a racer. Vetter’s plan was to surmount this problem by lightening components where possible and relying on streamlining to overcome the extra weight.

Kawasaki was aware of Vetter’s project. “Kawasaki liked the idea and sold us bikes at good prices, but didn’t actually fund the project,” Vetter says. The R&D for the project was finished in 1980. Vetter added up the costs of the Mystery Ship and came up with the then-shockingly high price of $10,000 per bike. The production costs were more than that, but he figured that $10,000 was the absolute limit of what anyone would pay. Vetter built the first Mystery Ship for himself, to use as advertising. He first painted the bodywork black, then decided he didn’t like it and burned the fiberglass. “I figured I couldn’t sell more than 100 due to the high price,” Vetter remembers. “I sold 10 right away. The customer could get any engine modifications they wanted, and I would install them in the frame. One customer wanted a turbo. Mystery Ship No. 2 was Stage 3 modified by Yoshimura and scary to ride.” Each Mystery Ship had a racing number plate formed into the side with that bike’s production number.

At this point, Vetter’s life took another turn. He was flying ultralight aircraft as a hobby, and crashed. “It took me out of life for a while,” he says. While recuperating, Vetter became interested in wheelchair design, and started a performance wheelchair company. The Mystery Ship project fell by the wayside.

Mystery Ship No. 3

Alan Smith saw a Mystery Ship in 1980. “I thought it was the coolest bike made. I wanted one. I collected articles about it, and then I found out Vetter only made 10. I wrote the idea off.”

Smith is an eclectic collector who also likes to ride. Like many people, he started riding dirt bikes, but after crashing a few times, “I decided dirt riding wasn’t for me,” he says. He then got involved in the antique bike movement, and has been collecting since 1980. “My collecting really took off when I got a house, which gave me room to store bikes.” Many collectors specialize in one type of motorcycle – it makes it easier how to learn to foil the quirks that all classic bikes exhibit. But Smith likes all kinds of bikes for all sorts of reasons. “I like differences. I am interested in the different ways engineers solved similar problems.”

Thirty years after Smith first saw the Mystery Ship, he met Vetter at Vintage Motorcycle Days in Ohio, and discovered they lived within a day’s ride of each other. As it turned out, Smith was skilled in forming fiberglass, and he and Vetter started doing streamliner projects together. Smith thought about making his own Mystery Ship, but then learned that Vetter had destroyed the molds. “He does this after every project, so that no one can reproduce his designs,” Smith says.

Meanwhile, Mystery Ship No. 3 was traveling around the country. Shortly after it was built in 1980, No. 3 was raffled off as a prize in a contest. It ended up with Malcom Forbes, who kept it for a while, eventually selling it to someone who also kept it for a while, who, as these things go, then decided to sell it. And Smith heard through the old bike grapevine that No. 3 was for sale. “Mystery Ships rarely come up for sale,” Smith notes. “This one came up unexpectedly. It wasn’t running, and someone had started working on it, but gave up in the middle of the project. Whoever it was had stripped screw threads and set the floats at different levels. There were carburetor parts laying inside the carburetors. The brakes also needed work, and my mechanic, Jesse Marshall, and I found out that KZ parts were not as available as we had expected, so I had to search for parts.”

Smith sent the bank of four carburetors to specialist Jack Wagner in San Jose, California. The damaged parts weren’t repairable, so Wagner replaced them. “He wanted to polish the carburetors,” Smith says. “Kawasaki never polished carburetors, and they would be hidden by the bodywork. I had to point out that no one would see them.”

The engine in Mystery Ship No. 3 is pretty much stock, and Smith likes it that way. “The engine was not modified. I think it’s better for what is now an antique motorcycle to have a stock engine. For one thing, if the motorcycle is judged in a concours show, the engine is expected to be stock. For another, it makes it easier to get parts.”

This Mystery Ship is the only one of the 10 built that still sees the road. Some of the others were never started and are still in “as new” condition. Even so, Smith is cautious about riding his, as the tires are 20 years old, a situation he plans to correct shortly. “I’m looking at Michelin tires; I think they will be right for this bike.”

His impressions of the bike are good. “The Mystery Ship has a very torquey engine. It pulls from 3,000rpm, but the powerband really comes on at 4,000rpm and redline is about 8,000rpm. It feels heavy on the sidestand, but lightens up once you get going. It feels good going into corners, although the bodywork hits me in the shins sliding sideways on the seat. The single piston brakes feel heavy – like I’m riding my Harley. You have to show the bike who is boss. Vetter tried to lighten up the bike when he was designing it. He added mag wheels, replaced the steel fenders with fiberglass, and cut tabs off. The Mystery Ship bodywork is lighter than the stock bodywork, except the 6-gallon gas tank, which weighs quite a bit.

“The Mystery Ship is something that I wanted for over 30 years, and I have been happy with it,” Smith explains. “I like things that are different. I don’t like things that disappear into the background.” Styled unlike any other motorcycle ever made, that’s one thing a Vetter Mystery Ship will certainly never do. MC

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