In the late-1960s, British motorcycles were losing favor with American motorcyclists. U.S. riders’ interests were captured by the svelte, racy figures of Japanese imports.
This was a big challenge for Birmingham Small Arms of England, which owned the BSA and Triumph brands. In 1968, they launched their new 750cc triples in the United States -- two months before the Honda 750 Four -- and BSA Director of Marketing Don Brown knew he needed help.
He found it in Craig Vetter.
Brown contacted Vetter, a designer and fairing maker in Illinois, with a clandestine plan to redesign the Rocket 3.
Over the summer of 1969, Vetter completed the bike and delivered the finished prototype to BSA’s U.S. headquarters in New Jersey on Oct. 31, 1969. Over the next couple years, the Vetter Rocket 3, as it was known then, was copied and factories were prepped for production.
Vetter had Americanized the Rocket 3 -- which was rebranded the Triumph Hurricane when the BSA dealer network was dissolved in October 1972—but it was not a commercial success. Only 1,170 Hurricanes were produced in 1973. By then, the Honda 750cc Four had been available for four years. It was more reliable and less expensive, and Honda was seen as the more stable company. In England, Triumph was unraveling as the workers took over the Meriden Factory in September, locking out its owners.
The Vetter Rocket 3/Triumph Hurricane story highlights the challenges England’s bike manufacturers faced in a changing market. Despite the styling accolades of the time -- it was called the “first factory chopper,” “the sexiest motorcycle ever made” and one of the top motorcycle designs ever -- the Triumph Hurricane couldn’t overcome the business realities that smothered Triumph’s attempt to compete with the popular Honda 750 Four.
You can see these bikes, and many more that have helped shape motorcycling in America, in The Birth of a Hurricane exhibit at the Hall of Fame on the AMA campus in Pickerington, Ohio.