Craig Vetter on Living Better on Less Energy

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Category: Dailies

Craig Vetter is the industrial designer behind the legendary Windjammer motorcycle fairing and Hippo Hands cold weather handlebar covers. He is also the designer of the famous Vetter Mystery Ship, the Triumph Hurricane and the Alcan Fairing. In his early years, he was a follower of Buckminster Fuller’s motto: "Do more with less." Lately, however, he’s been writing a book about his career, and chasing a new motto: "Live better on less energy." His fuel economy contests—which anyone can participate in—challenge entrants to build a vehicle that can achieve tremendous economy without sacrificing practicality.

Photos: Craig Vetter Archives

HFL: I always thought your designs focused on wind management for motorcycles, but after reading through your website, I realized that your goal is to live better on less energy.

Craig Vetter: The things I like to make have propellers or wheels or little engines. I started out hunting for Maytag gasoline engines from the ‘30s and ‘40s, and I graduated from there. I found myself at this curriculum in school known as Industrial Design. I had no idea there was such a thing. I was flunking out of engineering at the University of Illinois. I just can’t do differential equations. If I can’t see it, I cannot understand it. I was on academic probation, and was walking through the student union and saw a display. It was a display of little motor scooters and model cars built by the industrial design students. The marriage of art and engineering was made for me and I enrolled in the course.

One of the people I learned about and embraced was Buckminster Fuller. The head of the Industrial Engineering department sent me to Carbondale, Illinois to see him. I was totally mesmerized. I bought and read all his books. I rode my Yamaha to Aspen to a design conference just to hear him talk. I would call him on the phone at night and ask him about things. He was very smart and friendly, and said “We don’t have to be afraid of the future if we do more with less.”

I already liked motorcycles, and they clearly did more with less. When I graduated, the industrial design houses flew me out to give me job interviews, but none of them were doing anything I wanted to do. I decided I’d design things for my motorcycles.

So I drove my 250 Yamaha to the Aspen Design Conference in ‘65. At some place in Kansas on I-70, I sat up and looked around. A big truck had passed me and broken the wind in front of me. I sat up and, for a brief moment, saw the world around me. The truck sped away and I got back down on my tank bag and turned my head sideways to get out of the wind again. I realized that I couldn’t see where I was going because I was laying down on the tank bag to get out of the wind.

Airplanes are and were my first love. I had developed a sense of design by looking at them and drawing them — I could see how they’d evolved. I realized, as I was speeding across Kansas, that I needed some kind of wind protection — like the nose of an airplane.

Vetter's first fairing, in progress. October, 1966.

When I came back to Illinois, I made a fairing for my Yamaha. It represented everything I knew about airplane design, about motorcycle riding, and the things I’d learned in design school. I made this fairing at the end of ’66. Boy, was that exciting. Some of the most exciting times of my life are making something nobody else has made, and then going out and seeing what it does. It was November 1st, 1966 when I took my first ride with my first fairing. I didn’t even have a windshield for it. I just had to go out and see what it was like.

After that first fairing, my friends in Illinois all wanted one. They’d come over to the house — I had a mold and would show them how to wax it, we’d paint resin in it, and then lay the fiberglass. Most of my friends made their own fairings. Then I found a fiberglass shop about 40 miles away and brought the mold to them, and that’s how it grew. My goal was to make better transportation so we would burn less gas.

HFL: Not by making a motorcycle more efficient, but by making it usable for long distances, right?

CV: Right. The goal was to make the motorcycle more usable as transportation. They already got 40mpg.

HFL: And your Hippo Hands did the same thing, for cold weather.

CV: Yeah. My hands were freezing coming on a ride back from Texas. In Arkansas, it was in the teens. The colder it got the tighter I squeezed the handlebars. I thought “if I squeeze the blood out of my fingers, how are they going to get warm blood?” I needed to prevent the wind from sucking the heat off my hands.

Vetter and that first Hippo Hands prototype made from a sleeping bag. 1971.

I was carrying a goose-down sleeping bag and a roll of duct tape. I formed the bag around my handlebars and made pockets for my hands. It worked, and when I got home I sketched out the first drawings of Hippo Hands.

One of the neat things about being an inventor is that if you make something that’s never been made before, you get to make up the name. The Windjammer. The Mystery Ship. The Vindicator. The Terraplane. I made a big bomber of a fairing for Harley-Davidson, and I called it the Liberator — I liked the name because my father was a crew chief of a B-24 Liberator in World War II. I’m a pretty good name person.

To create the Mystery Ship, Vetter took a stock Kawasaki KZ1000 and disassembled it. He removed all the unneeded tabs and brackets from the frame and welded on struts and gusseting to strengthen the structure. He also bolted on a box-section swingarm for strength and installed “laid-down” shocks for more travel and progressive action. The wheels were magnesium Dymags, the hot ticket of the era. The gas tank held 6 gallons, the maximum allowed in AMA Superbike racing. Rearset pegs and a Yoshimura four-into-one pipe also showed the bike’s racing heritage. But what makes the Mystery Ship unique is the full bodywork, which is essentially just two pieces: the nose fairing and the body.

HFL: Tell us about the Mystery Ship.

CV: I’d always wanted to make my dream, ultimate motorcycle, which I called the Mystery Ship. To develop it, I thought if learned how to road race, it would make me a better designer. The Mystery Ship was America’s most exotic motorcycle in 1978.

By then, motorcycles were no longer “Doing more with less.” The ones people wanted were burning more fuel than some cars, like the Honda CRX. I wanted to sell the business. My banker bought it, and left me with the Mystery Ship. With the main Vetter business gone, the Mystery Ship was sort of an orphaned project. I made ten of them.

The Vetter Equalizer winning the Boston Marathon.

Right around that time, I crashed a hang glider in Bakersfield after hitting a dust devil and broke my leg. That was the end of dangerous stuff — it put me in a wheelchair for a while. In 1981, I developed a wheelchair called the Equalizer, and it was used to win the wheelchair class of the Boston Marathon in 1982. I spent the next twenty years being a husband and a father, and developed real estate in California.

HFL: So you completely left the world of motorcycling?

CV: Well, no. Back in the ‘80s I wondered what it really took to push a person down the road at 55mph. Nobody could tell me what we really needed. To find out, I put on fuel-economy contests between 1980 and 1985. After 5 years, we found you needed 8-10bhp. You had to make yourself small, you had to be streamlined, and you had to use the throttle judiciously. The bikes we used are in museums.

Vetter with his streamliner. 1981.

But, we didn’t change motorcycling. The bikes were too uncomfortable — they were just designed to win the contest. That’s where I learned that Bucky Fuller didn’t have it completely right. We did more with less, and it had no effect at all on motorcycling. What I’m doing now, with the newest generation of fuel-economy contests, is learning to live better on less energy. I’m hoping the result is dramatic changes in motorcycle and car design.

Vetter's current ride.

The worst condition you’re likely to face in this country is going about 75mph into a 30mph headwind. I started from scratch to design a motorcycle that would do just that, while carrying four bags of groceries and being extremely comfortable. It’s based on a Honda Helix. It’s everything I wanted it to be. After I got it figured out, I started having contests to have people challenge me to burn the least gas. This year will be the third year of contests. The Quail Challenge this spring is integrated with a charity ride through the most beautiful parts of California and is lead by a CHP officer. He leads, and about 6 or 7 of the fifty riders in the group are in the fuel-economy challenge. I’m in the ride too, and if the challengers drop behind me they’re out of the contest — that’s how I make sure they’re not sandbagging for better fuel economy. There is also a contest in Ohio. Electric competitors must add in the same road tax as I pay when calculating their fuel costs — the winners are judged on who had the least fuel costs.

HFL: Do streamliners normally win?

CV: Yes. Streamlining is easy to say but hard to do. The nose has compound curves. I’ve developed what I believe is the ultimate shape for the conditions that I’ve laid out. I call it the Last Vetter Fairing. I’m not going to design another one. Unless they raise the speed limit to 80 mph or 90 mph, nobody will ever make a better shape. I have the molds, and I’m offering to sell the parts so you can make your own streamliner. I encourage people to come beat me and help reduce America’s need for foreign fuel.

HFL: What about modifying cars to save gas? They’re the most egregious users of fuel.

CV: There’s a lot that can be done for cars, but I’m not going to do it. Our government leaders are too involved in telling us what we can and can’t do with a car, but they pretty much leave me alone with motorcycling. Cars are too controlled by our elected leaders.

HFL: Your Helix uses a CVT transmission. Would a manual give better fuel economy?

CV: Probably. A CVT is hard to tweak the belts and final drive to increase your top speed. I think it has more drag than a 6-speed Ninja transmission. I don’t think it’s a deal-breaker, though. I can get 80-90mpg when the Ninja 250s are getting 85-100mpg. It’s not as big a difference as you might think.

The Ninjas use the same fairing as the Helix, but the fairing does the best job at reducing fuel use on something that makes about 25bhp. You’re limited by motorcycle choice — how many motorcycles or scooters do you know that are in the neighborhood of 25bhp? The major manufacturers know that Americans think that 25bhp is not enough, so they don’t bother getting smaller bikes certified.

It turns out that the Ninja is decidedly better than the Helix in terms of fuel consumption, but it has downsides — the seat is very high because it is a motorcycle. The dream platform does not exist — we have to piece it together, which is what the fuel challengers are doing as we speak.

HFL: When you’re riding a streamliner, does it feel slipperier?

CV: Yes, absolutely! When you turn the throttle off, you keep going. I have to put my hand out to see if there is a headwind. It is quiet, it’s slippery, and it’s comfortable.

When the speed limit was lower, we got over 400mpg in full streamliners, but you got taped into the bike and couldn’t move. I still have the molds for the enclosed fairing, which you can buy. They were designed for winning contests, not for living better.

HFL: If someone is interested in taking part in the fuel challenge, what should be his first step?

CV: Send me an email (address is at craigvetter.com), but all you have to do is be there. The next challenge is in California— This is a charity ride . Pay the Quail officials (email: cferrante@quaillodge.com). You fill your tank up and my wife will check to be sure you can carry four bags of groceries. If you cannot carry the groceries, you can still ride with us, but you can’t compete for fame and glory.

What I’ll say is this. Get yourself a second-generation Ninja 250 for between $700 and $1200, buy the nose kit from my website, make the rest from lightweight plywood and paper. You can do this. My web page shows you how.

HFL: Is there anywhere that someone who is interested in riding a streamliner can ride one?

CV: Come to the Quail Challenge in California. I’ll let you ride mine.

Read more about the fuel economy challenges and all of Craig Vetter’s innovative designs at http://www.craigvetter.com

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