Very Fast Gas Relief
Local pioneer of aerodynamic motorcycles aims to ride without foreign oil.
Thursday, January 5, 2012
Like a lot of people, 69-year-old Craig Vetter begins his days at a local coffee shop just down the road from his house in Carmel Valley. It’s how he gets there that’s different.
He drives there in a two-wheeled, yellow motorbike-type contraption clad in a pod of plastic and milk carton cardboard. It’s round at the front and pointed at the rear, like a two-tone comet.
Since the mid-’60s this self-styled “inventor, entrepreneur, patriot, husband, father and man of God” has applied the principles of aerodynamics to motorcycle design. He’s not trying to break speed records, and he’s not concerned with fashion and style. His goal is to decrease dependence on foreign oil.
He’s found a way to do it, and now just hopes it will catch on.
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With early environmental champion Buckminster Fuller as inspiration – “Do more with less” being a touchstone quote – Vetter’s design for a hovercraft won first place at his local high school science fair in 1959. He was accepted into the Air Force Academy after graduation, then studied industrial design at the University of Illinois.
“A common thread of my life is that I love things with wings, wheels and little engines,” Vetter says.
He set to crafting parts for Honda, Yamaha and Harley. By 1970 he invented what he called the Windjammer motorcycle “fairing” – part windbreak, part fender – which wrapped the front of the machine in opaque impact-resistant plastic reaching from the rider’s feet to the handlebars. A windshield extended up from the handlebars to cover the rider’s face. Suddenly wind and bugs were knocked out – and Illinois-based Vetter Fairings was producing Windjammers eight hours a day, five days a week for years. At the time only Harley sold more parts.
“Industrial design was made for me,” he says, “and I was made for it.”
But when a devastating motorcycle accident broke both his legs, Vetter sold his business to private investors and hobbled to California. There his perspective started to shift as he watched his fairings help the industry sell behemoth touring motorcycles, many with worse gas mileage than cars.
“I wanted to see what it took to push a person down the road at 55 mph using the least gas,” Vetter says. “I found decreasing horsepower was key to increasing fuel economy.”
Utilizing a Kawasaki 250cc motor, a custom chassis and a stem-to-stern streamlining job, Vetter crafted a sleek prototype that sliced through freeway winds at 125 miles per gallon. In 1981.
That year also marked the start of the Vetter Challenge.
“I found out that there were other people out there interested in this stuff,” he says, “so I put on a contest.”
Vetter chose Highway 1 from San Luis Obispo through Big Sur to Carmel as the proving ground. Riders had to contend with traffic, irregular road surfaces, wind and one another. The winner earned bragging rights for the most miles per gallon while finishing 134 miles in less than three hours.
“I didn’t give people time to stop and pee,” he says. “This was serious, into-the-wind, around-RVs driving.”
Year one, the winner did 189 mpg. In 1985, the final year of the challenge, mpg hit 470. Vetter concluded the experiment then, feeling they had proven the potential of streamlining and fuel efficiency.
Apparently not. In 2010 he decided to revive the challenge – with a twist.
“In the ’80s we designed things that you could barely fit in,” he says, “so people didn’t use them. Instead of changing the world, they ended up in museums. Thirty years later I wanted something usable on a daily basis.”
The key to world change, he reasoned: groceries. Each streamliner competing now must be able to carry four full paper bags. The challenge got its inaugural restart at the Quail Motorcycle Gathering. Mileage topped out at 157. Next year will bring plenty of environmental uncertainties, but it will also bring a sure thing: The mileage at the challenge will increase. Vetter calls it “racing for the right reasons.”
Ed Youngblood, former CEO and president of the American Motorcyclist Association, seems to agree.
“The motorcycle market has been geared toward machismo and sex appeal,” he says. “Craig’s work may yet impact the market in big ways.”
That’s when foreign dependency can be diminished.
“Three out of four gallons that we burn in this country are imported,” Vetter says. “If motorcycles got 160 mpg, we wouldn’t import fuel.”
Vetter feels much of the inertia against greater efficiencies comes from a culture geared to move more product. “Who makes money by selling less?” he says. “Nobody talks that way. This current system thrives off selling and consuming more. We need to learn to live within our current budget of energy.”
Learn more at www.craigvetter.com