Thirty years ago Craig Vetter inspired motorcycle tinkerers to devise bikes that could go more than 400 miles on one gallon of gas, but almost no one cared. After running his Craig Vetter Fuel Economy Challenge for a few years in the 1980s, Vetter discontinued the event, figuring that “we had probably learned the bulk of what was to be learned.”
“It didn’t change the world,” he says, looking back. “Something was missing. We didn’t end up with any motorcycles that anybody really wanted.”
Vetter, of course, is also the designer who changed motorcycling with his creation of the Windjammer fairing. Working out of a plant in Rantoul, Illinois, he helped make riding a lot more comfortable.
Fast forward 30 years and Vetter has designed what he calls “The Last Vetter Fairing.” Streamlined, with a comfortable upright riding position, and room to carry a load. “I want this to be your first choice of vehicles in the garage,” he says.
By the way, this comfort and convenience will also double your gas mileage. That’s where it ties back in with the fuel economy challenges.
Vetter now runs three of his renewed challenges a year. In the first year the electric motorcycles could only go 40 miles, which is not enough to complete the course. The following year they made it 60 or 70 miles; better but still not enough.
“This year, Terry Hershner can go 200 miles, or he can go 150 miles at 75-80 mph. He’s gonna be a hard guy to beat,” says Vetter.
Riding a heavily modified Zero S electric motorcycle equipped with The Last Vetter Fairing, Terry Hershner rode 2,450 miles in 135 hours across the U.S. in June 2013. That included losing a day and a half replacing the bike’s motor, which was destroyed when a screw from one of his modifications worked loose. Then he ran second—behind a Tesla Model S—in a run from British Columbia to Baja California called the BC2BC-2013 All Electric Vehicle Rally.
Vetter is enthusiastic.
“We are learning how to ride cross-country with the least amount of fuel. We already know how to do it with gasoline. I already know how to do it with diesel. Now, we’re trying to learn how to do it with electric, and what makes electricity so special is that it’s the only energy that you can harvest from your roof.”
With four separate battery packs installed, Hershner had 18 kilowatts of charging power for his cross-country run. And with multiple chargers and plenty of cords he was able to charge all the batteries simultaneously as long as he had enough power outlets available. Finding that RV parks are typically equipped with big chargers that transfer big power quickly, he plotted a route that took him to park after park across the country. While his batteries were charging Hershner would sleep.
As for the streamlining, Vetter’s design largely mimics a fish shape.
“Streamlining is only one shape,” he explains. “It’s round at the front and it’s pointed at the rear. It’s as small as you can make it and still fit inside, and it’s one continuous shape if you can make it one continuous shape. In other words, smooth sides all the way down. That streamlined shape, that’s the dream, that’s what we’d like to have, that’s the ultimate. Of course, it’s easy to say but it’s hard to do.”
Experience—the hard way—has taught Vetter that stiff sidewinds need some passage through the bike, so rather than an enclosed capsule, his design is open where the rider sits. Of course, it also facilitates putting feet down at a stop and makes getting in and out much easier.
Mounting the streamlining on the Zero was a breeze. Its exposed rectangular frame made it easy to attach brackets to hold the bodywork. Nominally weighing 350 pounds, with the extra batteries, chargers, streamlining and the rider, Hershner’s Zero was rolling with a little more than 1,000 pounds. And yet he could cover more than 150 miles on one charge riding at 75 mph. A full charge with multiple outlets and good power would take an hour and 15 minutes.
For Vetter, the mission now is for the U.S. to ensure its security by learning to live on only the energy we produce. “I make a connection between patriotism and what we’re doing here, fuel economy. Most of the fuel we burn today is imported. It’s making us poor, and it’s making other countries rich.
But do other people care? Is he selling a lot of his fairings?
“No. There’s almost nobody who cares about this stuff. Almost nobody cared about it in the 1980s and I don’t expect anybody to care about it today. They’ve got to respond to a crisis. If there’s no crisis they’ll do nothing.”
He talks of New York after Hurricane Sandy, how people stood in line for five gallons of gas. And he talks of the oil embargo of the early 1970s.
“That was one of the things I think that helped to bring people onto motorcycles. Back in the ’70s when this happened, when the fuel price increased, every motorcycle in America was sold out for three years. Is it going to happen again? I hope not. But why wait? Why don’t we, while we’re affluent, develop a plan for living better on less energy?”
Electric may indeed triumph over the diesel winners of the last few Craig Vetter Fuel Economy Challenges. Hershner didn’t make the Ohio event in July due to a wheel bearing failure in Colorado on his way there, and the third event of the year was canceled. So whether or not we’re witnessing the dawning of a new era will remain unclear for the time being. If we are, though, Craig Vetter had a hand in it.
Photos from the 2012 Craig Vetter Fuel Economy Challenge at AMA Vintage Days in Ohio: