Stories from a designer's notebook
Hippo Hands attached to the handlebars of a motorcycle to provide a fleece-lined pocket where our hands could stay warm without gloves. Hippo Hands were created and developed by my brother, Bruce and me.
This little piece of motorcycle design history is told here for the first time.
Craig Vetter, designer
Houston, January 1971. A bunch of my friends - who also made Vetter fairings with me had ridden from Illinois to Houston to see the fabled indoor short track racing and motorcycle trade show in the AstroDome.
I had heard that the “Vetter BSA Rocket 3 model” that I had designed two years earlier would be on display to the public - for the first time ever. I wanted to see it and to watch people’s reactions. Two years later, this bike would become the Triumph Hurricane. But nobody knew that then.
Duane Anderson, Roger Stiller and I were on brand new Kawasaki 500s. Jim Miller was on his 350 Yamaha. Jim was my trusted friend and in second in command at Vetter.
We did not have money for real commercial display space. To get noticed, we had painted our fairings in flamboyant colors.
Sunday morning we headed north to Illinois.
We slept under bridges
We enjoyed life on the road... camping out, sleeping under bridges, etc. Up to then, the weather had been balmy, most unusual for the dead of winter. Soon after we left Houston, however, it rapidly became cold and wet. By the time we passed Little Rock, we were not happy. Worse, the forecast was for 7° above zero in Illinois. We had no choice but to go on. Crossing into Illinois, the north wind picked up and we began to freeze. It was in the low 20s and beginning to snow.
We were dressed the best we knew how, in army surplus military clothing. After all, didn’t the military have the best equipment? The big barracks bag on my tank was stuffed with everything needed for two weeks, and it helped to keep me warm. My goose down jacket over a military OD wool sweater worked pretty well too. Our Vetter Phantom fairings did a good job in keeping the cold wind off us.
However, my wool military liners inside welder’s gauntlets were not up to the freezing wind. My hands were getting cold. As a young designer, I had come to learn:
“It is easy to solve a problem once you identify the problem”
The problem was cold hands. The cold wind was taking the heat from my hands.The solution was to create a still-air insulating space around my hands so the wind could not take my heat away. How would I do that? More important, how would I do it right now, on the road when I needed it?
I was carrying my military goose-down mummy sleeping bag, which, was insulated and wind resistant. It was rolled up, stowed away, doing nothing. I imagined how it could be formed in front of me to provide pockets for my hands and arms to slip into.
At the next gas stop, I bought a roll of duct tape and went to work, which was hard with cold, non-working hands. I shaped the ends of the bag into pockets around the controls and my hands. I made openings just big enough to put my arms into so no air could get in. Then I duct taped the sleeping bag into place.
A sleeping bag - duct-taped up - served as the first Hippo Hands
It worked! When I slipped my hands in, they got warm and stayed warm. I needed only the wool liners, which meant that I did not have to squeeze the bars so tight. The remainder of the ride was great! Well, as great as 7° could be.
One day I would get back to developing this idea. In the meantime, the spring of 1971 was approaching and I needed to work on developing my new Windjammer fairing. I wanted to be riding with it the coming summer.
The approaching winter of 1971-72 reminded me it was time to resume the hand warmer development. My brother, Bruce was now making the tonneau covers for the Windjammer. While I am good at the concept, Bruce is best at details. He understands sewing machines, seam detail, waterproofing, die cutting, and how to design for manufacturing.
I sketched it out the “Look” I wanted.
And what was that look?
This requires an explanation: Brother Bruce and I share the same sense of humor. We also shared dogs and "dog scarfs" from the same litter.
We both intuitively understood that the cuff detail needed to have the look and feel of dog lips.
Dog Lips are soft black, flexible and loving; The perfect Hippo detail.
1972 Hippo prototypes with Dog Lips
The first Hippos had a “coin pouch” inside the left Hippo to make it easy to pay tolls. Only a motorcyclist would think of this, right? We figured out how to fit all motorcycles and to use Velcro to seal up all the places air might come in. Lttle by little, the Hippo design was refined. By the winter of 1973-4 we were ready to introduce them.
October 1973: First Hippo brochure
When you create something new, you get to make up a new name, too. Since this invention was almost silly, I figured a silly name was appropriate. This is how it came about:
Bruce and I like to try on the things we make, whether we are supposed to or not. We'd wear our dogs (above). We’d put things on our heads. We’d put them on our feet...
|1974: Bruce is wearing pocket liners we made for the Hondaline fairing||I am trying on a Windjammer Lowers mold|
Few people could imagine that you could actually wear the one-piece seat tank I designed for the the 1969 Vetter Rocket 3
Of course, when we made more than one set of Hippos, we’d put them on our hands and frap each other. We looked like Hippos playing. Thus the name, “Hippo Hands.”
The famous Hippo logo and the die that branded them
Janet Kloock was a talented graphics artist from the U of Illinois. She produced the famous Hippo Hands logo. I don’t recall ever registering the name, “Hippo Hands.” Why waste the money? Who else would ever want to use such a name?
The original bronze empossing die that branded a thousand Hippos was made by Everhot of Chicago. They were famous for branding horses, too. The die cost $350 in 1975 which is equivilant to $1,350 in inflated 2010 dollars.
Development continued slowly, mainly because we were swamped with orders for Windjammers. I still wasn’t sure we had a product to sell in Hippo Hands, so there was no rush.
Hippo Hands could only be developed in the winter. Thank God we were located in Illinois. Can you imagine testing or even conceiving of Hippo Hands in Florida or California.
In February of 1975, Jim Miller and I rode from Illinois to Daytona with Terraplane Sidecars and Hippo Hands. I assumed everyone rode year-round.
|Little by little, Hippo fame spread. In July 1975, Big Bike magazine did an evaluation:|
Big Bike put a test rider on the road for a couple of thousand miles and reported the following:
”While the test rider got wet and cold, his hands received a somewhat more pleasant reception. Even without his gloves, his hands were plenty warm regardless of the amount of wind and wet...
The material works because it is about five times heavier than that used for gloves. (If gloves were made of material that heavy, one would be hard pressed to move their fingers”
That special “Five times heavier” material was Hippo-dermus.* When you need materials that don’t exist, you need to be resourceful.
Resourceful and compassionate workers of the Hippo Hand factory, 1976
Bruce says, "We did well because all employees took the Hippocratic oath to make all Hippos ethically." Brother Bruce is second from the end, back right.
Initially, the suggested price of Hippos was $30 raised to $39 by 1975. ($39 is the same as $158 in 2010 inflated dollars) There was no price posted in later years because bureaucrats made it illegal to suggest a retail price. In any case, sales of Hippo Hands doubled every year.
Hippos of 1975-78 and the final design of 1978-81. Hippos always had Dog Lips
Hydraulic front disk brakes put big reservoirs on the handlebars. In 1978, we redesigned Hippo Hands to accommodate the changes in motorcycles.
By now, Hippos had become mainstream. If you lived in the cold, in the winter, you got your Hippo Hands out and snapped them on. It was easy. Hippo Hands allowed you to ride all year long. In every way, Hippo Hands helped to make motorcycles better transportation, which, of course, was my reason for being in business in the first place
I sold Vetter Corporation at the end of 1978 and things began to go bad. Because of a deteriorating relationship with the new owner, my brother stopped manufacturing for the company. In January of 1983, the owner declared bankruptcy.
|And that was the end of Hippo Hands.|
|Amazingly, Hippo Hands are still remembered, in spite of the fact that not a single set has been made since 1981. |
We hear that other people are making Hippo-like thingies. Considering our passion for design and quality, I doubt very much that there is anything as thoughtfully designed or made as well as the Hippo Hands my brother and I produced. No matter what you might hear elsewhere, there is no genetic link between anything on the market and Genuine Vetter Hippo Hands...
Unless, of course, it associated with another Vetter Design:
|See how my current projects, the Alcan and the “Last” Vetter fairing enclose the rider’s hands? Hippo-inspired, still-air space is built into these fairings.|
Ideas like this made America great. Stay tuned... it’s not over.
*For this historical account, Bruce explained:
“Hippo-dermus” was compassionately harvested from organic grass fed, free-range Hippos.”
My brother might be telling bit of a tall tale here. In 1972, hardly anybody would have cared about “organic grass fed Hippos”
Comments from Hippo-Fans:
|Leland in December 2011 says: I made the round trip from NYC to Philly yesterday despite the cold because my car is in the shop until tomorrow. I didn't have my Hippo Hands installed yesterday, but you'd better believe I put 'em on first this morning! I guess the only thing I'm missing now is a '72 era Vetter jacket. :-) |
Happy Holidays to you and yours.
And Merry Christmas to you Leland from Craig and Carol.
Craig says: I notice that your Hippos have taken on the well used appearance of the "25 mission crush." They wear it well.
|Scotty writes: When I started working for Bruce and I remember the first Hippos with lacing at the handlebars and no logo, would like to find a pair of those first ones now, I think my my first job after mastering tonneau snapping and wearing out a pair of boots on the foot pedal of the snapper was setting eyelets on the cuffs of the Hippo Hands, then moved on to sewing parts for them and then sewing complete sets. We logged every day how many pairs each sewer produced and I remember that Wednesdays were always my highest production day at 14 pairs that day and a pair or two less on the other days.|
|Bob writes: The one thing that I feel also should be added to this story is the part where you start manufacturing them again in the same style that they were made as I have been asked countless times where they can be gotten and Why they are no longer made?|
|Craig answers: Greedy plaintiffs and their greedy attorneys make business not worth the trouble in America. This is probably one of the reasons more and more manufacturing is being done in China. How many plaintiffs are willing to file lawsuits in China?|
|Marshall writes: Thanks for the history! I just installed a set of the soft-sided Hippo Hands on my '81 Yamaha XS1100LH this winter, and they are almost perfect! Got them on ebay this last summer for somewhere around $30, and they were filthy! A run through the washing machine cleaned them up, and now they look almost brand new! I had to sew the velcro back on, where it wraps around the handlebars (the drawstring area), but that was easy. The lining is still creamy white and the Hippo-dermus is still shiny black. Do you recommend treating it with anything special to keep it soft, supple, and waterproof? |
The main reason I wanted to write to you is that I was stopped at a gas station the other day, and the temps are below freezing here in St. Louis. Needless to say, I see very few bikes these days. I was dropping a couple fountain drinks into the cup-holders I keep in my Vetter saddlebags, and I see another rider (helmet in hand) walk around the front of my bike. He noticed the Hippos, and I could almost see him drooling over them. He wanted to know where he could get a set, because his hands were FREEZING on his mid-'80's Goldwing. I had to tell him they were no longer made, and to check on ebay for the "real Hippo Hands, made by Vetter". I know other companies are using that name for similar products, calling themselves the "original", but nothing surpasses the quality of these things!
I may invest in a set of the hard-sided ones for next winter, as the brake reservoir requires me to keep the snaps open on the right side, but I can still wear my summer gloves in them. The only thing that gets noticably cold now are my knees behind the lowers on my Windjammer.
Thanks for your great products!
Page posted Dec 4, 2010
Updated Dec 18, 2011