Bernard Hooper was one of the most influential designers in the automotive and motorcycle industry, a talent largely unacknowledged because of the industrial confidentiality of his work.
His most lasting work was for Norton motorcycles, in the design and development of the 750 and 830cc Commando road models, which gave the company a period of high success, including winning the Motor Cycle News "Machine of the Year" poll from 1968 to 1972. His work with his fellow-designer at Norton Bob Trigg on the ingenious "Isolastic" rubber engine mountings won them the Castrol Design Award in 1970.
The success of the Norton Commando as a machine can be gauged by its continued production today, on a built-to-order basis, by the Norvil Motorcycle Company of Brownhills, Staffordshire.
Hooper was born in Birmingham and served an apprentice with Lucas Engineering there. From secret defence projects at the Ministry of Supply he joined the BSA (Birmingham Small Arms) motorcycle company in 1953, when that Birmingham industrial giant was the biggest maker in the world. His work on the ubiquitous BSA Bantam two-stroke model improved its performance and at the same time gave an insight into the conservatism that prevented new thinking having free rein, in a company that was typical of most in its determination to stay with proven and unexciting machines.
He moved in 1956 into a brief partnership with Hermann Meier and they worked on a development of the old Scott engine, itself still based on the original thinking of Alfred Angas Scott before the First World War. But the revival of the old Yorkshire company, Scott Motorcycles, in Birmingham faded and died before Hooper and Meier's work could be realised.
In 1958, Hooper joined Villiers Engineering at Wolverhampton as their Chief Designer, and drew up the 250cc single-cylinder Starmaker engine, one of the most underrated British designs of the post-war period. Intended to give low-cost power for amateur riders in moto-cross, it went on to exceed its designer's brief with success in trials and even the Isle of Man TT races. Peter Inchley, a Villiers development engineer who raced in his spare time, fitted a Starmaker in a Spanish Bultaco chassis and finished third in the 1966 250cc TT, against established opposition from Japan and Italy. The Starmaker went on to be used by smaller British makers in racing machines and won numerous national championships.
Hooper rose to be Chief Designer and Engineer of the famous Norton name when it was absorbed, with Villiers, into the Manganese Bronze combine in 1966. But he was working on more advanced engine concepts than the limited Norton finance would allow for the Commando, including the rotary Wankel engine that enjoyed a brief spell of production in the late 1980s by the much-reduced Norton company.
Hooper's real enthusiasm was for his own double- diameter piston two-stroke design, the "Wulf", which was never put into production by Norton before they closed their Wolverhampton factory gates in 1977. In a brief but enthusiastic sit-in, the workforce approached Hooper and asked him to head a revived company financed by their own redundancy and pension funds, but he could see no realistic future for them or their investment.
He moved a few miles from Wolverhampton to a modest research and development on Halfpenny Green airfield, where the list of companies who came to his door included the Royal Aeronautical Establishment, a South East Asian car-maker, Harley-Davidson and Gil Marine of America, the National Research Council of Canada and British Leyland cars. His two-stroke engine is still the subject of negotiation with a number of companies and he worked closely with the Ford Motor Company on their own Orbital two-stroke development.
This recent international standing reflects Hooper's ability as a designer and development engineer but to the end he regretted that his own Wulf two-stroke design was attracting attention from every branch of the automotive industry except the motorcycle one that saw him mature.
- Jim Reynolds