Monday 26 November 2012

Curtiss V8 - World's Fastest Motorcycle

It’s January 24th, and on a beach in Florida and a daring young man has just blasted across the sand at 136.3 miles per hour run on a V8-powered motorcycle of his own design. He built the engine, he built the bike, and he rode the frightening looking machine across Ormond Beach himself.

The man is Glenn Hammond Curtiss, and the year is 1907. Curtiss has just piloted his monstrous 4000cc V8 into the record books and become the (unofficial) absolute world land-speed record holder for the next four years.

In more recent decades Curtiss’ name has become indelibly linked to aviation. His namesake company was a pioneering firm in military aviation, and aviation in general - he provided a V-twin for the first powered blimp in the US in 1904, and he helped produce the first aircraft to fly over one kilometre in 1908. He became a member of the famed Aerial Experiment Association in 1908, and was the first person to receive a pilot's license in 1910. However, before he began building and flying aircraft, Curtiss was a motorcycle and engine manufacturer based in Hammondsport, New York. You can credit him with giving Harley Davidson and Indian a run for their money in their early days, and inventing the twist-grip throttle we all take for granted.

Glenn Curtiss was born in Hammonsport in 1878. His interest in speed began early on, with a successful career in bicycle racing while he was a youth. He moved onto motorcycles in 1902 with the G.H. Curtiss Manufacturing Company, which manufactured bikes under the Hercules (later Marvel) name as well as producing a successful line of air-cooled engines. It was his skill as an engine builder, in fact, that introduced Curtiss to the aviation industry where he would later flourish – in the 1900s his light, powerful motors became the choice for aviation pioneers in the US. The famous V8 was in fact powered by a prototype aircraft engine.

Curtiss was a daredevil at heart – he had earned the nickname “Hell Rider” and the grudging respect of rival companies, like Indian - and revelled in high-speed pursuits in an era when internal combustion was still in its infancy. In his youth he had been a bicycle courier and had some success as a bicycle racer, and his first "motorcycles" were really converted bicycles. He had a string of successful exploits on two wheels in the early years of the 20th century, having earned several records from 1903 onward. 

The bike that would define his motorcycling career, and overshadow all his other accomplishments in the field, would be the V8. The V8 was an experimental vehicle - not for a production bike, but for a production aircraft engine. It featured an air-cooled, almost square-ratio (nearly equal bore and stroke), 90 degree V-8, displacing 4 litres and fitted with two carburettors of Curtiss' own design. Heads were F-type flathead with atmospheric intake valves and pushrod-activated exhaust.  Maximum power was approximately 40 horsepower at 1800 rpm, which was nothing to sneeze at in 1907 - and a stupendous amount to stuff into a glorified bicycle frame. The whole rig weighed a whopping 275 pounds.

The rider's seat was positioned aft of the massive engine, which necessitated the gangly looking pullback handlebars. There was no suspension aside from a sprung saddle. There was no transmission or clutch. Power was put down via direct shaft drive off the crankshaft. It also had no exhaust system to speak of, so the noise would have been deafening. Stopping was handled by a rudimentary system something like typical bicycle brakes of the era - which is to say, non-existent. Riding the monstrosity at any speed must have been utterly terrifying.

The bike had to be bump started then ridden flat out across a 4 mile stretch of sand, with official timing done across the third mile. Curtiss himself would pilot the terrifying looking machine - wearing only a black leather suit, a leather cap, and goggles. No helmets in those days. No one was sure what to expect. Common conception at the time was that a human could not even breathe at high speeds.

Curtiss crossed that third mile in 26.4 seconds, giving him a trap speed of 136.3 miles per hour. Contrary to common thought, he did not suffocate.  

While slowing on the fourth mile, at 90 mph, the universal joint of his driveshaft broke and the spindly frame bent. Curtiss maintained control and slowed down safely, but it was the end of his run.

Unfortunately, the V8 record was not officially recognized. After completing a single pass, the driveshaft broke. For the speed to qualify, a second pass must be made in the opposite direction and the average of the two runs are calculated to give the final number. Thus Curtiss' record was considered unofficial, but still won him widespread acclaim as the "Fastest Man on Earth". 

Today there are two V8s in existence. The original is housed in the Smithsonian National Air and Space collection, while an exact replica is on display at the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Curtiss' hometown of Hammondsport.

Curtiss never ran the V8 again, and cannibalized some of the engine parts for other projects. In 1910 he founded the Curtiss Aeroplane Company, the first American aircraft manufacturer. After 1914 he stopped producing motorcycles and devoted himself to aircraft and military projects. He would die in 1930 at the age of 52, of complications following an appendectomy.

Curtiss' enduring legacy would be his contributions to aviation and his namesake aviation manufacture (which lives on today as Curtiss-Wright). However, Glenn H. Curtiss cut his teeth and earned his sterling reputation in the motorcycle industry. His contributions to motorcycling history may have been overshadowed by his later work in aviation, but his accomplishments remain landmarks from the early, scary, dangerous days of the sport. And his V8 is an extreme example of that frightening, dangerous, barely contained fury and ludicrous speed that was experienced by those early racers and daredevil riders.  

His speed was beaten in 1911 by the mighty 21.5 litre, 200hp Blitzen Benz, which hit an average of 141.7 mph on Daytona Beach. 

It would not be until 1930 that another motorcycle would beat his 136 mph trap speed.

Interesting Links and Image Sources
The Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport 
Wikipedia biography of Curtiss on the Curtiss V8
A free, downloadable archive copy of Curtiss' 1912 autobiography


  1. Hey,
    What a great article you have shared here! I am really glad to read it. Thanks to Mr. Glenn Hammond Curtiss for being the hero of this event. Your sharing pictures are very old but attractive.

  2. Hello,very good to know about the article.The pictures shows the real history of G.H. Curtiss bike. Great post. Thanks for posting.

  3. Wow! This is an incredible invention I have ever seen. The bike was too stylish. Thank you for the article. Got a good idea about motorbike.