From a V8 bike in 1903, to today’s Lightning
IN the history of going faster than anyone has before, aviator, engineer and bike builder Glen Curtiss left an indelible mark, yet it was only ever a sideline business for him.
Curtiss’ subsequent role in the history of aviation overshadows some of his most remarkable achievements along his path to greatness.
He was one of the great aviation pioneers and is generally regarded as the father of naval aviation through his work with sea planes.
But he was primarily an ingenious engineer whose main business was making high-power, lightweight engines, be it for motorcycles or aeroplanes.
He manufactured motorcycles under his own brand and realised that the low weight and minimal frontal area of the motorcycle offered an easy way to demonstrate his wares to the public and sell more of his engines.
And Curtiss did not just build them, he tested his fastest engines himself.
In 1903, he was timed at Yonkers (New York) riding his own Curtiss Hercules 1 000 cc V-twin at 64 mph (103 km/h), earning him a place in history as the first motorcycle speed record holder. In 1906, Curtiss rode a 1 000 cc V-twin, the fastest bikes at the time. As his engines grew more powerful and reliable, Curtiss wished to prove their worth as a lightweight power unit via the media, so he installed one of his 4-litre V8 aircraft engines (essentially four of his V-twins on a common crank) into a motorcycle and blew all competitors into the weeds with a run of 219,31 km/h on January 24, 1907, during the premier speed event in the world at that time, Speed Week in Ormond, Daytona Beach, Florida.
It took another 23 years before it was beaten in 1930 by Joseph Wright’s OEC Temple Jap at 220,99 km/h.
Within weeks, BMW wrested the crown with a run by Ernst Henne of 221,67 km/h and the combined forces of BMW saw Henne better the record every year until 1937.
But that was a quarter century after a world war had catalysed technological development in every facet of aerodynamics and engine development.
The wind-tunnel streamlining that was evident in Henne’s BMW and BMW’s mastery of supercharging engines had changed the game. Curtiss rode with no more protection than a leather flying helmet and in the process, defied the laws of physics as much as we understood it then.