From a V8 bike in 1903, to to­day’s Light­ning

The Witness - Wheels - - BIKING - MIKE HAN­LON

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.

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