GLENN CURTISS: AMERICAN FATHER OF THE SPORT BIKE

Motorcycling and aviation have a lot in common.  At their core, both highly reward the skilled and severely punish those without skill or discipline.  I think that’s why so many people in aviation are attracted to motorcycles and vice versa.

It wouldn’t be possible to provide a complete picture of my inspiration for this project without taking a moment to talk of Glenn Curtiss, a motorcycling and aviation pioneer.  During my time at the Curtiss Museum in 2007 I realized that Curtiss and I have much in common, although separated by over a century.

Curtiss, a fellow speed addict, started with motorcycles and transferred his motorcycle engine knowledge to aviation.  Aviation caught Curtiss’ eye when motorcycles no longer satisfied his cravings for speed.  I can’t help but laugh.  A century later I’m doing the opposite, transferring my knowledge of aviation to motorcycles, to chase the same thing:  Going faster!

Glenn Curtiss, The Early Years

Curtiss was born in 1878 in Hammondsport, NY.  Early on, he demonstrated an interest in going fast.  He won his first bicycle, which was offered by the Hammondsport Herald, to the paper carrier who could cover the paper delivery route in the fastest time.  He crashed though the finish line, literally, but the bike was his.

Curtiss dropped out of school in the 8th grade to be with his deaf sister in Rochester, NY where he got work in the Kodak film plant stenciling numbers on film.  However, he continued riding his bike, making the 70-mile trip from Rochester to Hammondsport regularly on it.  Little more is known about Glenn’s riding until he was around 18 years old.

It was on one of these trips home that he hooked up with “The Hammondsport Boys”, a group of local bicycle racers.  Glenn quickly rose to the top of this group and attracted the attention of local business owners who were sponsoring the bicycle races.  In 1900, one of those business owners sold Glenn his bicycle shop.  By 1901 Glenn was building his own brand of bicycles.

Glenn’s first motorcycle, the “Happy Hooligan”

Not long after he began building his own bicycles he ordered a set of engine castings from the E.R. Thomas company, manufacturers of one of the first American motorcycles.  The castings were apparently of horribly quality, but though the use of his wife’s uncle’s machine tools he was able to fashion an engine out of them.

Bigger and Faster Bikes

Characteristically, Curtiss immediately contacted the E.R. Thomas company again, asking for and receiving the castings for the largest engine they could supply.   Weighing in at 180 lbs it was a “terror” and Curtiss said it “exploded only occasionally, but when it did it tore itself loose from the frame.” It still wasn’t enough.  Curtiss decided only he was capable of building a more powerful motorcycle engine, as nobody else was supplying one at the time.

A series of motorcycles were produced by him both personally and later by his shops, each more powerful than the last, culminating the record-winning V-8 motorcycle.  It is this bike, a faithful reproduction of which is in the entrance to the Curtiss Museum that caught my attention.

The V-8 Motorcycle

Glenn Curtiss on his V-8 motorcycle. The photo was originally published in the February, 1907 issue of “The Motorcycle Illustrated.”

The V-8 motorcycle began in 1903, as a result of his interest in building an aircraft engine.  While most other motorcycle manufacturers were still busying themselves with singles and narrow angle twins, Curtiss wondered what would happen if an airplane engine were put in a motorcycle frame. Naturally, he had to find out.

It was on this motorcycle, making 40HP, that Curtiss won the title of “World’s fastest man” in 1907, going 136.3 MPH.  It wasn’t until 1911 that a human traveled faster, going 141.7 MPH in a car.   It wasn’t until 1930 that a motorcycle went faster.

The 1907  motorcycle “satisfied his craving for speed” in his words, but would never be ridden again.  His attention shifted to going even faster, except this time in airplanes.

To learn more about  Curtiss I recommend reading:

“Glenn Curtiss, Pioneer of Flight” by C. R. Roseberry

Also, if you’re ever in New York, take a trip to the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, NY.  It’s worth the visit!

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Filed under Inspiration, Moto History

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