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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INSPIRATION IS WHERE YOU FIND IT

The story of my interest in motorcycles starts around 1998 when I was in the 7th or 8th grade and taking flying lessons at the local airport.  One of my instructors, Steve Pickup, had a cherry Honda CB550 he’d brought over from England which was his only transportation.  Steve, a motorcycle mechanic and London bus driver turned flight instructor and I became good friends.  Not having any mechanic’s tools of his own here in America he asked to use mine.  In return, I began to learn about motorcycles.  At the time they didn’t make a big impression on me, perhaps because I was too busy flying and learning about airplanes.  That would change.

Five years went by.  Then, In 2003 I took a trip to London, England.  This is really where my fascination with motorcycles begins. While in London I remember walking down the street one afternoon near Foyles Books on Charing Cross.  All of a sudden, out of nowhere, I heard a strange new sound.  It was nothing like the burdened, obnoxious  popping of the Harley Davidson cruisers that populate the American Midwest, but a pure and perfect wail.  It was like music and it came from a sleek black motorcycle which moved though traffic like everyone else on the road was driving backwards.

As I later learned, the bike I saw and heard was probably a grey market Honda CBR-250RR privately imported from Japan.  Whatever it was, it sold my mind to the devil.

CBR250

A Honda CBR-250RR “Baby Blade”. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

I thought to myself:  “If that’s what it sounds like, it has to be even more amazing to ride!”  My one and only obsession became learning how to ride.  Once back home I got my motorcycle license.  Much to my dismay, the CBR-250RR isn’t sold in America.  Instead, I bought a Suzuki GS-500 and “made do.”    Make do I did.  The first year I owned it I wore out two sets of sport-touring tires, a difficult feat for a bike with only 48 HP.  The only limitation on my riding was the price of gas.

GS500

My first bike, a ’96 Suzuki GS-500. Gone, but not forgotten.

It was on one of my many trips on the GS in late 2007 that I discovered the Glenn Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, NY.  It was within the walls of the Curtiss Museum that I discovered I wasn’t the only airplane nut with a motorcycle addiction.

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WELCOME!

I’ll begin this blog by offering a welcome to all those who will read my ramblings now and in the future.  Through this blog I plan to document the inspiration, design, testing and building of my dream, an extremely fast motorcycle.  This machine isn’t a drag racing bike, or a salt flat bike, but one meant for road racing.  Unlike most of the bikes built for racing this one won’t be built to or hampered by the rules of a racing class, it will be in a class of its own.  Anything goes.

As I begin this project I can’t help but look back at how I got here.  I consider myself to be a student of history, although perhaps not a good one.  My inspiration started early as my parents were more than willing to do anything within their power to provide me with the tools to gain knowledge, no matter the cost or inconvenience.  If it wasn’t for their patience and guidance in my formative years none of this would be possible, nor would I have ever had the opportunity to discover what I love.

Thanks Mom and Dad, I owe you more than you know.

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