Glenn Curtiss Motorcycle

Posted on Fri, May 22, 2015
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You may know the name Glenn Curtiss in association with early aviation, but did you know he was a pioneer in motorcycle design too? Curtiss was born in Hammondsport, New York, in 1878, and from a young age exhibited strong mechanical ability. In his teens he was a champion bicycle racer with a keen interest in all things fast. By the time he was in his mid-20s, Curtiss was manufacturing his own motorcycle designs under the name, “Hercules.” The G. H. Curtiss Manufacturing Company competed with the likes of motorcycle powerhouses Harley Davidson and Indian, and Curtiss often defeated them in races. He quickly earned a reputation for designing powerful, lightweight motorcycle engines. In 1903, a famous balloonist at the time, Thomas Baldwin, was building a dirigible and bought a Curtiss five horsepower motor to power it. In 1904, Baldwin’s California Arrow became the first American dirigible to fly. This was Curtiss’ first direct association with the field of aviation.

Curtiss 4-cylinder Engine

The Curtiss 4-cylinder engine is shown here on Thomas Baldwin’s California Arrow. The soldiers are probably present to protect the engine while on display.

In response to several requests from early aeronautical experimenters for engines, Curtiss designed his first V-8 engine. He asked his team to build a motorcycle frame strong enough to hold it, and made plans to see how fast the machine could go. On January 23, 1907, at the Florida Speed Carnival at Ormond Beach, Florida, Curtiss drove the V-8 powered motorcycle to a speed of 218 kilometers per hour (136 miles per hour), a motorcycle land speed record that stood until 1930. Curtiss was dubbed by the newspapers as “the fastest man on Earth.” For detailed technical information on Curtiss’ V-8-powered motorcycle, read its collections entry on the Museum’s website.

Cutiss V-8 Motorcycle

Before achieving fame in aeronautics, Glenn Curtiss started his career with motorcycles. The early aviation community began to seek out Curtiss because of his growing reputation for designing powerful, lightweight motorcycle engines. In 1906 he designed his first V-8 engine in response to several requests from early aeronautical experimenters.

As a manufacturer and racer of motorcycles, it was only natural for Curtiss to wonder how fast he could move on a motorcycle with his V--8. He instructed his workers to construct a frame that could support the weight of the engine. The Curtiss V-8 was air-cooled, producing approximately 30 to 40 horsepower at 1,800 rpm. The motorcycle used direct drive because a conventional chain-and-belt transmission could not withstand the power of the massive engine. Curtiss took the motorcycle to the Florida Speed Carnival at Ormond Beach in January 1907. He recorded a record-setting speed of 218 kph (136 mph) during his run. He was dubbed "the fastest man on Earth."

Glenn Curtiss

Glenn Curtiss at the controls of a Curtiss aircraft.

Glenn Curtiss went on to make countless contributions to the field of aviation. He contributed to the development of ailerons, retractable landing gear, tricycle landing gear, and dual pilot controls. He designed and built the first successful pontoon aircraft in America. Curtiss aircraft were the first to take off and land on the deck of a ship. Curtiss built the first U.S. Navy aircraft and trained the first two naval pilots. He was a leading producer of aircraft engines. In 1919, a Curtiss flying boat became the first aircraft to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. During World War I, The Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company built 2,000 seaplanes, over 7,000 JN-4D Jenny training aircraft, and over 15,000 engines. The Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport is dedicated to Curtiss’ life, and its website is an excellent source for more detailed information about him.

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