How Aviation Pioneer Glenn Curtiss’ Set A 136 MPH Land Speed Record With His V8 Powered Motorcycle


There’s something about motorcycles with seemingly impossibly huge engines that captures people’s fancy. Mention “V10 motorcycle” and people will bring up Chrysler’s V10 Tomahawk show vehicle, but Allen Millyard’s custom Viper V10 powered bike is actually a functional motorcycle. Monte Wayne’s Boss Hoss company in Tennessee has sold thousands of Chevy V8-powered motorcycles over the past three decades. Before that, starting in the 1950s the late, great “Michigan Madman”, E.J. Potter, set records and thrilled drag racing fans with a series of bikes named Widowmaker, propelled by V8 engines.

Potter, though, wasn’t the first person to power a motorcycle with a V8. It might surprise you that that happened over a century ago and that it was achieved by someone better known for airplanes than motorcycles, Glenn Curtiss. While the names Curtiss and Wright are today joined together as a diversified defense contractor, Glenn Curtiss and the Wright Brothers were serious rivals in the early days of aviation. So much so that a patent infringement lawsuit filed by the Wright company against Curtiss in 1909 was only settled years later, during World War One, when the U.S. government, in need of combat aircraft, pressured the rivals to settle out of court.

Curtiss was a genuine pioneer in aviation, responsible for a wide variety of inventions and innovations. He helped develop essential aircraft technologies like ailerons, both tricycle and retractable landing gear, and dual pilot controls. He was particularly influential in naval aviation, building the first successful American pontoon airplane, the first planes to take off from and land on the deck of a ship, the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic ocean (a Curtiss flying boat), and the U.S. Navy’s first airplane. During WWI, the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company built 2,000 seaplanes, over 7,000 JN-4D “Jenny” training aircraft (a design still used by flying enthusiasts), and over 15,000 engines.

Like the Wright brothers, Glenn Curtiss’ path to the skies began with two-wheeled vehicles. The Wright’s had their Dayton, Ohio bicycle shop (another pair of famous brothers, the Dodges, also started their industrial careers in the bicycle industry, by the way). Curtiss also started with bicycles in 1898 but soon switched to motorcycles, making his first motorcycle engine, a three-horsepower, single-cylinder motor, in 1902. The G. H. Curtiss Manufacturing Company marketed motorcycles of Curtiss’ design under the Hercules brand and in 1903 Curtiss introduced his first multi-cylinder engine, an eight-horsepower V-twin, and later a three-cylinder in a W layout. On the racetrack, Hercules motorcycles competed successfully with Harley-Davidsons and Indians. Over the next few years, Curtiss developed a series of inline fours producing between 15 and 25 horsepower and he earned a reputation as the maker of powerful, lightweight engines. Those characteristics, high power and lightweight, that made his engines suitable for motorcycles, also made them ideal for the growing field of aviation.

The Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk was in late 1903, but it’s important to remember that while they were the first to succeed at a controlled, powered flight of a heavier than air craft, they were not the only ones experimenting with flight. In 1904, Thomas Baldwin’s California Arrow was the first American dirigible to fly, powered by a five-horsepower Curtiss engine.

Thomas Baldwin “California Arrow,” circa 1904. The engine on display is a Curtiss 4-cylinder engine.

Due to requests from makers of both airplanes and lighter-than-air dirigibles, in 1906 Curtiss designed his first V8 engine. It was air-cooled, with 268 cubic inches of displacement, and produced between 30 and 40 horsepower at 1,800 rpm. It was an F-valve design, with one overhead intake valve that operated atmospherically and a side exhaust valve operated by camshaft and pushrod. While not generally used today, Rolls-Royce used F-head engines for decades. Curtiss’ V8 was a 90-degree design with two-piece, thin-wall cylinders cast of a special hard gray iron for durability. The head and pistons were also cast iron, while the crankcase was aluminum. Each bank of cylinders had its own carburetor. Connecting rods and crankshaft were made of forged alloy steel and the studs holding the cylinders and heads to the crankcase were made of high tensile strength nickel alloy steel. Lubrication was via a splash, and ignition was via spark plugs powered by dry cell batteries.

To demonstrate the engine Curtiss had his employees fabricate a motorcycle frame strong enough to support the V8, mounted longitudinally. As the motorcycle drive chains and belts of the day could not handle the engine’s power, the engine was connected to the rear wheel via a double universal joint, a driveshaft, and open bevel gears. There was no clutch or gearbox so the engine was push started by assistants. Braking was minimal, a hinged paddle that pressed against the rear tire. The rear wheel came from an automobile while up front it used a conventional motorcycle wheel. B.F. Goodrich supplied the tires. The only suspension was the springs for the leather saddle. Both front and rear forks were reinforced with secondary struts.

The frame was long, nearly eight feet in length, due in part to the engine’s length, but also to locate the rider’s seat far enough aft of the engine to prevent getting burned. An oil tank for the lubrication system was located behind the 2.5-gallon gasoline tank, under the seat, and the batteries for the ignition were mounted above the gas tank. Because of the machine’s length, it needed very long handle bars, which made steering rather awkward, but then Curtiss’ V8 motorcycle was not designed to do anything but go fast in a straight line.

The flat sands at Ormond Beach, Florida had become America’s “Birthplace of Speed”, with the first sanctioned meet there taking place in 1903. No stranger to publicity, Glenn Curtiss took his V8-powered motorcycle to the Florida Speed Carnival at Ormond Beach in January of 1907. Curtiss was also no stranger to high speeds. In 1903, at Yonkers, New York, he was timed at 64 mph on one of his own Curtiss Hercules motorcycles powered by his 1,000 cc v-twin, making him the first motorcycle speed record holder.

Glenn Curtiss on his motorcycle speed record-setting Hercules 1,000 cc twin

Curtiss and the Ormond festival judges agreed on a five-mile course, two miles to get up to speed, a timed measured mile, and two miles to allow the motorcycle to stop. With that crude brake, Curtiss needed the braking space. Aviator Tom Baldwin and Curtiss associate “Tank” Waters gave Glenn a push start and he was off to set an overall land speed record of 136 miles per hour (218 kph). That overall LSR stood until 1911 and was not exceeded by another motorcycle until 1930. Newspapers of the day called Curtiss “The fastest man on Earth.”

Curtiss would go on to base the design of his liquid-cooled OX-5 V8, the first American aircraft engine to enter mass production, on his V8 motorcycle engine, and it stayed in service into the 1930s.

Glenn Curtiss testing one of his own airplane designs.

Curtiss was a brave man, often test flying his own airplanes. It’s not clear, though, if Curtiss ever raced, or even rode, his V8-powered motorcycle again. Describing his record run, Curtiss said, “Riding an eight-cylinder motorcycle is not likely to become very popular. All I could see was a streak of beach with wild surf on one side, sand hills on the other and a black spot where the crowd was. The machine set up a terrific and inexplicable vibration; it was so great that it did not create wholly comforting thoughts.” Concerning his experience on the V8 motorcycle, Curtiss concluded, “It satisfied my speed craving.”

The Curtiss V8 motorcycle is in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

[Images provided by the author]

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