Glenn Curtis - The Fastest Man in the World - 1907

“Bullets are the only rivals of Glenn H. Curtiss of Hammondsport." - 1907 Chicago Daily News headline

On January 24, 1907, Glenn Curtiss roared across Ormond Beach on the east coast of Florida at 136.3 mph to set a land-speed record that would stand for 11 years – and then only to be surpassed by an automobile. It would not be until 1930 that a motorcycle would best his feat of daring-do and mechanical design.

Curtiss is a true American hero and a larger-than-life personality whose exploits would even inspire a popular series of youth books "The Adventures of Tom Swift" penned by Victor Appleton. And yes, there was one volume circa 1910 titled “Tom Swift and His Motor-Cycle or Fun and Adventures on the Road.”

Curtiss was always looking for new adventures on or off the road, whether in cars, boats or airplanes. Back in 1907, the 29-year old Curtiss had already invented or developed many of the more than 500 designs and components he would conjure up during his lifetime, including a hand in the development of the Wright Brothers first airplane and additional aeronautical experiments in partnership with Alexander Graham Bell that included developing and patenting the aircraft aileron now universally intrinsic to controlled flight.

Whether it was propeller-powered or rolled on wheels, Curtiss was always pushing the envelope. While his lasting fame would rest with aircraft, it all began with motorcycles. As a result of his experience as a bicycle racer, Western Union bicycle messenger and bicycle shop owner Curtiss became interested in motorcycles. In 1901 he began motorizing bicycles with his own single-cylinder internal combustion engines, initially fashioned from tomato cans.

He not only talked the talk, he walked the walk, racing what he built and earning the accolade in 1903 as the “First American Motorcycle Champion” by reaching 64.5 mph. By 1905, he set the world speed records for one-, two- and three-mile events. Besides piloting his speedsters, he also tinkered out a number of advancements, including the handlebar twist grip throttle control.

His new record-breaking bike came into existence due to the ever increasing demand for more powerful aircraft engines for the burgeoning production of early 20th-century flying machines. The bike was basically a rolling, but not quite flying, test bed for the new Curtiss 40-hp “monster” motor.

The configuration was based on a very square 3.25 x 3.25 inch bore and stroke that displaced a potent 269 cubic inches. While his preceding engines were primarily single cylinder and 50-degree V-Twins, Curtis went to a 90-degree design featuring cast-iron F-type heads as utilized on his smaller displacement powerplants. Moreover, it dispensed with head gaskets thanks to the quality of its design and manufacture. Inside the massive hunk of metal lurked a solid billet steel crank, while internal lubrication was handled via a dry sump and random splash system.

Under the valve covers, inlet valves were activated by atmospheric pressure while pushrods actuated the exhaust valves. Fed by twin carbs, also Curtiss designs, the throttle cables were hidden inside the handlebars. The electrical system relied upon jump-spark ignition energized by dry-cell batteries.

While it looked ungainly with its 4000cc engine suspended in what was a heavily beefed up bicycle frame with a 64-inch wheelbase, the overall design benefited from a power to weight ratio (one hp per 6.8 pounds) that was advanced by any standard, especially by those of 1907. The bike supposedly tipped the scales at merely 275 lbs.

The four-mile course at Ormond Beach was divided into a two-mile section for reaching top speed, a third mile for timing purposes, and last but not least, a “slow down and stop” mile. As the bike was shaft-driven with no clutch and but one tall gear, it was an all or nothing proposition. One kept twisting the throttle and let the speed build while the screaming unmuffled pipes scattered sea birds for miles. As the Curtiss Museum director comments, “It must have sounded like the Wrath of God!”

Curtis was clocked at 136.3 mph in the timed section of the course. He would be the first man to travel one mile in 25.25 seconds, a feat of mechanical design and personal courage that earned him the title of the fastest man on earth.

Armchair pundits of the day reportedly snorted with disbelief, espousing their firm belief that is was a hoax or fable since no mortal man could breathe at the reported speed. It would be the V8’s one and only day in the sun, the only time Glenn Curtiss would take it up to speed. But once was enough. If you want to see the real McCoy, you’ll find it at the new Smithsonian Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center located adjacent to the Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, VA.

Adapted from Motorcycle History: Part 2 (motorcycle.com)