Fastest Man on Earth: Glenn Curtiss and His V-8 Motorcycle

Glenn. H. Curtiss just after setting a speed record for the two cylinder class
Glenn. H. Curtiss just after setting a speed record for the two-cylinder class. Images courtesy of the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum.

January of 1907 found Glenn H. Curtiss of Hammondsport, New York, a humble, quiet motorcycle and engine manufacturer, traveling by train to sunny Ormond Beach, Florida, for the second time in four years. He was headed there to participate in the official weeklong time trials known as the Florida Speed Carnival. Accompanying him on the 1,500-mile journey were three of his Curtiss motorcycles and his longtime friends Leonard “Tank” Waters and Capt. Thomas S. Baldwin, for technical and moral support.

Glenn H. Curtiss making a practice run before the V-twin race.
Glenn H. Curtiss making a practice run before the V-twin race.

On arrival, with the trials underway and no time to lose, Glenn first brought out his single-cylinder, 3-horsepower motorcycle, a stock machine he was producing for commercial sale. After several test runs to get a feel for the beach, Glenn set an officially timed record of 1 minute, 2 seconds for the one-mile run in the single-cylinder class on January 21st. Competing in the one-mile race for two-cylinder cycles on the 23rd, Curtiss came in first on his other stock machine and found he had again set yet another record time of 46.67 seconds. With enthusiasm running high amongst the three friends, Glenn brought out his newest bike the next day, powered by a 40-horsepower V-8 engine of his own design.

Glenn H. Curtiss on his V-8 motorcycle just before the record run.
Glenn H. Curtiss on his V-8 motorcycle just before the record run.

Obviously not a standard cycle, the V-8 could not be entered into any race on the docket. However, officials did agree to a time trial, allowing a two-mile start to get up to speed. Curtiss, leaning so far forward he was practically lying flat on the bike, covered the next mile in 26.4 seconds – over 136 miles per hour! It took him another mile to bring the bike to a stop. Minutes later he would learn that he had shattered the world speed record, becoming the fastest man on earth. That week would be considered the most successful in Glenn’s motorcycle career and would literally propel him into the public eye and on to bigger accomplishments.

Glenn’s comments on the record-breaking run were a bit subdued, as befitting his nature. He was quoted as saying, “Riding an eight-cylinder motorcycle is not likely to become very popular,” and at such a high speed, “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.” He continued, “The machine set up a terrific and inexplicable vibration; it was so great that it did not create wholly comforting thoughts.” However he did say of the experience, “It satisfied my speed craving.”

Glenn Curtiss talking to "Tank" Waters just before getting into position for the run.
Glenn Curtiss talking to “Tank” Waters just before getting into position for the run.

His world speed record he set that day would stand for four short years until it was broken by an automobile in 1911. However, as a world motorcycle record Glenn’s daredevil speed run would stand until 1930 – the year he passed away at the age of 52.

To learn more about Glenn Curtiss and see some of the airplanes and motorcycles he built, visit the Glenn H. Curtiss Aviation Museum in Hammondsport, New York. Call (607) 569-2160 or visit glennhcurtissmuseum.org.

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