Who was Glenn Hammond Curtiss, and how does his legacy relate to the introduction of a new concept in cutting-edge American electric motorcycle design?
Written by Jason Cormier
This is a question many followers of the Curtiss brand have asked. Perhaps they wonder why a prominent name in American aviation would be applied to a motorcycle, presuming it's a mere nod to a famous name to garner some recognition for a new brand.
A few might be aware of Curtiss' involvement in early-American motorcycling and his daring records that stood for decades, but they might fail to understand how this relates to the electric revolution Curtiss promises to offer.
The truth is that Curtiss draws upon a long legacy of innovation, skill, risk-taking, and American ingenuity from a Golden Era of American exceptionalism that is perfectly summarized by the life and work of Glenn H. Curtiss.
The Curtiss of today seeks to push the boundaries of design, engineering and performance while offering an heirloom quality machine designed from first principles that are unlike anything offered by their competition. These are the very same principles espoused by Curtiss in the earliest days of American motorcycling, so it is fitting that the Curtiss of today seeks to pick up where the Curtiss Motor Company left off more than 100 years ago.
Curtiss seeks to continue a legacy of innovation that was driven by the vision of one remarkable man whom they have proudly designated their namesake: Glenn Hammond Curtiss.
Glenn Hammond Curtiss was born in Hammondsport, New York on May 21st, 1878, to Frank and Lua Curtiss. His childhood was not an easy one. His father, whose family business was harness making, passed away following a stroke in 1882 when Glenn was 4 years old. Glenn's younger sister, Rutha, developed severe meningitis in 1887 at age 6, permanently damaging her hearing and leaving her deaf. Rutha's condition prompted the family to move to Rochester, New York so that she could attend the Western New York Institute for Deaf-Mutes. This move would prove to be a fortuitous decision for 12-year-old Glenn's development as an innovator.
As a youth, Glenn took a post at the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company, predecessor to the Eastman-Kodak Company. Here, he worked as a stencil maker and film assembler, and quickly learned the processes involved in photography, skills he would employ as a professional photographer in the 1890s.
"My boyhood dream of the future? Why, I don't know that I had any. I always wanted to get things done, and do them faster than the other fellow. I hated to be beaten. I liked speed, and I liked to make things. I was always handy at fixing things." - Glenn Curtiss
Sometimes aloof and often introspective, prone to bouts of quiet absorption in his thoughts mulling over problems, Glenn excelled at mathematics and displayed a unique mechanical aptitude from a young age. In spite of his intelligence he left school after the 8th grade to make his way through the world on his own, teaching himself the skills that would serve him through his remarkable life. He wasn't one for flowery language or detailed prose, or even for putting much of his mind onto paper; while he occasionally scribbled basic drawings on shop walls or drew diagrams in the sand, he was well known for keeping his designs within his head, easily plucking complex solutions from his thoughts and making them appear effortlessly solved within his mind - no matter how complex their execution would actually prove.
"(Glenn Curtiss was) typically American. As typical as the cartooned 'Uncle Sam' with his high forehead, light blue eyes, long, thin nose; only the chin whiskers and star-spangled plug hat lacking. Large, competent hands; the long fingers of the artist, the capable thumbs of the born mechanic." - Popular Science, March 1927
He gained notoriety by building his own cameras, and at least one telegraph machine of his own devising, and was fond of using tin tomato cans to construct devices like acetylene gas generators. He was an early adopter of electric power, taking side jobs as an electrician wiring local houses to use this novel, new technology. But he remained a quiet, modest man. He relished challenges and enjoyed his work, free of hubris or pride for his accomplishments.
Perhaps the most transformative experience during his childhood was the discovery of the safety bicycle, a newfangled device of unparalleled mobility and speed in the small communities of New York that Glenn frequented. Quiet though he was, young Curtiss had a budding fascination with speed and the freedom two wheels could offer. He diligently saved his Eastman wages to purchase a bicycle of his own, and put his acquisition to good use as a Western Union messenger.
The family moved to Rock Stream, New York where Glenn continued to build and repair bicycles while working as a professional photographer, when he wasn't working in his step father's vineyard. He joined a bicycle shop in Hammondsport run by James Smellie; his skills as a mechanic led to his appointment as head of the shop by 1899. A budding career in bicycles soon sparked a desire for competition; starting in 1896, Glenn made his mark as an accomplished and fearless bicycle racer. Curtiss appeared to excel at everything he put his mind to, and competition was simply the latest challenge he sought to conquer. And conquer he did, earning the American National Championship.
After marrying Lena Pearl Neff, the daughter of a local sawmill superintendent and future partner in Glenn's enterprises, in 1898, Glenn struck out on his own in the bicycle business. In 1899 he took over Smellie's shop, carrying a variety of brands. By 1900 he had opened his second location in Bath and operated a bicycle rental business, with a third shop following in Corning. The natural progression of Curtiss' business was to produce his own machines, and in 1901 he introduced the Hercules Bicycle Company. Most men would likely have been content to settle into a stable niche, with success in business and competition under their belt, but for Curtiss his Hercules brand would merely be the beginning of his renowned career.
The moment that Glenn Curtiss decided to build a motorcycle is in some debate. Some claim he saw his first motorized bicycle, the E.R. Thomas Auto-Bi, at the New York Auto Show in 1901 and decided he must have the latest device to fulfill his need for speed. In Glenn's own telling he noted that in 1901 his old boss James Smellie came to him with a request for a self-propelled bicycle to aid his commute, which included a hill that was giving him trouble.
Regardless of what served as the inspiration, Curtiss ordered an engine kit from E.R. Thomas in Buffalo, NY to adapt to one of his bicycles. Much to Curtiss' dismay, the kit arrived in Hammondsport as a set of rough castings, without a carburetor, without an ignition system, and without any instructions. Enlisting the help of a local machinist, he soon had the parts finished and the 20 pound, 1.5 horsepower, 130cc single assembled in spite of his lack of experience with internal combustion devices.
Glenn experimented with various drive arrangements, first mounting the engine to drive the front wheel before settling on a rear wheel drive via a friction roller; first in wood, then in leather, and finally in rubber when that proved to the be the most effective material. For fueling, he returned to his old trick of using a tomato can, topped by a piece of gauze to allow the fuel to slowly evaporate into a vapor that would be ingested by the engine. The ignition came courtesy of the family's MD, Dr. Philias Alden, who supplied a medical electroshock therapy generator that Curtiss adapted into a crude spark coil fed by a dry cell battery.
Dubbed the "Happy Hooligan", this prototype machine proved to be finicky and crude, but it did function, and it carried Curtiss through town before running out of fuel. It sparked a desire for more. Specifically, Curtiss desired more speed.
To that end he ordered Thomas' largest engine kit: a 56 pound, 3 horsepower lump intended for a light automobile called the Auto-Quad. This 790cc monster proved to be far too much engine for a bicycle. It was noted this second machine was "a terror... (it) exploded only occasionally, but when it did it almost tore itself loose from the frame." It managed to thunder along to a heady 30 miles per hour, when it ran.
Glenn Curtiss, as he often did, decided he could do better.
Given the failings of the E.R. Thomas powerplants, a simple design principle was laid out for all subsequent Curtiss engines: the lightest possible weight for the maximum amount of power. What wasn't proposed, but was inherent in his good design, was exceptionally high quality of workmanship and components - and the reliability those elements brought.
The third motorcycle Curtiss produced proved to be the nearly fully-formed prototype for all Hercules motorcycles produced from 1902 onward, and the basis of virtually all subsequent Curtiss motorcycles marketed by the newly-christened G.H. Curtiss Manufacturing Company.
The new engine was an inlet over exhaust single with aluminum crankcases, a hard iron cylinder, and separate soft iron head attached to the cases via four full-length nickel steel studs. The intake was atmospheric, operating on engine vacuum alone, while the exhaust was operated by a gear driven camshaft in the block that lifted a pushrod to open the valve from below. The crankshaft mains were supported by ball bearings, at a time when most engines made do with bronze bushings. This was a significant choice, as the crude splash lubrication of the era was barely capable of maintaining sufficient oiling in plain bearings; the nature of ball and roller bearings allows them to retain oil and endure longer with less.
This engine produced 2.5 horsepower, driving the rear wheel directly via leather belt tensioned by a ball-bearing idler pulley. Top speed was claimed to be 40 miles per hour, with a minimum speed around 4 miles per hour - a peculiar specification to modern riders, but a necessary one on a direct-drive machine with no clutch or gearbox that was either running under power or being pedaled without.
The chassis, later dubbed the "Cook" frame, was a 16-gauge steel tube frame with a double top tube surrounding a sheet metal fuel tank. The wheelbase was 56 inches and weight was a svelte 125 pounds. Notable was the early use of the engine as a chassis element, with the crankcases serving as the bridge between the front downtube and rear seat post. The brake was a simple bicycle coaster type; in fact most of the machine was clearly bicycle based, outside of necessary reinforcements, with a diamond frame and rigid fork riding on 28 inch wheels. Pedals operating a separately chain drive were installed, as was common on early motorcycles, to propel the machine when the engine wasn't running.
This new Hercules motorcycle would cost you $180, with a twin-seat "tandem" optional for $210. Engines were cast and assembled by Charles B. Kirkham of the Kirkham Motor Manufacturing Company in Cold Springs, NY, a well-regarded outfit who would supply all Curtiss production engines until 1905.
"Mr. Curtiss has experimented extensively in the building of moto-cycles, and has many original ideas which are in advance of anything on the market in this section. He hopes and reasonably expects to attain considerable notoriety for the superiority of his moto-cycles." - The Hammondsport Herald, 1902
The Hercules motorcycle proved to be a resounding success, netting Curtiss a book full of orders. Naturally, Glenn sought to prove the mettle of his machine in competition; naturally, he would be the rider to do the proving. His first outings in 1902 proved fruitful but far from dominant, with his best success being a 3rd place in the grueling Ocean Parkway road race in Brooklyn. While hardly a bad showing for a nascent brand's first effort, there was one problem: Glenn Curtiss "didn't like being beaten."
1903 saw a series of refinements applied to the Hercules in terms of chassis reinforcement and the introduction of an "automatic" oil feed for lubrication, but the engine remained unchanged. Top speed was now claimed to be 45 miles per hour. The real news for this year was Curtiss' solution to the problem of being beaten.
Developed specifically for racing, Curtiss took two Hercules top end assemblies and mated them to a common crankcase at a 50-degree angle. Mounted inline along the same plane, this new V-Twin used a single crankpin and siamesed rods with the crankshaft running on roller bearing mains. With a 3x3 inch bore/stroke it displaced 695 ccs and produced 5 horsepower while weighing a mere 60 pounds.
For those so inclined $150 would net you the V-Twin alone, or you could add a $75 premium to the price of a Hercules to have the V-Twin installed instead of the single. To accommodate the heavier and more powerful engine, the wheelbase would be lengthened to 61 inches and the frame reinforced with a third top tube and doubled bottom loop. The reliability of the roller bearings led to their installation in the single, and their use in all Curtiss engines would be a key point in Curtiss advertising for years to come.
While conceived for racing the twin proved to be refined and well suited to road use, and thus found many happy buyers looking for more power. More importantly for the purposes of our story, Glenn Curtiss had created the first production V-Twin motorcycle engine in America. While not the first Vee in the world, it was years ahead of the competition he faced on the Continent.
By spring 1903 the shop had a three month backlog of orders, taxing the half-dozen employees who worked for Mr. Curtiss. To meet the demand and take advantage of his newfound niche, Curtiss abandoned the bicycle business to focus on motorcycle production. And, of course, motorcycle racing.
The Hercules V-Twin was introduced to the competition at the Riverdale Park Hillclimb on May 30th, 1903. Glenn was riding against a tough crowd, including two notable riders aboard Indian singles: Oscar Hedstrom and his teammate Charles Gustafson. The Indian Motorcycle Company of Springfield, Massachusetts had proved dominant in competition and was the favorite to win at Riverdale Park. Their two riders were far from green; in fact Hedstrom was co-founder of the company alongside George M. Hendee, while Gustafson would go on to become one of Indian's most prominent engineers, famous for designing the Powerplus series of engines. But on this day in 1903, they were two riders climbing a hill.
Hedstrom led the charge, with Gustafson following and setting a slightly better time. Then, Glenn Curtiss roared by and beat both of them handily, as well as everyone else present, winning the event on the first race aboard his new Twin. The boys from Indian had finally met their match, and it would prove to be just the first success of a winning streak for Curtiss and his new machine.
The next milestone would be a victory at a 10-mile race on the Empire City Track in Yonkers, where Curtiss prevailed once again. With these wins in hand Curtiss had secured the American Motorcycle Championship for 1903.
"The first hall-marked American Motorcycle Champion has appeared... Mr. Curtiss is certainly to be congratulated. From the most modest beginning, unaided by experts in motor building or skilled mechanics in bicycle work, he has developed a motorcycle which probably outranks for roadwork and speed any and all others." - The Hammondsport Herald, 1903
But the year wasn't over yet. At an event in Providence, Rhode Island, Curtiss set a world motorcycle speed record of 63.8 miles per hour aboard a Hercules V-Twin - once again trouncing Indian and Hedstrom, who had briefly held that title with a 56 mile per hour run earlier in the year.
He upped the ante in January, 1904, on his first of several expeditions to Ormond Beach, Florida. Here, he rode his V-Twin over a 10-mile course in 8 minutes, 54.4 seconds, for an average of 67.37 miles per hour, netting him another stunning speed record. Curtiss' record on this day would stand for four years.
All because Glenn Curtiss didn't like being beaten.
The Original Hellrider
With his exceptionally quick singles and dominant twins, Glenn Curtiss soon made a name for himself as the rider to beat on the United States East Coast. He became such a thorn in the side of the Indian team that legend has it a newspaper reporter overheard an exchange between two Indian riders, when they saw Curtiss had arrived to compete against them:
"Oh Hell, he's here."
Thus Curtiss earned his nickname: Glenn "Hell-Rider" Curtiss.
His flair as a racer cemented the moniker. At first glance he might have seemed recklessly fast and cutthroat on the track, but unlike most fast-and-loose riders he could maintain his pace lap after lap. He memorized the tracks and toyed with competitors, staying cool under pressure and consistent with few errors. And his machines proved to be reliable and well suited to the hardships of racing conditions, a must in an era when fragile machines were the norm and simply finishing a race was half the battle.
With success and notoriety comes challenges, and one Hercules company in California filed a trademark suit against the name Glenn had been using since 1901. Rather than fight the claim, he simply dropped the name. From 1904 onward his motorcycles brand would simply be known as "Curtiss".
Development continued in the form of gradual evolution. The frames were reinforced and a standard 58 inch wheelbase was now common to both the single and the twin. The frame height was reduced to 22 inches. The road-going twin was now rated for "5 to 50 mph on standard gearing." A stripped-down, turn-key racing twin was introduced in 1905, weighing a feathery 110 pounds and available for $300.
Curtiss himself remained involved in daily operations, rarely straying far from his duties and known for spending long hours in the shop. He even worked as a mechanic, traveling across the state to repair his namesake machines. One trip involved several days' absence and a 10 hour rebuild in a single session on a customer's machine in Albany. Not many company leaders would be out in the field repairing customer bikes, but Glenn was unlike most company leaders.
Engine production was brought in-house to Hammondsport during the fall of 1905, by which time the company roster had grown to 40 employees. The G.H. Curtiss Company was now incorporated, with an initial capitalization of $40,000; most shares were split among local shareholders who had longstanding connections with the Curtiss family. With growing success came several offers to buy the works and move it out of Hammondsport. Curtiss refused any such offers, repeatedly and politely, for the duration of his career. The Company was a local institution with local investors, and Glenn always fought to keep his company in its birthplace - which was in fact his grandmother's property, a space that struggled to contain the additions and new buildings that would proliferate as the company grew.
"His competitors in every instance were so far outclassed as to be hopelessly out of the running." - The Hammondsport Herald, 1905
By 1906, further refinements were applied to the tried-and-true Curtiss formula. The engines were now interchangeable between chassis, and a sprung fork was offered as an option. The twin received larger flywheels, wider connecting rods, and a displacement boost to 1000cc. The camshaft train drive was greatly simplified, with a single gear replacing a set of five used in the original design. The single had its bore enlarged to 3.25 inches, and had a new carburetor and coil fitted. Now a single would set you back $200, while a twin was $275. A factory sidecar option was available for $50, with a two-bolt attachment method and adjustable track width to suit the well-rutted roads of the era.
1907 proved to be another good year, with further expansion of the works and 24-hour production to meet demand. Between 500 and 600 engines were produced in this year alone. The US War Department ordered an undisclosed number of V-Twin models to be equipped as mobile telegraph machines. Curtiss motorcycles were renowned as being reliable, well-built machines that offered the best power-to-weight ratio then known. As The Hammondsport Herald crowed in April 1907: "(Curtiss engines developed) a greater amount of power to the pound than any other known source of energy."
"Bullets are the only rivals of Glenn H. Curtiss of Hammondsport"
So reported the Chicago Daily News in January, 1907, after Glenn Curtiss had, unofficially, but confirmed by all accounts, proven he was the fastest man on Earth.
How he came to this point, and how he developed a monstrous V8-powered motorcycle of unmatched speed, requires us to take a step back to 1903.
Curtiss' reputation as a builder of reliable, powerful, and (most importantly) lightweight engines led to his selection as source of powerplants for the nascent aircraft industry. While Orville and Wilbur Wright were experimenting with powered heavier-than-air craft, propelled by an engine of their own devising, there arose a need for engines to power lighter-than-air machines.
The man who would shape Curtiss' future in aviation was a colorful character by the name of Captain Thomas Scott Baldwin of San Francisco, California. Captain Baldwin was tackling the problem of powering a balloon. Himself an accomplished balloonist, Baldwin sought to conquer the principle drawback of lighter-than-air machines: steering. Balloons had been in use for centuries, but their usefulness was limited by their fickle navigation. You had to rely on wind currents for direction, with some control available by adjusting altitude and taking advantage of shifting air currents at various strata in the atmosphere, but nothing like what you might call "controlled" flight. Attempts were made to add further control using sails, but these experiments more often than not ended in failure.
The holy grail of balloon development had been the dirigible, a balloon that could be steered and propelled independently of the wind. Until the advent of the internal combustion engine, this wasn't feasible. The first success in the field was credited to the electrically-powered La France first flown in 1884, but it had suffered multiple failures and was abandoned due to a lack of funding. Brazilian aeronaut Alberto Santos-Dumont had made significant progress in dirigible design in France in 1901-1902, including the first successful controlled flight in Paris in October 1901 with a gasoline powered machine, but no one outside Europe had yet achieved this feat.
Baldwin had attempted to build human (pedal) powered balloons at the turn of the 20th-century without success. In 1902, he worked on the California Eagle, an unsuccessful attempt at building a powered balloon. The Eagle used a French De Dion-Bouton engine driving a paddle; the experience gave Baldwin the ideas he needed to develop his own powered craft. In 1903, he was shopping for a powerplant that would suit his experiment, and happened to encounter the recently introduced Hercules V-Twin. Here was the solution to the first part of his challenge, the motive power for the design that he would dub the California Arrow.
Baldwin travelled to Hammondsport and visited the Curtiss workshop, and was quite surprised by the modesty of the operation and Glenn's youth. But he was suitably impressed by the quality on offer and the reasonable price of the engine, as well as Curtiss' character, and he purchased a V-Twin on the spot to power the Arrow.
On August 3rd, 1904 the California Arrow lifted off from Idora Park in Oakland, California, flew in a circle around the area, and landed in the same place it had departed, the first American machine to do so. The superiority of Baldwin's design was demonstrated later that year at the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition (World's Fair) in St. Louis, Missouri where the Arrow beat all comers from Europe, including Santos-Dumont, winning the Fair's $100,000 grand prize for the achievement.
Baldwin's success led to Curtiss becoming the de facto supplier of airship engines for experimenters across America. Baldwin moved his operation to Hammondsport in 1905 and Curtiss became involved in the day-to-day experimentation to further refine dirigible design.
"I get twice as much money for my motors from those aviation cranks." - Glenn Curtiss
These words would come back to haunt Curtiss in later years, but in the early days he remained skeptical of so-called "inventors" trying to conquer the air. He was not alone; decades of high profile failures and frauds claiming to have taken to the air had jaded the public to the possibility of air travel. Even the Wright brothers were largely ignored after their Kitty Hawk flights, given that they were just the latest in a long line of kooks claiming to have taken flight. The significance of their achievement took time to be realized.
From 1904 onward, Curtiss sold engines by the dozens to aviators, sometimes several in a single order, and he wasn't about to turn down the business. To that end, he began development of purpose-built aircraft engines. The first was a twinned V-Twin creating a V4 for Baldwin's later Arrow (a name which Baldwin, confusingly, applied to all of his airships without distinction), which led to a dedicated inline-4. These engines shared the modular characteristics of existing Curtiss singles and twins, namely retaining the cylinder, head and valve train assemblies arranged in various configurations around a common crankcase. Thus a four-cylinder Curtiss engine was, more or less, four singles bolted to an aluminum crankcase with an appropriate crankshaft and camshaft. The significant limitations of air-cooled designs operating at full throttle for long periods led to the development of liquid-cooled engines. These would be sold alongside Curtiss' air-cooled offerings, albeit with a significant weight penalty compared to the air cooled options.
The success of Baldwin's work led to a government tender in 1905 for a dirigible that could fly for two hours at a speed of 20 miles per hour while carrying two men. Curtiss began experimenting with aircraft components in earnest during this year, testing propeller designs in his infamous "horse scarer" wind wagon, a peculiar three-wheeled contraption pushed along by a propeller driven by a V-Twin mounted behind the driver. Curtiss would terrorize the local roads, buzzing up and down, determining the best props by how fast they could propel the machine.
This was replaced by a prop-driven air boat that would be run on Keuka Lake bordering Hammondsport, converted into an ice sledge to run during the winter months, at the insistence of local farmers who were tired of Curtiss' on-road antics.
In late 1906, Curtiss received an order for the biggest and most powerful engine he had yet devised, requested by a Detroit fellow attempting to build an aircraft. That fellow's name and his experiment have been lost to history, but his specifications led Curtiss to develop an air-cooled V8. Two were ordered, but Curtiss built three. The reason for the extra powerplant was to satisfy his own devilish curiosity and insatiable desire for greater speed: he wanted to install the V8 into a motorcycle and see what it would do - ostensibly to "test" the performance of the new engine, of course.
The V8 used separate stud-mounted iron cylinders based on Curtiss' single, retaining the iron inlet over exhaust heads, arranged in a 90-degree Vee on an aluminum crankcase. Bores were increased to 3.625 inches holding cast iron four-ring pistons, netting a 4397cc displacement with a 3.25 inch stroke. A hollow nickel-chromium steel crankshaft used 1.125 inch journals, oiled via splash lubrication. A single camshaft, driven by external gears off the front of the crankshaft, resided in the middle of the Vee and operated the exhaust valves via pushrods. Ignition was via distributor, driven off the front of the camshaft gear, and dry cell battery. Induction was via twin carburetors, one for each bank of cylinders. Weighing a total of 150 pounds, the V8 was rated between 36 and 40 horsepower at 1800 rpm and was initially priced at $1000, with later versions listed at $1200 - $1500.
To accommodate the V8 in a motorcycle chassis required some creative ergonomics and engineering. Given the width of the 90-degree Vee, the seat was placed well behind the engine so that the rider could tuck in without his knees hitting the hot, oily cylinders. To compensate for the increased reach across the length of the engine, long tiller-like handlebars were fitted. An automobile rear wheel and tire was fitted, with a motorcycle wheel and rigid fork up front. Wheelbase was a massive 74 inches. A 2.5-gallon fuel tank resided between the twin top tubes, with a 1-quart oil tank placed behind it ahead of the seat, while the battery was strapped to the top of the fuel tank behind the steering head. Total weight was 275 pounds - featherweight by modern standards, but more than twice the weight of a production Curtiss V-Twin.
There was no suspension, no clutch, and no transmission: drive was taken directly from the rear of the crankshaft by a driveshaft that meshed with an exposed bevel gear on the rear hub. Brakes were vestigial at best.
The 8-foot long brute was completed in January, 1907; Winter in Hammondsport precluded any significant testing. A quick startup and brief run up the road was the grand sum of checks before the V8 was loaded onto a railcar, along with one single and one twin, and shipped to Ormond Beach in Florida for its public debut.
Once in Florida, Curtiss entered speed trials on the 21st of January with his twin, recording 77.59 mph in the flying mile. His record did not stand for long, beaten by a Peugot twin later in the day that ran 80.5 mph. Next came Curtiss' single, which ran 54.88 mph.
On January 24th, the V8 was wheeled out to the beach for an unofficial demonstration run. Little was known of the capabilities of the machine, or if it could even safely complete a run - the endurance of tires of the day was a complete gamble on what was the most powerful motorcycle every built. Curtiss had placed his faith in B.F. Goodridge but no one was certain they could survive the speed, power, and torque of the V8.
The machine was towed up to 40 mph and given a two mile run up before crossing a measured mile course. Glenn Curtiss himself was aboard, stretched out over the length of the ungainly machine wearing nothing but a flimsy leather helmet and ordinary leather outerwear for protection.
He roared down the beach towards the timing marks, accelerating through the run up area before going flat out through the mile markers. His progress was informally timed by spectators on their stopwatches. He covered that mile in 26.4 seconds. That equated to 136.36 miles per hour.
The V8 had just proven to be the fastest machine ever created. And Glenn Curtiss had just become the fastest man on Earth.
Disaster struck as Curtiss turned around for a return run. While traveling an estimated 90 mph the driveshaft broke and flailed around violently as Curtiss struggled to maintain control. Then the frame buckled but Curtiss managed to coast to a safe stop without injury. The damage was such that a second, official run for the record books wouldn't be possible, but no one present dared deny Curtiss his due for smashing the absolute speed record.
Curtiss would later note that the V8 defied classification as a motorcycle, due to its oversized engine. Nit-picking which class you qualified for seems an irrelevant point considering no automobile, train or aircraft had ever neared the speed he had achieved, and record sanctioning bodies were far from standardized in 1907, but the fact remained no official timing had taken place and no official record was noted. Despite this, Curtiss' achievement became the de facto goalpost for all subsequent speed runs.
No vehicle would officially exceed Curtiss' speed until Robert R. Burman drove the 21.5 liter, 200 horsepower Blitzen Benz 141.7 mph across Daytona Beach, Florida on the 23rd of April, 1911. No motorcycle would beat the V8 until Joseph S. Wright rode a supercharged Osborn Engineering Company-Temple-JAP to 137.23 mph in Arpajon, France on the 31st of August, 1930.
Glenn summarized the experience in his typically succinct manner: "(The V8) satisfied my speed-craving."
Call of the Air
Curtiss' first trip into the air came in the summer of 1905, aboard the dirigible built by Baldwin for the US government contract. Tested over Fort Myer, Virginia, Curtiss served as a mechanic, tending to the engine at the front of the craft while Baldwin steered from the rear. Flying for two hours high above the Virginia landscape, perched upon an open latticework frame was a transformative experience for Curtiss. His skepticism melted away - he had been bitten by the aviation bug. Meanwhile the test was a success, with the craft exceeding the requirements of the tender in both speed and endurance. It would be adopted as US Army Dirigible Number One.
Curtiss' main business remained motorcycles and engines, with Baldwin's next door operation a sideline to the principal operation, but things were soon to change.While en route to Florida for his legendary speed run in 1907, Curtiss stopped in New York City to attend the first Aeronautical Exhibition. There he met a certain Alexander Graham Bell, famed inventor of the telephone among other accomplishments. Bell had been experimenting with tetrahedral structure kites at his estate in Baddeck, Nova Scotia with some notable success, including lifting a man aloft to take aerial photographs. The next step was to add power to create an aircraft; the power-to-weight ratio of Curtiss' engines was the best available, and Curtiss himself was a recognized expert in internal combustion. Bell invited Curtiss to visit him in Baddeck and observe his work, and perhaps give some insight into powering his craft.
Thus in the summer of 1907, Glenn Curtiss travelled to Canada and visited Bell at his Beinn Bhreagh estate. This scenic locale, facing the Bras d'Or Lake, would become the incubator of aeronautical innovation for the next several years, and Curtiss would be at the fore of these developments. That summer, Bell, Curtiss, US Army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, and two Canadian engineers by the names of Frederick W. Baldwin and John Alexander Douglas McCurdy, would form the Aerial Experiment Association. Curtiss was appointed Director of Experiments with Hammondsport as the American base of the AEA. He was the only member who lacked a university education - though he would prove he didn't need one.
For the next year the team would make use of Curtiss' V8, now dubbed the B-8 in the eight carburetor form used in the AEA Red Wing, White Wing, and Curtiss' own June Bug aircraft. These machines served as the introduction of moveable control surfaces - ailerons - that would revolutionize aircraft design, much to the chagrin of the Wright Brothers. The experiments of the AEA and their successes would draw the ire of the Wrights, who had attempted to patent all forms of moving surfaces with their wing-warping methods, setting in motion the Patent Wars that would be a thorn in Curtiss' side for years to come. It was a war that would cost precious years of development and innovation in the North American aircraft industry while manufacturers and inventors struggled to free themselves from the grasp of the Wrights patents and their legal actions to protect them.
It would prove ironic that a year prior, Curtiss had offered his services and engines to the Wrights, but they had flatly refused. They preferred to be fiercely independent; history would prove them to be obstinate and litigious in their attempts to corner the aviation industry for themselves.
A Final Flourish
While Curtiss experimented with the AEA and earned his wings, work continued in the motorcycle realm. A serious crash while racing in Rhode Island in 1907 prompted Glenn to give up racing; with aircraft on his mind, this moment would prove to be the beginning of the end of the Curtiss motorcycle story.
1908 saw incremental changes to the line of Curtiss machines. A magneto was offered as a $40 option, while wheels were downsized to 26 inches. A two-speed transmission was tested but never offered for sale. Quoted horsepower was raised to 3 hp for the single and 6 hp for the twin. Curtiss noted "the machines were rated too low anyway", and the "increase" in power was merely on paper and did not reflect any mechanical changes to the engines.
By this point the factory occupied 25,000 square feet and was producing eight motorcycles a day. Vertical integration of the supply chain was a key factor in ensuring Curtiss quality and reliability - they even produced their own spark plugs.
It was in 1909 that one of the most remarkable Curtiss motorcycles was introduced: the W-3 triple. Created by adding a third cylinder to a V-Twin, retaining the 50 degree angle between cylinders, the W-3 was unlike anything created before (or since). If a V-Twin is a pie-slice of a radial engine, the W-3 is 3/5ths of a radial. Rated at 10 horsepower, weighing 175 pounds, and claimed to be capable of 90 miles per hour, the $350 W-3 looked like a winner. Unfortunately, it was plagued with running issues and real-world performance wasn't significantly better than the twin given the steep premium it commanded. It turned out that trying to feed three cylinders with two carburetors (one split between the two front cylinders, the second for the rear cylinder) wasn't the best idea, and rather than refine the machine it was discontinued after only a year.
A new frame, dubbed the Wehman, was introduced to be fitted with uprated 3.5 and 7 hp engines and sold alongside the Cook frame models with 3 and 6 hp engines. Designed by Brooklyn Curtiss distributor Harry Wehman, the new chassis was 17 inches tall with a single top tube and reinforced steering head.
Thus, the Curtiss catalogue was quite full, offering two singles, two twins, and the triple. They also offered a comprehensive series of engines designed for aircraft use, including two air-cooled V8s, one liquid-cooled V8, two air-cooled inline-fours, one liquid-cooled four, two air-cooled singles, and one air-cooled V-Twin.
1909 would also be the first year of aircraft production in Hammondsport. Curtiss' inaugural design, the Golden Flyer, proved to be a resounding success. Curtiss flew the Flyer a world record 24.7 miles; it would be the first of a series of high profile flights which would eventually net Glenn Curtiss three Scientific American prizes, a Gordon Bennett Trophy, and the world's second pilot's license issued after France provided Alberto Santos-Dumont with the first - just to name a few of Curtiss' countless accomplishments in the realm of aviation.
"Like Tennyson's Brook, (Curtiss engines) go on forever." - Curtiss Company Advertisement
March of 1909 saw Curtiss enter into a partnership with aircraft designer Augustus M. Herring, creating the Herring-Curtiss Company. Herring's involvement signaled a shift towards aircraft production in earnest, with employees increasingly devoted to the aeronautical side of production. Herring's choice as partner was based on his claim to having patents on powered aircraft that predated the Wright Brothers' work by several years, potentially securing Curtiss a legal footing to produce his own machines without infringing on the Wright's stranglehold. Herring also brought a lucrative US Army contract for an aircraft he was designing. Capitalized at a substantial $360,000, it looked like Herring-Curtiss would be a winning entry into the nascent American aircraft industry.
"A Powerful Combination of Scientific Principles worked out to the Highest Degree of Mechanical Perfection." - 1910 Herring-Curtiss Catalogue
Or at least it appeared that way until it all went up in smoke.
Shortly after incorporating, it became clear that Herring was a charlatan. His patents were applied for but had never been approved, despite repeated attempts to do so in the US and Europe. His claims to have flown a compressed-air-powered machine in 1898 were dubious at best. And there was no Army contract. Herring-Curtiss declared corporate bankruptcy in an attempt to oust Herring and repurchase the company under Curtiss' control, setting off a legal back-and-forth that would last until the company dissolved in receivership in 1911.
Meanwhile, the H-C motorcycle lineup was simplified for 1910. The W-3 was discontinued, as were the Cook frame options. The V-Twin saw a comprehensive update that included offset cylinders to improve performance and longevity, something the other American V-Twin manufacturers would never bother to do. Automatic drip feed lubrication was installed using a float valve in the sump to control the level of oil in the crankcase, fed from the oil tank in the unpressurized splash system.
With ten aircraft now under construction in the Curtiss workshops, 1910 would prove to be the final year of Curtiss-branded motorcycles as the marque was transitioned to a new home, with a new name.
A True Marvel
Glenn Curtiss became director of the Marvel Motorcycle Company in the summer of 1909, with C. Leonard Waters serving as company manager. It would operate independently of Herring-Curtiss in a facility adjacent to the H-C works. Thus, H-C would refocus their efforts on aircraft production while Marvel would take over the motorcycle arm of the Curtiss business.
The predecessor to Marvel had been founded by Waters in Buffalo, New York in 1905 as the Motor Bicycle Equipment Supply Company (MESCO). Waters had entered the motorcycle industry with a series of bicycle conversion kits, which he later marketed as a complete motorcycle dubbed the Erie. A native of Hammondsport, Waters returned to the town in 1906 and continued selling the Erie with a series of design improvements courtesy of the Curtiss Company.
The Erie would be sold until 1909, by which time it sported a 3.5 horsepower engine (provided by Curtiss) and the option of a two-speed planetary transmission. After the Curtiss takeover, the Erie was replaced by the Marvel Model Four. The Model Four would prove to be the ultimate Curtiss motorcycle, and one of the most advanced motorcycles in the world upon its introduction in 1910.
The engine was a clean-sheet design that abandoned the inlet over exhaust heads of all previous Curtiss machines. A 500cc single, it used an iron cylinder with integral head casting, containing a hemispherical combustion chamber with two 1.69 inch overhead valves. The valves were operated by a single push-pull rod linked to an overhead rocker arm; when the cam pushed the rod up it opened the exhaust, when it pulled down it opened the intake. A Bosch magneto supplied ignition, while a Heitger carburetor supplied fuel. Output was a class-leading 5 horsepower, sent direct to the rear wheel via leather V-belt drive.
The Marvel marked the introduction of overhead valve technology to motorcycles. Competitors wouldn't switch to this superior system until the 1920s in their racing machines - 1930s for production motorcycles. In 1910 this was the bleeding edge of engine design.
The chassis of the Marvel was as impressive as the engine. Designed by C.P. Rudd, the 58 inch wheelbase frame used a 5 inch diameter top tube that doubled as a fuel tank, and a 4 inch diameter rear tube serving as the oil tank. These tanks were brazed to cast fixtures that supported the steering head and tube junctions. The engine was suspended between the front doubled down tube and rear tube, with the crankcases serving as a stressed member between the two.
The 1911 Marvel catalogue listed the Model Four at $225, with the outgoing IOE Curtiss single still available as the Model O for $175. No V-Twins were offered. A Curtiss designed sprung fork became standard on the Model Four in its second year; options included a passenger seat for $12, a sidecar for $50, an Eclipse freewheel pulley for $15, and an N.S.U. two speed gearbox (no price recorded).
Despite these promising beginnings, the Marvel Company began to unravel quickly. A failed attempt at merging Curtiss and Marvel amidst the ongoing Herring-Curtiss debacle ended with Marvel suspending production and motorcycle production moving back to the Curtiss factory. Here, motorcycles did not receive the attention they deserved, taking a backseat to ongoing aircraft production and development.
1911 models were produced through 1912 with no changes.
By July, 1913, all motorcycle production was suspended. In the fall of 1913, the motorcycle factory equipment was offered for sale as a lot - all tooling, jigs, and spare parts were advertised by Curtiss as the "rapid increase of our aeronautical business requires our entire room and attention."
Thus, the storied Curtiss motorcycle empire ended with a whimper, after the production facilities were shuffled around and kicked into a corner while everyone was focused on building airplanes.
"We had a front row seat in the motorcycle business when aviation came along and pushed the business out the back door." - Harry Genung
The End, The Beginning
Glenn Curtiss' success in aviation was the undoing of his legacy in motorcycling. His contributions to the sport and skills as a rider became, at best, a footnote to his meteoric rise though the aviation industry. His motorcycles are best remembered as precursors to his aircraft engines, rather than as superb machines that outclassed all their competition in the United States at the time.
For Glenn Curtiss airplanes were just his latest challenge, a new series of problems to solve and ideas to bring to fruition. He applied himself fully to the task of creating the best aircraft possible at the time, just as he had taken on the task of creating the best bicycles, the best motorcycles, and the best engines. He was an innovator of the highest order, one who always sought the next challenge, the next victory, quickly forgetting the successes of the past to focus on what was to come next. After all: one's best work is always the next success, not the last.
"I used to resent being called an inventor. An inventor, as people in country towns thought of him, was a wild-eyed, impractical person, with ideas that wouldn't work. Perhaps I got some of that impression from J.T. Trowbridge's poem 'Darius Green and his Flying Machine.' My grandmother knew Mr. Trowbridge very well, and used to recite that poem to me as far back as I can remember. Inventors didn't stand very high in rural communities. I'm more or less reconciled now to being called one, though I've always felt that I was a developer rather than an inventor." - Glenn Curtiss
He remained at the forefront of technology and American innovation until his untimely death on July 23rd, 1930. He suffered an attack of appendicitis while facing his old partner Augustus Herring in a Rochester courtroom. He was 52 years old.
" 'For the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men' reads the inscription on the pound of pure gold which the Smithsonian Institution gave him a dozen years ago and more, the Langley Medal for Aerodromics awarded to him first of all Americans. That pretty nearly sums up the story of his contribution to the science and art of flying. Others practiced flying in secret; he invited the whole world to see him fly, to fly with him, showed them how it was done, taught them how to do it." - Popular Science, March 1927