Written by Jason Cormier
How do you distinguish yourself among a sea of derivative designs? How do you propose a new concept in a traditionally conservative industry that has historically been resistant to change? How do you seek to buck the culture of negativity that defines motorcycling and introduce a new series of responsible principles towards a friendlier, more sustainable future?
These may seem like broad and high-minded questions, but these problems lie at the core of the concepts that Curtiss seeks to espouse through the practice of building the highest quality motorcycles on the market today. Curtiss’ goal is not to build another electric motorcycle, nor is it to simply ride on the coat tails of a green revolution in the making. Curtiss’ goal is to build the best motorcycle, period.
After a series of false starts, it became clear that the only way to achieve this lofty goal was to use the latest in electric powertrain technology, mated to timeless design informed by decades of experience in pushing the boundaries of motorcycle aesthetics, performance, and engineering. This is how Curtiss has emerged as the leader in EV motorcycle design, and how Curtiss distinguishes itself from a plethora of uninspired competitors.
The Beginning of the End of Internal Combustion
To understand the principles that drive Curtiss today, we need to step back to the waning years of Confederate Motorcycles under the leadership of Curtiss CEO, H. Matthew Chambers. The conclusion that Curtiss needed to be an electric motorcycle company was not immediately self-evident, but as time passed it became clear that the only way forward in the motorcycle market was to embrace an electric future.
In 2013, famed South African designer, Pierre Terblanche, was hired by Confederate to revamp their lineup and inject fresh energy into the company’s portfolio. While at Confederate, Terblanche experimented with conceptual electric designs in the company’s inimitable style; a shift to electric propulsion and the benefits offered to a designer by EV technology was a line of thinking that Terblanche had been pursuing for some time, but had not yet made metal.
Discussions of the possibilities offered by electric propulsion and the associated concepts sketched by Terblanche piqued Chambers’ curiosity. At the time it seemed to be an intriguing idea, but for that moment, Confederate would remain an internal combustion company. The Confederate legacy, both as a motorcycle company and as a cultural idea, was inexorably rooted in air-cooled American V-Twins, aggressive design, and American rebel culture.
The development of what aimed to be the ultimate Confederate machine, the P51, soon exposed the growing limitations of internal combustion development. Chambers sought a target of 200 horsepower from the P51’s S&S X-Wedge engine, without resorting to power-adders or a change in engine architecture. Contracts were tendered with aftermarket suppliers and tuners to achieve this goal, at great expense to the company.
The results were disappointing. Only 165 hp could be mustered despite lofty promises and significant expense. And the resulting engine was pushing the boundaries of rideability, reliability and cooling capacity. In short, it was too much to ask despite falling far short of the goal.
Chambers began to realize that the limits were being reached with internal combustion. The possibilities of electric power that Terblanche had recognized suddenly appeared quite appealing.
Thus, in 2015, Curtiss was born.
Why Glenn H. Curtiss?
To adapt to the future, a new concept and a new company with its own unique legacy would be required. Confederate was a sort of high-concept tuning company using American V-Twin clone powerplants mated to upgraded components. It was a legacy that was intimately tied to the past and to the products of others, an evolution of the work done by other companies. A clean break from this past would be required to look forward and introduce true innovation to the motorcycle market.
It must be acknowledged that the cultural connotations of the name “Confederate” were also a challenge for widespread acceptance. What was once a deliberate poke in the eye of convention and a celebration of rebel culture now had connotations of political division that turned away many potential buyers. To be a Confederate was a distasteful claim to make in modern American society, and it was time for a shift to more genuine, long-term American values.
The legacy of American innovator Glenn H. Curtiss was an appealing prospect. While he has always been best remembered for his contributions to aviation, Curtiss was first and foremost the leader of American motorcycling in the earliest days of the sport. His history as one of the greatest American motorcyclists has long been overshadowed by his later accomplishments.
Taking on Curtiss as the company’s namesake was not accidental or contrived. Curtiss spent his life innovating and pushing the boundaries of every enterprise he participated in. He was self-taught and quietly brilliant, always willing to accept a new challenge and never one to limit himself following the status quo. He was a leader of early-20th century American exceptionalism, a man who espoused the positive advancement of technology to benefit all humankind. If he were alive today, he would not hesitate to adopt the cutting-edge of technology; he spent his short 52 years on this Earth doing just that.
Changing the Culture, The Hot Rod, and the Gentleman
With this rich legacy and history to build upon, the question became what principles shall this new Curtiss company espouse that would honor its namesake and differentiate it from its rivals?
Rebellion and hot-rod American outlaw culture, the ideas that drove Confederate, would clearly not do; simply building an electric Confederate was not going to work. Rebellion was owned and patented wholesale by the major American brands, its meaning lost and its legacy muddled by Wall Street and Madison Avenue. What was needed was something fresh, intelligent and genuine to distinguish Curtiss from the rabble.
Motorcycling has historically been viewed as a ruffian pursuit. It was a populist sport for rough men who were appealed to with macho, sexist imagery. For decades, motorcycling has been presented as deliberately intimidating and dangerous, an appeal to reptilian desires and invincible youth. How could Curtiss break this cycle of destructive, insular attitudes that close ranks and make motorcycling a hobby of limited appeal?
The other challenge was how to position Curtiss within the EV market. While electric motorcycles are becoming increasingly popular, there remains a lack of identity among the offerings available today. Beyond simply being powered by electric motors, they have no distinguishing characteristics from traditional motorcycles, or even from each other. Their values are vague, their products derivative, their designs unimaginative. How can a small company make inroads into this territory and distinguish themselves from the competition?
The short answer is to take inspiration from Glenn H. Curtiss and be someone who embraces the future. To that end, we submit the following:
The trope of the dangerous, obnoxious outlaw motorcyclist is outdated and irrelevant in modern society. The world requires intelligent, progressive women and men who embrace the future, rather than defer to the past. These individuals reject machismo and foolish bravado. They are individuals of quiet confidence who have nothing to prove; they seek only to satisfy their own desire for freedom and the challenges they set for themselves.
The Curtiss motorcycle shall espouse this ideal. It shall be a timeless design built to the highest standards for a discerning clientele who seek to own the finest motorcycle on the market. Performance and poise shall be self-evident; quality, artistry, craftsmanship, and design are the distinguishing features of a Curtiss motorcycle.
The Curtiss motorcycle shall be an inviting machine that begs to be ridden by anyone who chooses to adopt the sport. It will not be daunting to ride, nor will it be perverted by any fantasies of danger. It will represent safe, fun, comfortable, and responsible motorcycling.
These principles have long been held as mutually exclusive to the success of a motorcycle; Curtiss aims to prove that those traditional attitudes are exclusionary, and that a high-performance motorcycle can indeed be an object that promotes joy and freedom, rather than intimidation and fear.
Classic Proportions, Timeless Aesthetics
The approachability of the Curtiss-1 is a product of its design, courtesy of renowned American designer JT Nesbitt; the Curtiss-1 exhibits classical proportions that put the rider ergonomics at the fore, rather than as an after-thought dictated by the placement of components.
This is not a new concept, but it is a principle that has been lost in the last 60 years of motorcycle evolution. The motorcycles of the first half of the 20th century were slender, delicately proportioned, and easy to maneuver. While they lacked the technology and performance we take for granted today, their function was intimately tied to the comfort of the rider. The model for the placement of the seat and controls was one that had existed for centuries: the saddle of a horse.
From the 1960s onward, motorcycles have grown significantly in their girth, length, height, and their physical and visual mass. The airy proportions of early machines gave way to superfluous bodywork and increasingly compromised ergonomics. Progressively compartmentalized and fractured niches within the market dictated how comfortable the rider would be - or not be.
A rider today is likely to be perched precariously above an ungainly machine that forces him or her to conform to the compromises of the design, and to learn how the machine must be controlled. It is intimidating and inspires trepidation from any rider the first time they swing a leg over an unfamiliar machine. Most motorcycles today are not designed to be controlled effortlessly and intuitively, they merely adopt the conventions their competitors have perpetuated.
Machines that claim to take inspiration from the past are generally overweight, oversized 11/10ths facsimiles that pay “retro” lip service to visual cues without understanding the design and proportions that created those forms. These retro machines are patently inauthentic as a result.
A Curtiss-1 is slim, visually and physically, light, and has neutral ergonomics that promote an effortless rider-machine interface. Curtiss makes ergonomic comfort a significant priority because comfort leads to confidence, and confidence improves control. A Curtiss is not intimidating because it looks and feels natural to a rider. There do not need to be any compromises in this interface, because the packaging possibilities of an electric motorcycle allows a return to classic proportions without resorting to a faux retro pastiche that panders to nostalgia in a vain attempt to hide modern components.
Curtiss design is timeless because it is intelligent, natural, and cohesive - not because it apes some bygone machine.
Heirloom Quality, Future-Proofed
The choice of an electric powertrain to power the Curtiss-1 is not a decision driven by trends, nor is it a purely ecological choice. It is a choice made based on the fact that the modern electric motor is the ideal solution for powering a motorcycle. The simplicity offered by electric components is a designer’s dream; you have an unparalleled torque-to-weight ratio in a remarkably compact package, and you can eliminate a whole chain of ancillary components.
There is no need for a gearbox or clutch, no fuel tank or pumps, no radiator, no air box or intake, nor do you need any of the hardware, controls or plumbing associated with these items. You can position the components into their most ideal arrangements within the chassis for perfect weight distribution, suspension geometry, and rider comfort. This doesn’t mention the elimination of the traditional maintenance requirements of an internal combustion engine like oil changes, air filters, spark plugs, valve adjustments, et cetera. In short: adopting electric allows you to eliminate a whole series of compromises that have dogged motorcycle design since the earliest days of the sport.
Moreover, the modular nature of electric components opens up the possibility of future-proofing the design by offering effortless upgrades and modifications. The Curtiss-1 is designed with upgrades in mind, with components that are easy to exchange, a chassis that is adjustable in every facet of its geometry, and over-the-air software update capabilities. Thus, a Curtiss-1 will never be obsolete, an important consideration in an EV market that is constantly evolving with the rapid advancement of technology. For example, the battery pack of the Curtiss-1 is fully contained within a modular cell that can be easily unbolted and replaced in minutes, should batteries of greater density become available at a later date.
In the earliest days of development, Curtiss turned to current EV powertrain companies, seeking a ready-made solution to powering Curtiss motorcycles. It rapidly became apparent that existing solutions were severely compromised, making use of off-the-shelf components that were expedient and inexpensive, but ill-suited to the demands of a motorcycle design. It became clear that it would be better to start from a clean slate and develop a Curtiss powertrain from scratch, rather than try to source one from an existing manufacturer. Thus, the Curtiss-1 makes use of a unique axial flux motor. While not a new technology, this is the first application of an axial motor in a production motorcycle and represents a patent-pending solution to powering a new generation of electric machines, free of the compromises required by traditional, bulky radial flux motors. Weighing 40 pounds and contained within a 4-by-16 inch housing, this motor is capable of generating up to 217 horsepower and 272 lb-ft of torque. To maintain range, cooling, and control, the peak power in the Curtiss-1 is limited to 120 horsepower and 147 lb-ft.
Curtiss machines are designed, engineered and built to be heirloom quality machines. They are not disposable vehicles that will be superseded by the next model cycle. They are built to the highest standards with the best components and are designed to be effortlessly upgraded as better technology becomes available. Built from billet aluminum, carbon fiber, stainless steel, and titanium, no component of a Curtiss motorcycle is subject to cost cutting.
A Curtiss will not generate envy for its flash or bravado: it will generate respect for its peerless quality, timeless design, and the responsible image it projects.
Thus, the owner of a Curtiss can be assured that their motorcycle will never be obsolete, will never wear out, and will never be made irrelevant by the release of a future model. It is not an art piece or a machine chasing EV trends, it is a motorcycle designed and built to be ridden, and ridden for decades to come. It is presented as an easily approached, responsible, pure, and confident form of motorcycling that offers freedom without pretense.
This, Curtiss believes, is the future of motorcycling.