Words: Paul d’Orléans.  Article and Photo: Scientific American

The life story of Glenn H. Curtiss, founder of the American aviation industry and a pioneer motorcycle manufacturer, is peppered with tales of bravery and mechanical inspiration.  Curtiss was also no stranger to controversy, as his years-long legal battles with the Wright brothers over their airframe patents did more to impede the progress of the pioneering aviation industry than even technical hurdles!  It was all sorted in the end when Curtiss-Wright Aviation was formed in 1929, although aircraft historians still argue ‘who did what first’ regarding the birth of flight. Another, lesser controversy concerns Curtiss’ 1906 speed run on Ormond Beach, Florida, which contemporary accounts claimed reached a one-way speed of 136.3mph.  Curtiss used a V-8 engine of his own design and manufacture, housed in the world’s first double-loop chassis of his own construction, to tear across the wet sand at Ormond, although as the article below notes, this was not an officially timed speed run.  So the question will forever hang, until someone drags the V-8 racer out of the Smithsonian Institution to see what she’ll do!

Glenn H. Curtiss tending to his V-8 monster at Ormond Beach, Florida in 1906.

Scientific American, Volume 96, Number 06 (February 1906)

The Fastest and Most Powerful American Bicycle

“What is unquestionably the most powerful, as well as the fastest, motor bicycle ever built in this country made its appearance at the races at Ormond Beach recently; but, owing to the breaking of a universal joint and subsequent buckling of the frame, this machine made no official record. It was built by Mr. G.H. Curtiss, a well known motor-bicycle maker, with the idea of breaking all records. The machine was fitted with an 8-cylinder air-cooled V-motor of 36-40 horse-power. The motor was placed with the crankshaft running lengthwise of the bicycle and connected to the driving shaft through a double universal joint. A large bevel gar on this shaft meshed with a similar one on the rear wheel of the bicycle.  The total weight of the complete machine was but 275 pounds, or 6.8 pounds per horse-power.”

“In an unofficial mile test, timed by stop watches from the start by several persons who watched through field glasses a flag waved at the finish, Mr. Curtiss is said to have covered this distance in 26 2-5 seconds, which would be at the rate of 136.3 miles an hour – a faster speed than has ever been made before by a man on any type of vehicle. Unfortunately, before this new mile record could be corroborated by an official test, the universal joint broke while the machine was going 90 miles an hour. Fortunately, it was brought to a stop without injury to its daring rider from the rapidly-revolving driving shaft, which was thrashing about in a dangerous manner. Later on, the frame buckled, throwing the gears out of line, and the official test had to be abandoned. With his 2-cylinder machine Curtiss rode a mile in 46 2-5 seconds in a race with Wray on a 2-cylinder 14 horse-power Peugeot motor bicycle, only to be beaten 2 seconds by the latter in a subsequent race, wherein a speed of about 80 ½ miles an hour was obtained. With one of his single-cylinder machines Curtiss made a mile in 1 minute 5 3-5 seconds on January 21.”

The remarkable Curtiss V-8 today, as housed in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. The engine was intended to power dirigibles, and could be ordered in many capacities and power ratings from Curtiss.