If you were asked to define a swashbuckling life, what would that include?  How about motorcycle racing, wing-walking, car racing, working an international carnival circuit, piloting experimental planes, and manufacturing the winningest aero racing engines of the 1930s?  There’s only one man with such a resumé: Albert Menasco.  And yet, I’d never heard of him until Dr. Robin Tuluie (see our article ‘Actually it IS Rocket Science’) introduced me to the name via the 1928-ish aero-engine race car he’d built using a Menasco engine, but more on that anon. Curiosity about Menasco revealed he was a quintessentially adventurous American in the ‘Teens, a motor-showman when a cocktail of unbridled enthusiasm, innocence and technical know-how would typically end with you famous, dead, or famously dead.   Menasco somehow walked the middle way, and ended as neither, while his legacy and impact continue to this day, nearly unheralded.

Albert Menasco at age 15, on his 1912 ride from LA to San Francisco with his 1911 American: a single-cylinder F-head with 550cc and direct belt drive – a very rare machine, as the brand was only in business 1911-14. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
Menasco started life as a truant and a rascal. Born in Los Angeles on 17 March 1897, his early life was troubled: he suffered a gunshot wound to his stomach while very young, and his mother was dead by age 5. His father generously responded to this trauma by sending Albert to an orphanage, where he was soon noted for his resistance to authority and dedicated truancy, doing his best to avoid elementary school altogether.  His father reeled him in after six years, to which Albert responded by running away, landing him a stint in Juvenile Hall in 1908. The following year his older brother Milton took him in, and in 1910 Albert entered Manual Arts High School, as he was already showing signs of mechanical aptitude.

A photographic composite of the various aircraft attending the first air meet in the USA, the 1910 Los Angeles International Air Meet held at Dominguez Field in LA. [The Vintagent Archive]
Albert grew obsessed with aviation just in time for first great air show in the USA , held right in LA: the 1910 Los Angeles International Air Meet. The L.A. meet was among the earliest air shows in the world, and included luminaries like Glenn H. Curtiss, Louis Paulhan, and Lincoln Beachy, who flew a dirigible but would shortly become the most famous aviator in the USA. The Wright brothers did not attend, but their lawyers did, attempting to enforce their wing-warping patent (a primitive form of aileron), and Paulhan in particular paid dearly for his attendance, in court. Albert Menasco insinuated himself as a tool boy for the flyers. In 1912 took a job as machinist at L.A. truck manufacturer F.L.Moore, while finishing his education with night classes.

Lincoln Beachy and his one-man dirigible at the 1910 air meet. The airship is powered by a Curtiss V-twin motor, and the attitude of the airship is altered by the ‘pilot’ moving forward and back on the railings slung beneath, while the rudder changes the direction. Brave man! The fate of Albert Menasco would be tied to Beachy’s in 5 years… [The Vintagent Archive]
Menasco’s inclinations turned to motorcycles that year. His first machine was the rare ‘American’ brand, a typically Edwardian single-cylinder, single-speed machine with an inlet-over-exhaust motor and a belt drive. Menasco rode this simple machine from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 1912. Not having the benefit of Roman conquest, there were no highways in the wilds of California at the time: what paths existed were for horses. For a 15-year old to ride a single-speed, clutchless 4hp motorcycle for 900 miles (assuming he made a round trip), over a trackless wilderness, and succeed, speaks volumes about both his grit and mechanical ability.

Menasco with his American motorcycle, converted for racing with an OHV top end (probably from a Pope), retaining the frame and forks but adding dropped racing handlebars. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
Menasco opened a mechanic’s shop by age 16, and leaped into motorcycle racing.  He appears in 1913/14 on a home-made dirt track racer with a Pope overhead-valve cylinder head and sprung front forks cannibalized from his American.  The thrill of racing enticed him, but no mention of Menasco appeared in the winner’s lists. By 1914 he seems to have joined in the short-lived California craze of Baby Car racing. These were miniature racing cars powered by single- and twin-cylinder motorcycle engines, presented as shrunken replicas of famous Grand Prix cars of the era. Their light construction and powerful engines made them capable of terrific speeds for the era, at relatively low cost. The first Baby Car races were held in Los Angeles at the Ascot Park and Culver City tracks, there was even a Junior Car Championship that year.  And it was Baby Car racing that connected Albert Menasco with a spectacular young pilot by the name of ‘Bird Boy’ Art Smith.

‘An embryo aviator’.  The young Albert Menasco circa 1915, when Art Smith taught him how to fly. Here he sits the replica Curtiss pusher aircraft that Art Smith built using a Curtiss V8 OHV motor, of the type Curtiss famously rode at Ormond/Daytona beach to a (reputed) 136mph in 1906. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
Art Smith was born in 1890 in Ft Wayne Indiana, and was a born daredevil and showman. He built a tall wooden ramp in his backyard that led to a large jump over which Smith flew…on roller skates.  ‘Jumping the gap’ was an Evel Knievel stunt on very small wheels, and carnivals sought him out with offers of good pay, but his parents did not approve the ‘carny’ life.  Smith was also fascinated with aviation, amassing a library of extant literature and building three functional scale model airplanes. Amazingly, 19-year old Art convinced his parents to mortgage their home (for $1800) so he could build an airplane.  His pattern was Glenn Curtiss’ ‘Gold Bug’ pusher biplane, and Smith bought a Curtiss A4 air-cooled inline four to power it.  Smith’s cabinetmaker father, despite failing eyesight, made the plane’s wooden struts, while his mother sewed up the fabric skin. When it was finished, Smith hopped in and flew the thing, but crashed due to an imbalance in the layout.   He rebuilt his plane along the lines of Lincoln Beachy’s ‘headless’ Curtiss, the first plane modified for aerobatics.  Lincoln Beachy was the most famous pilot in the USA, earning a significant income from flying demonstrations and daredevilry, which was Smith’s goal.

The finale of Art Smith’s run of demonstration stunt flights at the Panama Pacific International Exhibition (PPIE) in 1915, with flares attached to his wingtips, making one heck of a sight in the night sky above the temporary city in San Francisco. [The Vintagent Archive]
In 1915, all roads led to the Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) in San Francisco. It was to be the grandest World’s Fair yet, with a glamorous Beaux Arts ‘jewel city’ constructed atop 635 acres of former beachfront. The PPIE included evening light shows, car races, airplane tricks by Lincoln Beachy, a sprawling fun fair called the Zone, and enormous halls displaying the latest in industry and culture.  Beachy demonstrated the scale of the Hall of Machinery by taking off, flying and landing within it, the first indoor flight.  The automobile racing included both a Vanderbilt Cup and a Grand Prize, with supporting races by Baby Cars for the Junior Vanderbilt and GP.  Art Smith commissioned the San Francisco Harley-Davidson dealer Dudley Perkins to build him a fleet of five cars, each with different bodywork that mimicked the Mercedes, Peugeot, Fiat, Stutz, and Marmon racers then dominating the GP circuit.  Each car cost $400, and was powered by a Harley-Davidson J-series V-twin motor. The cars were capable of over 60mph, which given their diminutive scale, probably felt like rocketry to drivers and audiences alike. Albert Menasco both raced and maintained Smith’s cars.

The Baby Car craze at the PPIE: Art Smith drives, while Al Menasco wrenches. Five cars were built to special order by San Francisco Harley-Davidson dealer Dudley Perkins, powered by J-series V-twins: each car body mimicked the most famous GP racers of the day, in miniature. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
Our heroes’ fortunes changed three weeks after the opening of the PPIE, when Lincoln Beachy surpassed the wing-load of his monoplane during a dive and plunged directly into San Francisco Bay. He survived the crash but drowned anyway in the time it took to extract him from the water.  So, sans Beachey, the PPIE was left without its star attraction, until someone remembered that Art Smith, already famous as a stunt pilot, was on hand with his Baby Cars.  Whether Smith already had his plane in San Francisco isn’t noted, but he was soon wowing crowds day and night with his biplane, which had been upgraded with a 90hp Curtiss OX water-cooled V-8. Smith’s star rose dramatically at the PPIE, thrilling 18 million attendees with stunning loops, spins, and low flyovers, plus night flights with magnesium flares on his wingtips, accompanied by the colored searchlights of the Rainbow Scintillator (see our article here).

Art Smith’s Baby Car équipe, with car bodies mimicking famous GP racers of the day. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
News of Smith’s prowess circled the globe leading to an invitation from Emperor Yoshihito of Japan for an Imperial audience in 1916.  This opportunity metastasized into a months-long tour of Japan, Korea, and China. Their show had an enormous impact, and their daily audience was at times 200,000 or more. Tokyo author Tayama Katai wrote in 1917: “When Smith came, and looped the loop despite the awfully windy conditions, the whole metropolis gasped in wonder. I was watching from the gate at the back of the garden. I never believed he’d be able to do anything, because of the wind. But just then the stormy sky was filled with a frightful droning. The aeroplane appeared way up high, looking so very small and leaving a trail of wispy blue smoke. ‘He’s good all right!’ I thought to myself, and just at that moment he suddenly put the aeroplane through two or three large loops and then flew right up high again. I found myself applauding.” One such gaping youth was Soichiro Honda, who stole his father’s bicycle and rode 20 miles to catch Smith’s Tokyo exhibition. He could not afford entry to the show, so watched from a tree, and in his autobiography credited Smith with igniting his passion for engineering and mechanics.

Details of the Baby Car construction: a pair of wooden frame rails supporting a Harley-Davidson J motor with full-race Schebler carburetor, minimal steering gear, and no suspension, with a two-speed chain drive via twin chains, a sliding dog engagement, and a clutch. Simple and no doubt very quick. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
Albert Menasco had become, despite his parents’ wishes, a full-fledge ‘carny’ in the most spectacular traveling motor show on earth. Menasco’s notes give little impression of the joys and difficulties they encountered, but others on the same circuit put pen to hand: I highly recommend Carl Leon Terrell’s 1946 epic ‘Seven Naked Women in a Tokyo Jail’, recounting his 1920s Asian tour on a near-identical route. Terrell’s game was a Wall of Death motordrome, but his famously beautiful ‘fat lady’ wife proved the most popular attraction of all.

The end of the tour: Art Smith crashed his plane in Japan and broke a leg, without further injury except for his destroyed plane.  Note the Curtiss V8 watercooled motor. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
Despite Smith ending their 1916 tour with a flourish, crashing the plane and breaking a leg, the team did it all over again in 1917. Menasco had spent enough time under Smith’s wing to become a pilot himself, and even tested a lovely Morane-Saulnier Model H in Japan.  The disaster ending their tour this time was in Europe, and in April 1917 Menasco and Smith went home to be military pilots, but were roundly rejected by the US Navy, Army Signal Corps, and even Canadian Royal Flying Corps. Menasco had a perforated eardrum, and Smith, possibly the finest living aviator, was sub-height at only 5’ 3”!  Smith ended up training pilots, while Menasco became a civilian aeronautical engineer, testing engines and training young mechanics.

The Morane-Saulnier Model H monoplane that replaced the Curtiss replica: the latest thing with wings! [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
After WW1, Smith became one of the original US Post Office airmail pilots. He met his end not performing a loop or a falling-leaf spin, but on a mail run in 1926. Menasco had returned to California after the war, taking a variety of jobs, but was pushed back into aviation after Smith’s death when he was tasked with selling the estate.  That included 250 Salmson Z-9 watercooled 230hp radials, rendered instantly obsolete by the end of the war.  Menasco felt he could upgrade the motors and sell them, so took on a financial partner, and marketed the improved Menasco-Salmson B2. He sold fifty, but in 1928 the new Approved Type Certificate (ATC) for aircraft engines required 50 hours of continuous running, and after wrecking five B2 engines, Menasco pulled them from the market.

The Menasco Motors display stand at an aero show in the early 1930s, with the all-conquering Menasco Pirate engine on display. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
The end of the B2 was the start of Menasco Motors, as Albert designed a new series of engines with an unusual inverted four-cylinder layout. The first Menasco Pirate motor (the 90hp A4) was running by 1929, and after his B2 testing fiasco, Albert would not submit his engines for ATC approval until they showed 125% of rated power for 100 hours.  Adhering to this standard, Menasco Motors sailed through seven successful ATC applications for their inverted motors, which was unprecedented.  The factory also built supercharged engines for racing, which proved to be giant-killers, and among the most successful aero racing engines of the 1930s. Still, Menasco Motors struggled through the Depression, losing money every year until 1941, when military contracts began.  They didn’t want Menasco’s motors, only their sophisticated machine shop to build hydraulic landing gear for P-38 Lightnings and other fighters. The factory eventually built 80,000 landing gear sets during the war, and carried on building them for commercial airliners afterwards. Albert Menasco retreated from management of his business in 1938, finding the constant struggle for cash too stressful, but was still alive to watch the Space Shuttle touch earth on Menasco landing gear.

Dr. Robin Tuluie, 3-time Daytona winner on home-made motorcycles, 4-time World Grand Prix Championship chassis designer, here competing in his ‘hobby’ car, the Menasco Pirate, named for its aero engine. [VSCC]
The most popular Menasco aero engine was the C4 Pirate with 5.9L and 125hp. That’s what Dr. Robin Tuluie found in San Diego when searching out a suitable aero engine for his vintage race car, built around a 1928 Riley chassis: as Menasco built prototypes of the C4 motor in 1928, it seemed a perfect match. The C4 has proven to be as effective a racing motor on wheels as on wings, with Tuluie garnering race wins with his home-built car, called, naturally, the Menasco Pirate.  A fitting tribute to a remarkable fellow.

What Soichiro Honda saw: the first experience of many Japanese seeing an aircraft in flight on home soil. The show that launched a motoring career! [The Vintagent Archive]
Taking a break after packing up their traveling show: ‘Val, Vic, Al, & Art.’ [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
1915 might as well have been 1815, or 1715. Native dress in Korea, during the extensive Asia tour of Art Smith’s carnival. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
Loading up a Baby Car aboard one of the many ships used to circulate Asia before WW1 broke out. Note twin chains for 2-speed drive, and no differential for maximum sliding fun. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
Cruising the dirt lanes of Tokyo in a trio of racing cars, which is how they traveled from town to town! [San Diego Air & Space Museum]

[This article originally appeared in The Automobile magazine, the July 2021 edition.  Special thanks to the San Diego Air & Space Museum for permission to dig into the Albert Menasco archives, and reproduce many of the remarkable photos used here.]
Paul d’Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.


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