Words by Kip Woodring
Photos courtesy of Glenn H. Curtiss Museum
The first American V-Twin engine wasn’t built by Harley or Davidson or Hendee or Hedstrom. It was built by Glenn Curtiss, a record-setting pioneer of speed on two wheels and in flight. He also built the first American V-8 motor, which launched him to 136 mph on a motorcycle of his own design way back in 1907.
Curtiss had several notable nicknames bestowed upon him, including “Hell-Rider” and “Fastest Man on Earth,” but he was first and foremost a motor man, proving it in motorcycles and in aviation.
To build a motorcycle in 1899, Curtiss needed to fabricate the cycle part and use an available motor (E.R. Thomas), but he immediately realized he could do better. Using his own castings and pioneering a ball-bearing design, he created a single-cylinder engine in 1901 more advanced than any in America. He began selling his motorcycles in 1902 under the Hercules brand.
The logical step to a V-Twin soon followed. To prove his new machine’s worth, Curtiss rode it to a speed record of 64 mph in 1903, years before other manufacturers had a Twin.
His skill and ability with motors caught the imagination of early aviation fans, and one of his 9-horsepower V-Twins powered a dirigible to a distance and altitude record in 1904. Later, Curtiss developed a 269-cubic-inch V-8 for aircraft use.
The New York native’s most famous feat took place early in 1907 at Ormond Beach, Florida, when he rode his built-from-scratch motorcycle powered by the aforementioned V-8 to 136.26 mph, then as now the only motorcycle to ever hold the absolute speed record. The achievement earned Curtiss a spot in Alexander Graham Bell’s think tank for aircraft.
Curtiss was a fearless but rational rider, and his engineering prowess enabled him to create his own engines and build his own chassis designed to cover more ground in less time than was thought possible. He even fashioned his own protective clothing, including a leather helmet.
His Hercules motorcycle brand was discontinued in 1904 due to a copyright dispute, so he simply changed it to his own surname, Curtiss, a name that would also thrive in early aviation history.
The third brand name for Curtiss-built motorcycles, Marvel, was touted for its futuristic chassis and hot-rod powerplant with high-tech overhead valves, and it was sold alongside the standard Curtiss for a few years. But competition from dozens of other brands (including two still with us today) and Curtiss’ burgeoning aircraft interests meant the end of the road for his two-wheelers in 1912.
Incredibly, Curtiss’ 136-mph motorcycle speed record from 1907 lasted for 23 years. He still held the motorcycle speed record at the time of his death in 1930, at the age of 52, and it was only surpassed (by less than one mile per hour) by a supercharged OEC-Temple JAP a few months later.
Curtiss also held the first pilot’s license in America, a few dozen patents, and the respect of every lover of engines, flight, and pure speed all over the world. A Hell-Rider to the end!