Glenn Curtiss is universally renowned as one of the foremost pioneers in U.S.
aviation. Lesser known are his significant contributions to the world of motorcycling. Curtiss was one of the most famous makers of motorcycles during the first decade of motorcycling. His creations were renowned for speed and innovation. Curtiss himself was one of the top motorcycle racers during the early days of the sport and became famous for setting speed records.
Born in 1878, in Hammondsport, New York, Curtiss started out building engines
for bicycles, and then complete motorcycles. He became an expert motorcycle
racer. In September of 1902, a Curtiss-built machine set the fastest time of all "regular stock or road machines" at the New York Motorcycle Club road race. In May of 1903, Curtiss was the winning rider at the first American hillclimb, also run by the New York Motorcycle Club. The race, conducted on public roads, was similar to the European TT races, such as those on the Isle of Man.
Starting in 1904, Curtiss made his first trip to Florida to compete in the Ormond Beach speed runs. That year he set a 10-mile record of 8:54.4 (67.3 mph), a record that would stand for four years.
Curtiss' most famous speed run came in 1907 when he became the fastest man on earth by running a prototype motorcycle at Ormond Beach to a record speed of 136.3 mph. That motorcycle was powered by an experimental V-8 aircraft engine (of Curtiss' own design) mounted in a specially built elongated frame. The engine was so powerful it was feared that it would tear itself from the frame under full throttle. His bike was towed up to 40 mph before running under its own power. The drive shaft did break on the record-setting run and a follow-up run could not be completed, so the speed was not officially recognized. However, Curtiss' prototype motorcycle was considered the fastest vehicle of any type for the next four years. A motorcycle would not go faster until 1930.
Curtiss motorcycles were built through the onset of World War I. By that time, aviation had become Curtiss' passion. His airplane designs were among the most innovative in the world. Curtiss' flying boats were used in World War I and helped turn the tide in the battle against Germany's famous U-boat submarines.
Glenn Hammond Curtiss died on July 23, 1930 at the age of 52. Known merely as a "speed demon" in his youth, he left behind a legacy as one of the greatest builders of motorcycles and airplanes of all time. The Curtiss Museum in his hometown of Hammondsport highlights the spirit of innovation which made Curtiss successful as a cyclist, motorcyclist, aviator, engineer and entrepreneur.