George Smith Sr. was a drag racer and the founder of S&S Cycle, a leader in the development and production of high-performance V-twin engines and aftermarket motorcycle parts. Smith’s tuning skills and the products he developed were integral to several speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Born on Nov. 21, 1921, Smith spent the majority of his formative years in the Chicago area. He wasn't an exceptional student, but possessed a talent for mechanical engineering and the ability to communicate complex mechanical ideas and concepts. Smith also had a very strong “need for speed.” In the 1930s, he went through a series of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, including a 1911, a 1928 JD two-cam, a 1934 45 cubic inch (c.i.). and a late-1930s 61 c.i. Knucklehead.
Smith began a die-sinker apprenticeship in the early 1940s and would eventually become a journeyman in the trade. During World War II he trained as a pilot, but the war ended before he saw combat.
After the war, Smith flirted with auto racing and built a highly competitive midget racer. However, motorcycles soon became the focus of his attention. He built a drag bike named “Tramp,” which started as a 1939 61 c.i. Knucklehead. He increased the size to 80 cubic inches, made a set of twin-carb heads, and bolted on a pair of Riley carbs. He raced the machine at Half Day Drag Strip in suburban Chicago.
Drag racing was in its formative years and Smith began to experiment with nitromethane and alcohol fuel mixtures. In 1952, Tramp consistently ran the quarter mile at speeds hovering around 125 mph—a formidable accomplishment at a time when wheelie-bars and motorcycle drag slicks had yet to be invented. Smith earned the Midwest National Drag Championship title aboard the bike.
While Smith spent his weekends at the drag strip, during the week he worked at the Wyman-Gordon Company. While the company primarily made crankshafts for heavy equipment, experimental projects were also under development, including racing crankshafts for small block Ford V8 motors.
In 1954, Stanley Stankos and Leo Spindler, friends of Smith’s and fellow motorcycle drag race enthusiasts, teamed up and decided to build a Bonneville record racer. The Tramp would be the basis for their project. Stripped of everything and fitted with a K model front fork, the stock frame held a virtually hand-built motor that included pistons that were cast at Stankos’ upholstery shop. Smith raced the 92 c.i. machine at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats and achieved a top speed of 152.02 running on pure alcohol.
By 1958, Smith and Stankos’ high performance knowledge was in demand. Other Harley-Davidson riders and racers were asking them to build parts. They formed S&S Cycle that year and offered lightweight aluminum pushrods with solid lifter conversion units.
Stankos was also busy with his upholstery shop, and he sold his share of S&S to George. With the help of his wife, Marge, who took over secretarial and bookkeeping duties, George pressed ahead. Marge’s maiden name was also Smith, so they retained the S&S name. Throughout the 1960s, S&S Cycle’s performance product line continued to grow and the company invested in more precision manufacturing equipment.
In 1969, S&S set up shop in Viola, Wis., on property that the Smiths had bought several years earlier. They returned to the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1970 with racers Leo Payne and Warner Riley. When Payne achieved a speed of 202.379 mph, his machine became the first non-streamliner to go more than 200 mph.
In 1970, Harley-Davidson and pilot Cal Rayborn set a new land speed record at Bonneville for a single-engine streamliner at 265.492 mph. The Denis Manning-designed streamliner was powered by an S&S-equipped Riley motor, and tuned by Smith. The streamliner is now part of the permanent collection of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.
The late 1970s found S&S Cycle refining and developing new parts for its ever-growing product lineup. Son George Smith Jr. and sons-in-law Samuel Scaletta and Robert Grueneberger joined the company in 1979 and 1980, making it a true family operation.
On Aug. 1, 1980, George Sr. died suddenly of heart failure. The Smith family pulled together under Marge’s guidance to take S&S Cycle into the next decade. The 1980’s continued as time of growth and action for S&S Cycle. The popularity of V-twin motorcycles was increasing and the company found ample opportunities for new performance products.
Marge’s strong will and leadership kept the company on track and growing well into the 1990s. When she died in the summer of 1992 after a long illness, the second generation of the S&S family assumed responsibility for the company.
Smith was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1994.