A Century Ago, Glenn Curtiss Was the ‘Fastest Man on Earth’

Before he changed aviation forever, the daredevil achieved an unparalleled speed record on land

Designed in 1906, Glenn Curtiss' first V-8 motorcycle required a longer, sturdier frame than any previous bike to support the massive weight of the engine. Mark Avino / NASM

The 1907 Curtiss V-8 looks like it went fast. It suggests a lifetime of high speed, as if the very wind had cocked the forks back, swept its handlebars out like streamers, even smoothed and elongated its frame. Other motorcycles of the age, like the early Harley-Davidsons and Triumphs, look more like bicycles, with jaunty upright handlebars, cheerful enamel paint jobs and compact motors offering single-digit horsepower. The Curtiss, by contrast, looks vicious: satin-black, ears back, with eight finned cylinders churning out 40 horsepower, a big dog ready to bite.

The engineer and racer Glenn Curtiss wasn’t intimidated by the machine he’d designed when he threw a leg over it and throttled out across the hard-packed sand of Ormond Beach, Florida, in January 1907. But then, Curtiss wasn’t intimidated by much. At 28 years old, he was already known in newspapers as “the Hell-Rider” for his aggressive moves on the track. Off two wheels, though, Curtiss was a calm and even cautious man who saw racing primarily as a way to prove the worth of his engine designs. He’d begun manufacturing his own motorcycles in 1902 and set his first speed record the next year. But his lightweight and powerful engines soon caught the eye of early aviators, and Curtiss would eventually become known for his work as a pilot and airplane designer. At the start of 1907, he was beginning to customize his engines with flight in mind. The big V-8 in his motorcycle was initially built for an airship customer—but Curtiss and his team couldn’t resist a chance to run it on the ground.

The officials at the Florida Speed Carnival, the land-speed competition where Curtiss first proposed test-racing his eight-cylinder monster, were less enthused about the experiment and disqualified the oversized and over-engined machine as too powerful to run in any of the official classes. After the official carnival ended, though, Curtiss and his crew were allowed to set up the V-8 bike for an exhibition run, with a two-mile start so he could get up to speed. Official, unofficial—none of that mattered to Curtiss. He simply wanted to know what his machine could do.

What it did, he found, was turn the landscape to brushstrokes in his vision as he shot past, the crowd to a dark smudge against the gray sand, left miles behind in mere seconds. Hunched over the tanks, Curtiss covered his timed mile in just over 26 seconds, reaching a speed of 136 miles per hour before he let up and engaged the brake. It took him another mile to bring the bike to a halt.

The accepted rules of the day required a return run to qualify for a record. Here, Curtiss’ beast finally bit him. Under the strain of such speed, the U-joint that connected the driveshaft to the wheel broke off, partly buckling the frame and narrowly missing hitting bits of its rider as broken parts whipped around near Curtiss’ feet. He was unharmed, but the run seems to have quenched his desire for land-based adventure. “Riding an eight-cylinder motorcycle is not likely to become very popular,” Curtiss said afterward, with characteristic understatement. Curtiss may have been casual about the experience, but the incredible speed made headlines, earning him the media title of “Fastest Man on Earth.” It was true: At the time, no train, car, bike or plane had achieved such a velocity. His two-wheel record almost outlived him, lasting until 1930, the year of his death at 52.

A c.1907 lithochrome postcard celebrates Curtiss' record-setting speed on his V-8 in Ormond Beach, Florida. NASM

Curtiss’ next adventures would take him into the sky. As an engineer and then as a pilot, he made contributions in design and technique that helped establish the airplane’s place in both commercial and military use. It’s no coincidence that both Curtiss and the Wright brothers began on two wheels and moved to the heavens. The early 1900s saw a melding of human imagination and mechanical development that gave us new speed, on land and in the air. Both Curtiss and the Wright brothers “grew up in the same world of wonder with technology,” says Jeremy Kinney, lead curator for the National Air and Space Museum’s recent “Nation of Speed” exhibition. American aviation, Kinney says, “all comes back to this V-8 engine on the motorcycle.”

Curtiss died young, after complications during an appendectomy, but his name lives on. In 1929, his aviation firm had merged with that of the Wright brothers, to create the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, which immediately became the largest aviation firm in the United States and still supplies airlines and governments around the world. The pursuit of speed on land continues. Rocky Robinson holds the current world speed record for motorcycles. He’s gone 376 mph while riding the Top 1 Ack Attack—at first glance, a totally different animal from the Curtiss V-8. Robinson’s bike is powered by two Suzuki Hayabusa engines, turbocharged for a combined 1,000 horsepower. The bike looks almost like a rocket, the driver belted in, wrapped in a fireproof suit and tucked in an enclosed cockpit, but Robinson says the experience on course is largely unchanged. “In land speed circles, we all know Curtiss. He’s the grandfather that started all this stuff. It’s all his fault.”

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This article is a selection from the September/October 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine

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