Monday, January 06, 2014


A reader recently asked if there was any contemporary evidence to support the story that Glenn H. Curtiss rode at 136mph on Ormond Beach Florida in 1906.  A little research revealed this article, from Scientific American, Volume 96, Number 06, February 1906.  Included is a photograph I've never seen before, which is reproduced below:
Glenn H. Curtiss preparing to ride his V-8 aero-engine monster on the beach in Florida

"What is unquestionably the most powerful, as well as the fastest, motor bicycle ever built in this country made its appearance at the races at Ormond Beach recently; but, owing to the breaking of a universal joint and subsequent buckling of the frame, this machine made no official record.  It was built by Mr. G.H. Curtiss, a well known motor-bicycle maker, with the idea of breaking all records.  The machine was fitted with an 8-cylinder air-cooled V-motor of 36-40 horse-power.  The motor was placed with the crankshaft running lengthwise of the bicycle and connected to the driving shaft through a double universal joint.  A large bevel gar on this shaft meshed with a similar one on the rear wheel of the bicycle.  The total weight of the complete machine was but 275 pounds, or 6.8 pounds per horse-power.  In an unofficial mile test, timed by stop watches from the start by several persons who watched through field glasses a flag waved at the finish, Mr. Curtiss is said to have covered this distance in 26 2-5 seconds, which would be at the rate of 136.3 miles an hour – a faster speed than has ever been made before by a man on any type of vehicle.  Unfortunately, before this new mile record could be corroborated by an official test, the universal joint broke while the machine was going 90 miles an hour.  Fortunately, it was brought to a stop without injury to its daring rider from the rapidly-revolving driving shaft, which was thrashing about in a dangerous manner.  Later on, the frame buckled, throwing the gears out of line, and the official test had to be abandoned.  With his 2-cylinder machine Curtiss rode a mile in 46 2-5 seconds in a race with Wray on a 2-cylinder 14 horse-power Peugeot motor bicycle, only to be beaten 2 seconds by the latter in a subsequent race, wherein a speed of about 80 ½ miles an hour was obtained.  With one of his single-cylinder machines Curtiss made a mile in 1 minute 5 3-5 seconds on January 21."


occhiolungo said...

Not bad for automatic inlet valves! Didja know that the Marvel / Curtiss single with the push&pull rod that opened both valves was the only Curtiss motor with inlet valve operated by a cam?

Patrick Delli said...

Hi Paul,

yep, that 1906 article says " is sais to have covered..." ie nobody with a time clock saw it...

Here's my argument...

136mph = 2000 rpm
68mph = 1000 rpm
34mph = 500 rpm
17mph = 250 rpm

(No way this engine will turn faster than 2000 rpm with auto inlets and technology of the time and the gear ratio as observed on photos is 1 to 1)

Hence the question, how do you start this monster with such a high gear ratio and without bending everything, con rods, shaft, frame? Not to mention the tyre technology, the less than adequate aerodynamics and rider position,

Now supposing it can indeed start on its own steam, what max speed could be expected of this set up?

100 mph would be pushing your luck...

As experienced around the same time with test for aero engines, speed on the ground for any aero engine would be about 80% of flight speed.

So that engine in a plane (and it is indeed a plane engine...) would pull it along at 164mph...

Don't think so...


Anonymous said...

I missed this bike when at Smithsonian last time.

Have to look for it next time in DC.

Happy New Year,

Anonymous said...

A biography about Mr. Curtis recounted that the engine in the speed record machine was intended for a baloon being built by an enthusiest in San Francisco who lost his funding.
The reason I mention this is that without the required torque and physical pounding of lifting an aeroplane off the ground Glenn could have built this engine to entirely different specs in reguards to the weight and horsepower.

The Vintagent said...

It's an interesting question; the Curtiss catalog of May 1908 lists no less than 4 types of V-8 engines available, both water and air-cooled, as per the motorcycle. The engine used in the record attempt was nominally rated at 40HP, with a 3-5/8" x 3-1/4" bore/stroke. They were used in Curtiss' plane Red Wing and White Wing in 1907 and 1908, but the planes used 8 carburetors (!) whereas the bike used only two. The price for the Model B8 engine was $1200, an astounding sum for 1907.

Could the Curtiss V-8 have achieved 136mph? Reference to 'several persons' keeping time suggests some kind of reliability in timing, and one would hope that a gross error (on the order of 40% if the actual speed was only 100mph) was unlikely. We'll never know for certain, as nobody is risking one of the few Curtiss 1907 V-8 engines to try again!