Who Was Glenn Curtiss And What Does He Have To Do With Zero Motorcycles?

Confederate Motors changes its name, moving forward with all-electric bikes

glenn curtiss 4000cc motorcycle
The 4000cc air-cooled V-8 engine was actually designed for aircraft use, but Glenn Curtiss deemed it worthy of a land speed record first.Glenn Curtiss Museum

During the recent Concours D'Elegance at Pebble Beach in Monterey, Confederate Motors announced a partnership with Zero Motorcycles to develop an all-electric cruiser model called the Hercules, and that the Alabama company has changed its name to Curtiss Motorcycles, honoring the East Coast motorcycle speed demon, inventor and aviation hero Glenn Curtiss.

Yes, you read that correctly; the company responsible for making some of the gnarliest sounding and looking V-twin cruisers is going 100 percent electric.

curtiss motorcycle logo
Glenn Curtiss had to change the name of his motorcycle company when he discovered someone else had registered ‘Hercules’, so supporters recommended ‘Curtiss’ and it stuck.Glenn Curtiss Museum

"I think we lost a lot a business with that name," company president Matt Chambers told the Los Angeles Times. "We've missed out on branding opportunities. So, it's time to retire it." I reached out to Curtiss and Zero for more information on the partnership, and will publish a comprehensive story once all the pieces fall into place.

Glenn Curtiss' Flying Circus

Most people know all about the Wright Brothers and their accomplishments. Self-taught engineers who began publishing neighborhood Dayton news with a homemade printing press, bicycle mechanics who built their own line of bikes, and serious experimenters with manned flight over the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk who won the hearts of millions. True American self-made heroes.

Five hundred miles northeast of Dayton, Ohio lies Hammondsport, New York, where Glenn Curtiss had also plied his trade. Like Wilbur and Orville, Curtiss was smitten with bicycles. He was a Western Union bicycle messenger and racer before opening a shop and developing a line of bikes. Dropping out of school after the eighth grade, Curtiss had an intuitive, analytical mind which raced ahead of his hands. Consider this chain of events:

  • 1901 – with the availability of internal combustion engines, Curtiss developed an interest in motorcycles
  • 1902 – began manufacturing single-cylinder engines in the back room of his bicycle shop
  • 1903 – set land speed record of 64 mph for one mile
  • 1904 – supplied 9-hp, V-twin motorcycle engines for California "aeronaut" Tom Baldwin to use in America's first successful dirigible
  • 1907 – set official land speed record of 136.36 mph with an air-cooled, 4410cc, 40-hp, V-8-powered Curtiss motorcycle in Florida in January. The record stood for 23 years.
glenn curtiss v 8 powered motorcycle
A 28-year-old Glenn Curtiss sets an unofficial land speed record of 136.36 mph with an air-cooled, 4410cc, 40-hp, V-8-powered Curtiss motorcycle in Florida in January 1907.Glenn Curtiss Museum
  • 1907 – invited by Alexander Graham Bell to join his Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), with the goal of developing an engine for heavier-than-air flight experimentation
  • 1908 – flew AEA's third aircraft, Aerodrome #3—the famous June Bug he designed—5,080 ft to win the Scientific American Trophy and its $2,500 prize. This was considered to be the first pre-announced public flight of a heavier-than-air flying machine in America; the flight of the June Bug propelled Curtiss and aviation firmly into public awareness.
  • 1909 – took part in the Grande Semaine d'Aviation aviation meeting at Reims, France, organized by the Aéro-Club de France. The Wright brothers—who were selling their machines to customers in Germany at the time—decided not to compete in person. There were two Wright aircraft (modified with a landing gear) at the meet but they did not win any events. Flying his No. 2 biplane, Curtiss won the overall speed event, the Gordon Bennett Cup, completing the 12.5-mile course in just under 16 minutes at a speed of 46.5 mph, six seconds faster than runner-up Louis Blériot.
  • 1910 – the first Tom Swift book series title was published—called Tom Swift And His Motor Cycle—believed to be based on the exploits of Curtiss. The Tom Swift books are set in a small town on a lake in upstate New York.
  • 1910 – flew from Albany to New York City to make the first long-distance flight between two major cities in the U.S. in late May. For this 137-mile flight—which he completed in just under four hours including two stops to refuel—he won a $10,000 prize offered by publisher Joseph Pulitzer and was awarded permanent possession of the Scientific American trophy.
  • 1910 – trained Blanche Stuart Scott in September, who was possibly the first American woman pilot
  • 1910 – established Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company that eventually employed 10,000 people. Produced the famed Curtiss Jenny airplanes he designed for the armed forces.
  • 1911 – received U.S. pilot's license #1 from the Aero Club of America, because the first batch of licenses were issued in alphabetical order; Wilbur Wright received license #5
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U.S. pilot’s license #1, four spots ahead of Wilbur Wright. Ouch.Glenn Curtiss Museum

Curtiss’ relationship with the Wright brothers was contentious, as both parties fought a legal battle over patents. A patent lawsuit by the Wright brothers against Curtiss in 1909 continued until it was resolved during World War I. From 1910 until his death from typhoid fever in 1912, Wilbur took the leading role in the patent struggle, traveling incessantly to consult with lawyers and testify in what he felt was a moral cause, particularly against Curtiss, who was creating a large company to manufacture aircraft. Orville and Katharine Wright believed Curtiss was partly responsible for Wilbur's premature death, which occurred in the wake of the stress of the legal battle.

Since the last Wright aircraft, the Wright Model L, was a single prototype of a "scouting" aircraft, made in 1916, the U.S. government, desperately short of combat aircraft, pressured both firms to resolve the dispute. In 1917, the U.S. government offered a large and profitable contract to Curtiss to build aircraft for the U.S. Army. In September 1920, the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company underwent a financial reorganization during peacetime. Curtiss cashed out his stock in the company for $32 million and retired to Florida. New York’s LaGuardia Airport was originally called Glenn H. Curtiss Airport when it began operation in 1929.

The Curtiss and Wright organizations merged in 1929 to form the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, which still exists. The following year—while traveling to Rochester, New York to contest a lawsuit brought by former business partner Augustus Herring—Curtiss suffered an attack of appendicitis in court. He died on July 23, 1930, in Buffalo, New York of complications from an appendectomy at age 52.

Matt Chambers has some mighty big shoes to fill by renaming his company after Glenn Hammond Curtiss. What do you think of his decision to jettison both the original Confederate corporate name in favor of a man nicknamed “Hell Rider” by the founder of Indian Motorcycles? And will the bikes lose any of their ferocious cache by going all electric?