By Dave Walters
How fast Officer?
Do you remember your first speeding ticket? The first time you broke some taboo speed limit or self-imposed barrier? We’re you like me – “Officer, this fucking thing is stuck to the floorboard, must be the rust.” Did you want to park first, win a girl’s heart, be first to the off-ramp?
I read a quote once that I loved – “I want a bike so fast it’ll get me there before I‘ve even left.” Maybe not everyone wants to go that fast, and that’s ok too. My interest in anything motorcycle related, almost always comes back to history. If we believe in reincarnation, maybe I was a legendary racer impaled by a wooden splinter after taking the checkered flag one day. Since that sounds painful, we’ll just say I’m nostalgic.
According to data compiled by Cycle World, after the Vincent Black Shadow hit 125mph in the 1940s, there wasn’t another PRODUCTION bike capable of matching that til the Kawasaki Z1 in 1973. I made the word production large as to hopefully keep focus here and not start an argument on all the amazing garage daredevils of the era. Their data also focused on top PRODUCTION speed and not the off the line or ¼ mile times, which had been on steady record breaking paces yearly (weekly?).
In 1978 Honda was the first manufacturer to top 130mph with a production bike. Again, the focus on production which is why I didn’t mention the Dunstall Norton or the pre WWII BMW etc, all examples of heavily modified speed bikes. This is just a brief overview to a rich and amazing history of bikes. My curiosity though was on a smaller but still magical number, 100mph. What was the backstory of some of the first production bikes, racers, race bikes, companies etc to take aim at that number.
The Brough Superior SS100 in 1925 became recognized as the first “official” production bike to achieve the 100mph banner. The engine on the Superior SS100 was a 60.9 cu in air cooled OHV 50 V-Twin with a 3 Speed transmission. The Brough was built in England and only about 383 Superior SS100 were built. T.E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) owned a fleet of Brough Motorcycles, including a George I model which retailed for the same price as a house at that time. Take that Harley prices! Lawrence also died riding a Brough George VII model.
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Lee Humiston is officially ( that pesky word again) recognized as the first person to break 100mph on a motorcycle. He did it in December of 1912 on a bike from a manufacturer out of Chicago named Excelsior. Excelsior had been purchased in 1911 by the Schwinn Bicycle company who also started producing automobiles, motorcycles and other toys. Humiston’s 61 ci Excelsior actually wasn’t all that far off from the production models that Excelsior produced. Couple that with the limited production of the Brough, and one really could make the argument for Lee and his Excelsior for the PRODUCTION record. Another argument for another time though.
Most credit Glenn Curtiss with being the first rider and motorcycle to break 100mph in 1907. His non-production motorcycle was a 269 cu in V8 engine built by Curtiss in his Airplane manufacturing plant. The unofficial record for Mr. Curtiss was 136mph and no motorcycle surpassed this until 1930. You can still see this bike today in the Smithsonian Museum. The record is considered unofficial since no certified official was present. Ain’t that about a bitch!
Otto Walker was one of Harley’s first factory racers in the 1910s and early 20s. He is credited with being the first to win a major race for the company in 1915. In 1921 Walker became the first racer to avg at least 100mph for the duration of a race. After that accomplishment, Harley rented a track in Beverly Hills California in an attempt to cover an actual distance of 100 miles in one hour. Walker and Harley fell just short of this accomplishment due to a fouled plug and came in at 98.6mph.
One last thought – If you’re like me, then Rollie Free just might be your spirit animal (rider?), but that’s a topic for another time as well.