Before the Wright brothers achieved fame in 1903, they owned a prosperous bicycle shop across from their printing business in Dayton, Ohio. Bicycling had become a huge fad in the 1890’s and with the development of lightweight engines, “motor-cycling” soon followed.
Prior to his desire to dominate the skies, the Wright’s rival aviator, Glenn H. Curtiss, had built a name for himself designing, building, and racing motorcycles. In 1906 Curtiss set a world speed record of 137 mph on a V-8 bike of his own construction, a record that stood for twenty years. Already by 1907, though, following an accident in hill climbing which left him badly beat up, Curtiss, 29, abandoned his motorcycle racing career and turned his attentions to a new challenge: beating the Wrights at their own game. He joined up with Alexander Graham Bell to form the Aerial Experiment Association. “Bell’s Boys”, as the group was also known, used Curtiss’ motorcycle plant as the site for aircraft construction. The Wrights sued for patent infringement without delay and the case was tied up in the courts for years, until World War I brought about the need for cooperation. Despite legal troubles, by 1916 the Curtiss Aeorplane Co. was the largest aircraft manufacturer in the US.
Other motorcycle racers also took to the skies: In 1911 Calbraith P. Rodgers, a rangy motorcycle racer turned stunt pilot became the first man to cross the North American continent in a Wright bi-plane. He was in pursuit of a $50,000 prize offered by William Randolph Hearst to the first pilot who could make the trip in 30 days or less. Alas for Rodgers, the trip took 49 days. His plane, the Vin Fiz, had 19 crashes en route (including one into a chicken coop) and was followed the whole way by a special train carrying his wife, Mabel, and 4,000 spare parts. Still, Rodgers finished the trip with his leg in a cast, a cigar in his mouth, and a grin on his face. And, his name in the history books.
Of course, the most famous American aviator of the last century, Charles Lindbergh, was a motorcycle enthusiast and impromptu racer long before he devoted himself to flying. As a teenager in Little Falls, Minnesota, he purchased a twin cylinder Excelsior in 1918, ostensibly to help promote his milk producing agency and provide transportation to college in Madison, Wisconsin where he resignedly majored in mechanical engineering but mainly devoted himself to daredevil exploits on his bike. He and his two friends, Richard Plummer and Delos Dudley, who were the only other fellows on campus to ride, frequently escaped to the woods and bluffs beyond Lake Mendota where Lindbergh, according to one of his biographers, Leonard Mosley, became a “superb and nerveless rider.” Dudley recounted the famous Lindbergh “hill” story, which epitomized Lindbergh’s inability to resist a challenge:
“The three students were walking on one occasion down a street lined with houses, one of which was the home of the president of the university. The street plunged steeply down to a cross street along which ran a tall fence, and Plummer remarked that a motorcyclist would be in trouble if his brake failed on the hill, because he would crash directly into the fence. Charles Lindbergh was silent for a moment, and then he declared that he was convinced he could ride his motorbike down the hill without brakes and still make the sharp turn at the bottom. They scoffed at him and declared that it was impossible.That settled it. ‘The only way to prove it can be done is to do it,’ he said.‘It’s a damn fool thing to do,’ said Plummer. ‘You’ll end up in the hospital, or dead.’But when Lindbergh insisted, they went to the bottom of the hill and posted themselves there ‘to pick up the pieces. . .’They watched in apprehension as he started his motor and pointed the cycle downhill. Apprehension mounted into actual terror as the bike plunged downward, faster and faster, with Lindbergh stubbornly refusing to touch the brakes. By the time he reached the bottom, his speed was so tremendous that, for all his skill, he couldn’t quite complete the turn. The machine plunged into a gutter, its rider was thrown violently against the fence. Plummer and Dudley ran toward him, sure that he was seriously injured, but before they could reach him he had got to his feet. Bruised and bleeding, but with no bones broken, he stood calmly and looked up the hill.‘You know,’ he said in an interested tone, ‘that wouldn’t have happened if I’d gunned the motor just as I made my turn.’Then, to the almost speechless amazement of his friends, he walked over to the undamaged machine, picked it up and rode it to the top of the hill. Again Plummer and Dudley watched in helpless anxiety as he made his downward run. Again his speed at he run’s end was terrific. But this time, as he reached the cross street, he did ‘gun the motor,’ and this time, though barely, he completed his turn. . .” (Mosley, Lindbergh, pp. 31-32)
After that, as his friends recalled, Lindbergh teased them with plans to ride to the top of the college ski jump and fly through the air until he landed on the frozen surface of Lake Mendota. Fortunately, before that could actually happen, Lindbergh worked up the courage to disappoint his mother and begin life on his own terms. He dropped out of college and rode his motorcycle to Nebraska where, for $500, he’d enrolled in a rather fly-by-night flight school.
The rest, as you’ve heard, is history.
Lindbergh’s Excelsior is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.