Nowadays, the idea of a twin-cradle perimeter motorcycle frame made of Reynolds steel tubing, with a twin-shock swinging arm rear suspension, can sound downright prehistoric. Indeed to many of today’s motorcyclists who were born at about the same time as Yamaha’s “Deltabox” frame, it probably sounds even older than that. But when it was introduced, it was just as revolutionary and undoubtedly paved the way for the design of many – if not most – modern motorcycles and even today in the 21st century, some motorcycles still use a derivation of this quintessential frame design. They called it the Norton Featherbed and it played a crucial role in the history of motorcycle frames.
What is a “Silodrome?” Well, you might say it is far less catchy name for a Wall of Death. And what is a Wall of Death Motorcycle Show? Ironically, you could say it is the safe version of a motorcycle board track race. Built for spectacle more than speed, they allow stunt riders to rely on centripetal force to ride sideways along curved vertical walls.
Origins of the Wall of Death
The Wall of Death was inspired by board track racing. Motorcycle board track racing in turn had grown out of bicycle velodrome racing. Jack Prince, a bicycle velodrome builder, saw the potential of racing motorcycles on purpose built wooden tracks. In 1910, he built the Los Angeles Motordrome with 30 degree banked turns. One year after Prince built the LA Motordrome, a prototypical stunt silodrome attraction appeared in Coney Island New York, and stunt riders were off to the races, sideways. In 1911, carnival promoters started making travelling version. By 1915, promoters were building silodromes with completely vertical walls and the “Wall of Death” name was coined in Buffalo New York. In the 1920s, the spectacle spread to England and Australia. By 1930, there were over 100 Wall of Death shows touring the U.S. as carnival attractions.
Motorcycle racing legend Jim Davis started his career in the age of vintage motorcycles. In 1911, at the age of 14, he won his first motorcycle race riding a borrowed motorcycle. The prize: a quart of oil and a pair of goggles, quite a rare luxury for racers in those days. His life spanned three centuries: born in 1896, he lived to the age of 103 and passed away in 2000. Davis won 21 American Motorcycle Association National Championships, including the first AMA National Championship in 1924 and 50 other national titles. His impressive collection of wins includes 90 gold medals and 40 silver and 35 bronze medals.
In 1920, he was fired by his sponsor for an audacious caper involving a box of chocolates and a forged telegram, but that hardly slowed him down. Read on for the details of his bold exploits.
In 1928, the motorcycle speed record stood at 124.5 mph, just a little over 200kph. The founder of the Opel Motor company’s grandson, Fritz Opel, was in charge of testing and publicity. A canny showman, he recognized the bang he would get out of attaching explosive propulsion to a motorcycle. He hatched a plan to literally rocket into the history books with a new land speed record. Before he could set a record, the authorities got wind of his crazy plan. They banned the rocket powered motorcycle before he could make it official. But he did get off a few test runs. He also applied the idea to rocket cars, rocket trains, and rocket planes. Read on to learn more about this bold pioneer of the vintage motorcycle era.
As this year’s Isle of Man TT fortnight recedes into the distance, I think it would be really interesting to take a closer look at this singular and unique motorcycle race.
The Isle of Man TT, or Isle of Man Tourist Trophy
The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, or “TT” for short, is one of the world’s oldest races, and to some people, the world’s most controversial motorsports event. How could it not be: each lap of the course is 37.75 miles, on single-track roads lined with trees, lamp-posts, garden walls, bus-stops and other such solid objects. At race speeds, bike and rider are shaken, juddered and vibrated as they ride over bumps that you would otherwise not notice at normal everyday road speeds. Indeed, it’s not uncommon for bikes to finish the race with bits missing, rattling loose or broken. More importantly, since its creation, the TT has claimed the lives of over 200 competitors, whether during the practice sessions or during race week itself.
“Woman can, if she will.” So said Augusta Van Buren in 1916, and she would, so she did. In those days, women could not vote and rarely even drove. Only a few people of any sex had ridden motorcycles across the country in 1916. Pants were against the law in some jurisdictions. Yes, you read that right – it was illegal for women to wear pants. Road maps for the half of the continent west of the Mississippi were hard to come by, mostly because they simply did not exist. So hatching a plan to ride vintage motorcycles across the United States was a bold move indeed! The Van Buren Sisters wanted to show the world what women were capable of and they did.
Robert Edison Fulton Junior was born the fortunate son of the president of Mack Trucks. He could have easily coasted through a comfortable life of privilege, never straying far from the country club. Educated at Exter, Choate, Harvard and Lauzanne, he could easily avoid sleeping rough. But one fateful night at a dinner party he was shooting off his mouth. “Oh, I’m going to ride around the world on a motorcycle. You don’t see much architecture through a steamship porthole.”
As luck would have it, a friend of his father’s who had just bought the Douglas Motorcycle Company overheard him. He gave the young Robert a motorcycle. Fulton learned to ride it two days, and, an impetuous 23 year old, set off toto ride around the world on a motorcycle in 1932. He fell a little short, but he made it 25,000 miles and rode through 22 countries. And then later he invented the flight simulator, the airplane/car and the skyhook. Yes, the skyhook.
Call it motorcycle polo or call it motoball – either way it is madness and it might be contagious. Imagine, if you will, living motorcycle polo history.
Motorcycle Polo Sunday
They are lined up five across, shadowy and menacing in the dust, gunning their engines. It looks far, but it goes by fast. And that ball is sitting there in the middle waiting, just 50 yards away, You can be there scooping up the ball with your leg in three seconds, and those shadows won’t move until you do. The plan is: accelerate to the centre, shift weight and brake to get the tail to slide out, pass just to the left of the ball and scoop it up with your right leg and hold it as you come out of the slide, then flick it sideways to your right forward and abruptly began a new slide to bolt for the opposite side of the field, losing your defender. That is the plan. And when do things go according to plan on Motorcycle Polo Sunday?
That…thing… across the field looks too big to be human. The motorcycle underneath him looks like a toy in comparison.You are feeling a little apprehensive. Your mates call you “beeg maahn.” You are the natural choice for center, and you’re not used to being the little guy.
Have you ever thought to yourself: “I wonder how fast I could go if I put a 4,400 cc engine on a motorcycle with 1907 style ‘brakes’, tires, and suspension ?” That is about four times as big as a BMW R1200GS. It would be hard to find such a huge engine in 1907. But motorcycle and aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss did not have to look far. He had already built the “Model B-8” engine to power dirigibles. Ironically, the engines were never used for the slow speed purpose for which they were designed. Instead, the 150 pound dirigible engine sent Curtiss flying into the history books at a record setting 136 mph land speed. His record, set on the one of a kind “Curtiss V-8 Motorcycle” would hold for 23 years.
From bicycle messenger to racer to shop owner to builder to tinker to motorcycle manufacturer to aviation pioneer. From humble beginnings making motorcycle parts out of soup cans to leading the development of air warfare, Glenn Curtiss lead an inspiring life.
A Rough Start
Accelerating down the straightaway, you know you’ve got less than a half mile to get to top speed. You know you will have to let go of the handlebar and reach to the tank to shift. But you won’t have to let go of the brakes. Because you don’t have any brakes. You know that guy a foot to your left on the bored out 1920 Indian Scout will still be there, giving your Excelsior a run for the money. And he’ll still be there with you sliding through the turn, handlebars turned to counter-steer in a taught and graceful tango, inches apart. Plus there is the guy on the right….
So you get to about 70 mph as fast as you can, back off and start your slide early scrubbing a little speed. You are hoping for a hole shot coming out of the corner. Last in, first out. The roar of a thousand fans is miraculously audible over the roar of the un-muffled engines as you begin your slide and the dust starts to fly. Welcome to flat track motorcycle racing history.