Top 10 land speed record bikes

Whatever their era, these were the fastest things on two wheels

IN recent years the mystique of land speed records appears to have diminished but for decades it was a scene that made headlines worldwide and was populated exclusively by enormous characters with even bigger balls.

Sure, the outright land speed record – usually held by three or four-wheeled vehicles – tends to get the most attention, but bikes have had their glorious moments too. Here we’re going to pick the most important land speed record holders on two wheels over more than a century and over 300mph of improvements.

10. Glenn Curtiss’ 1903 Curtiss Hercules V-twin – 64mph

Those were the days, eh? You built a new-fangled motorised velocipede using blacksmiths’ tools in your shed and jumped straight on it to risk your own neck and prove it was better than the opposition using the unarguable statistics of outright speed. Glenn Curtiss – an aviation pioneer – used his own 1000cc V-twin design, under the ‘Hercules’ name to set what’s generally recognised as the world’s first motorcycle land speed record, averaging a whole 64mph over a measured mile. An 'official' speed record for bikes wouldn't come until 17 years later, in 1920, when the FIM – itself not created until a year after Curtiss’ first record run – decided to ratify them.

9. Craig Breedlove’s 1963 ‘Spirit of America’ – 407.447mph

If you’ve got a passing interest in land speed records, you might be thinking ‘Hold on, Spirit of America was a car…’

In fact, Spirit of America, famed for being the first LSR holder to pass the 400mph mark, was considered a motorcycle because the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) rules specified that ‘cars’ had to have four wheels. Breedlove’s creation had just three, and as such the FIM (Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme) instead took it under its wing as a three-wheeled motorcycle. At the end of 1964 the FIM and FIA reorganised the system to allow both three wheelers and jet-powered vehicles to be able to hold the ‘outright’ title, but by then Spirit of America’s speed had been surpassed by two four-wheeled jet-powered cars, meaning Breedlove’s first speed record was only ever officially held under FIM rules. So Spirit of America is a motorcycle. 

8. Cal Rayborn’s 1970 ‘Godzilla’ Harley – 265.492mph

You wouldn’t have thought that Harley engine would be the ideal basis for a land speed record bike, even back in 1970, but Cal Rayborn’s dedication to the American firm defined his career in every type of racing he entered; he was one of the best road racers of the era as well as a flat-tracker and a land speed record rider. His LSR machine was notable since it was a factory-backed effort in a field that has historically tended to be shunned by manufacturers. He came close to being the first to get over the 250mph mark but was beaten to the punch by friend and rival Don Vesco. However, the 265mph record Rayborn set later the same year would stand for half a decade – and sadly outlive the man who set it.

7. Don Vesco’s 1970 Yamaha ‘Big Red’ – 251.81mph

Don Vesco was arguably the most famous motorcycle speed record breaker in the sport’s history and you’ll see his name again later in this list, but 1970’s ‘Big Red’ earns a place because it was the first two-wheeler to top 250mph. It was also interesting since it’s a two-stroke – using a pair of 350cc twins – in a field that’s almost exclusively populated by four-stroke machines. Probably because you don’t want to be worrying about the things ‘nipping up’ at 200mph-plus…

6. Don Vesco’s 1975 Yamaha ‘Silver Bird’ – 302.91mph

Sticking with two-strokes, Vesco’s Silver Bird doubled the size of his previous machine, using a pair of TZ700 four-cylinder engines for a total of 8 cylinders and 1390cc. The total power – 240bhp – might not seem that amazing now that GP bikes are making more, but it was enough to get the streamliner through the 300mph barrier, another landmark for Vesco.

5. Johnny Allen’s 1956 Triumph Tiger 650 – 214.17mph

Johnny Allen’s Triumph ‘Texas Ceegarr’ just missed out on being the first bike to pass 200mph, but it makes the list for its legacy as much as its achievement at the time. Powered by a Tiger T110 650cc twin, the bike had just 80bhp and still managed to hit the sort of speeds that today’s MotoGP bikes just about manage on the longest straights. In the convoluted world of land speed records, Allen’s achievement wasn’t ratified by the FIM because it was timed by AMA staff rather than the FIM’s own timekeepers. But the publicity it created led to Triumph adopting the name of the place where the record was set and using it for a new 650cc road bike a few years later. It was called the Bonneville, and remains the most famous motorcycle Triumph has ever made.

4. Ernst Henne’s 1937 BMW Kompressor – 173.68mph

Henne’s record is impressive largely because it was the last of the pre-war era and stood until 1951. It’s also interesting that it was made using a bike of just 495cc, since back then small-capacity supercharged four-stroke engines were very much in vogue (its predecessor, Pierro Taruffi’s record-setting Gilera, was also a sub-500cc supercharged machine, as was its successor, Wilhelm Herz’s 1951 NSU Delphin I.) Given the era, certain Nazi connections were inevitable, but Henne’s achievement remains an impressive one.

3. Rocky Robinson’s Ack Attack, 2006, 2008 and 2010 – up to 376.363mph

Robinson is the current record holder, as he has been twice before in the same machine, Ack Attack. The streamliner uses a pair of Suzuki Hayabusa engines, with turbos, for a total of around 1000bhp. That’s a lot, even in a world where Kawasaki has launched a 300bhp production bike. It makes the list not only because it’s currently the fastest, but also because it’s unique in having taken the record three times, starting at 342mph in 2006, upping it to 360mph in 2008 after being beaten by Chris Carr in the BUB streamliner, and then hitting 376mph in 2010 after Carr once again took the record away. The bike has also been crashed three times during record runs, in 2004, 2007 (when it rolled 16 times) and 2011. 

2. Glenn Curtiss’ 1907 V8 – 136.27mph

The amazing thing about Curtiss’ 1907 record was the sheer leap forward from his previous landmark just four years earlier. He’d gone from a 1000cc V-twin to a 4000cc V8 and in doing so upped the pace from 64mph to 136mph. That’s faster than the four-wheeled speed record of the era, and faster than aeroplanes could manage too. The absence of an official world record at the time means Curtiss’ speed remains unofficial, but it took until 1930 for another machine to go faster.

1. Dave Campos’ 1990 Easyriders Harley-Davidson – 322.150mph

While Glen Curtiss’ 1907 record was arguably held longer, the fact that Campos’ officially-certified speed of 322mph in 1990 wasn’t beaten until Ack Attack managed to topple it (after several years of attempts) in 2006 is remarkable given how much motorcycle technology moved on during that time. And to make it all the more amazing Campos’ bike was based on a Harley-Davidson! In fact, the bike was owned and sponsored by Easyriders magazine, which guaranteed publicity as well as providing funds, and used a pair of 1500cc Shovelhead Harley motors. The magazine’s support meant there were record crowds for the effort, and that came in handy when those supporters were able to help rebuild the bike with incredible speed after a 300mph crash on a test run.

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