Here at Vélo Law, we always advocate taking it careful on the road, riding safely and sensibly, sticking within the speed limits. However, we couldn’t help but notice that the good people at Triumph are looking to break the two wheeled land speed record, with motorbike maverick Guy Martin in the cockpit. This week’s shot at the big time has been aborted after Martin’s machine slipped on a damp patch on the Bonneville Flats in Utah on a trial run. With this attempt now on hold, we thought that we would look back through history at just how far it has been possible to push the limits on two wheels.
It all harks back to the start of the 20th century, when motorcycle production had become more mainstream. Glenn Curtiss set two unofficial records in 1903, and then on 24 January 1907, on a bike that he had created himself, powered by aircraft engines. It wasn’t until 1920, however, that the first Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) accredited record was set. The history-maker, Gene Walker rode an Indian bike on Daytona Beach on 14 April, registering a speed of 103.56 MPH
Walker’s official record lasted a decade, although there were a couple of unofficial runs that far exceeded his speed. It was a manufacturer from one of those attempts, OEC Temple, that were successful in surpassing Walker’s velocity. Ridden by Joseph S. Wright in the Northern French town of Arpajon in 1930, the OEC Temple JAP (JA Prestwich Industries) reached 137.23 MPH, and was the first bike to use a supercharger to break the record.
Over the course of the next seven years, a fascinating battle commenced between BMWs, ridden by Ernst Henne and a series of English JAP-powered motorcycles (Zenith, OEC, and Brough Superior), piloted by Wright, Bert le Vack, Claude F. Temple, Eric Fernihough and Piero Taruffi. In the pre-World War II years, the record was broken repeatedly, with three new top speeds posted in 1937 alone, concluding with Henne reaching 173.68 MPH on a closed German autobahn circuit in November, just over a month after Taruffi’s 170.37 MPH. Henne held his record for the next 14 years, with speeds rapidly accelerating in the post war second half of the century.
1951 saw Wilhelm Herz finally cruise past Henne with a speed of 180.29 MPH, a record that was bettered by Russell Wright on a Vincent-HRD in 1955. It was later this year that the game appeared to change. After 52 years of records set worldwide, September 1955 saw all records being set on the Utah salt flats of Bonneville, and Triumph showed up on the scene.
During a pacy period of 30 years the record rose exponentially from the first official Bonneville 189.5MPH run to its seventh when Don Vesco broke the 300MPH barrier in 1975, recording a ground-breaking 302.92MPH. The aesthetic and construction of these mean machines, had by this stage, become more refined and streamlined, with an almost bobsleigh-like build coming to prominence.
Since Vesco’s pioneering run there has been another neck and neck race for the crown, with Californian couple Rocky Robinson and Chris Carr sharing the honours on five occasions between 2006 and 2010. Robinson’s record of 376.3 MPH has stood since that September day six years ago, with Martin, hoping to finally wrestle back the record to Britain, becoming the first Brit since Eric Fernihough in 1937 to take the crown. The gregarious Grimsby lad is hoping to be the first person to hit 400 MPH, and judging by his past exploits, it’s not unfathomable for him to do it. But in this instance, no matter how good the rider, it’s going to be the bike that’s going to take him over the line, and we’ve got our fingers crossed for you, Guy.