The Fastest Motorcycle in the World

The world's fastest motorcycles represent the apex of mechanical engineering, pushing the boundaries of two-wheeled power into uncharted territory. Welcome to a thunderous symphony of speed, a high-octane journey into the world of the fastest motorbikes on the planet.

Automotive History
26 August 2023

The fastest motorcycles in the world stand as a testament to the relentless endeavour to challenge the very fabric of technical and physical possibility.

Away from the city streets and crowded highways, on shimmering salt flats and desolate desert strips, the world’s fastest motorbike is an astonishing achievement in the face of formidable barriers.

The title of fastest bike in the world is about legacy, about etching a rider’s name into the history books. Join us as we journey through the exhilarating world of the fastest motorcycles ever built, where dreams are chased at full throttle.

A Short History of the Motorcycle Land Speed Record

1965 Bonneville Land Speed Record Attempts (Credit: Eric Rickman/The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images)

The quest to go as fast as possible on two wheels is a story of remarkable engineering and outrageous characters. While the four-wheel land speed record usually dominates the headlines, the story of the world’s fastest motorcycle is no less extraordinary.

The first unofficial record for the fastest bike in the world was set in 1903 by Glenn Curtiss, an early aviation pioneer and often called the founder of America’s aircraft industry. The Curtiss V-2, a 1,000-cc bike with a Hercules V-twin aircraft engine, hit the heady heights of 64 mph (103 km/h) over a standing mile in Yonkers, New York.

Two years later, French racing driver Henri Cissac, riding a 1.5-litre Peugeot at the Blackpool Speed Trials over a 1,000 metre course, is believed to have reached 87 mph (140 km/h). However the next fastest motorbike record, albeit unofficial, was truly astonishing.

Riding a staggeringly powerful 4.4-litre V8 motorcycle known as the Curtiss V-8 (the engine was developed to be used in airships), Glenn Curtiss managed to hit 136.36 mph, or 219.4 km/h, at Ormond Beach in Florida in January 1907.

The most remarkable aspect of this achievement was that not only was he riding one of the fastest motorcycles that had ever been built, at that stage 136 mph was the fastest a human had ever travelled under power. The train speed record was a little over 130 mph, the car land speed record was about 127 mph and it’s believed the aeroplane record still belonged to the Wright Brothers at a scarcely believable 37.8 mph.

However, it wasn’t until 1920 that the record for the world’s fastest motorbike became official, and it was pretty slow…

The Official Story of the World’s Fastest Motorcycles

Piero Taruffi. (Credit: GP Library/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Formed in 1904, the FIM (Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme) is the global governing and sanctioning body for motorcycle racing, and the arbiter of official world records. They created a set of rules governing the motorbike land speed record which required two passes in opposite directions over a mile or kilometre to be completed within two hours. The average of the two times are recorded.

The first official record was set by Gene Walker at Daytona Beach in Florida at 104.12 mph (167.56 km/h) in April 1920. It was over 30 mph slower than Curtiss’s unofficial record set thirteen years earlier.

In fact it took another decade for Curtiss’s record to be officially broken when in 1930, Joseph Wright rode 137.23 mph (220.99 km/h) on a 994-cc supercharged Osborn Engineering Company bike powered by a JA Prestwich Industries (JAP) V-twin engine.

The 1930s saw the fastest bike in the world record ping back and forth mainly between BMWs, piloted by German rider Ernst Jakob Henne, and JAP-powered bikes. There was one exception; a supercharged four-cylinder Gilera ridden by future Formula 1 driver Piero Taruffi in 1937 at 170.37 mph (274.18 km/h).

After World War II, the battle for the title of world’s fastest motorcycle began to heat up.

The Age of Stream

Chris Carr in action during a flat track race in the 1990s. (Credit: ISC Images and Archives via Getty Images)

The first post-war record was set in 1951 by German Wilhelm Herz on a 499-cc NSU on the A9 autobahn between Ingolstadt and Munich. He set two more records in August 1956 at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. By this time, the world’s fastest motorbikes had moved to this famous land speed record site permanently.

Historically, many of the early motorcycle land speed records were set using traditional, albeit, the fastest, motorcycles. However, as the need for speed grew and the understanding of aerodynamics improved, it became clear that breaking new barriers would require a departure from traditional designs. Enter the world of streamliners.

The transition towards streamliners in the pursuit of the motorcycle land speed record began in earnest in the late 1950s. Streamliners offered the potential to achieve much higher speeds due to their optimised design. By the 1960s and 1970s, the fastest records were almost exclusively being set by streamliners.

In the race to become one of the fastest motorbikes in the world, the transition to streamliners was inevitable.

A traditional motorcycle, even when modified for speed runs, will still generally resemble what we recognise as a motorcycle, with exposed wheels and a distinguishable rider position. While racing motorcycles are aerodynamically shaped to an extent, they’re not optimised purely for straight-line speed. They still need to account for manoeuvrability, especially in typical racing scenarios.

Streamliners on the other hand are specially designed vehicles to minimise air resistance. In the context of the motorcycle land speed record, they still run on two wheels but are often enclosed in a shell, giving them an aerodynamically-efficient, torpedo-like appearance. In addition, the rider is usually inside the vehicle, rather than on top.

From 1966 onwards, each new record for the world’s fastest motorcycle has been set with a streamliner at Bonneville.

The Records

That year, Detroit-based Bob Leppan set the record at 245.66 mph (395.36 km/h) in a streamliner called Gyronaut X-1 powered by two, 650-cc Triumph TR6 motorcycle engines.

Four years later, American businessman Don Vesco set the first of his three records. He was the first to go over 250 mph, recording 251.66 mph (405.25 km/h), and in 1975 he was the first to reach the magical 300 mph barrier, hitting 302.92 mph (487.51 km/h).

Three years after that riding the turbocharged, twin Kawasaki KZ1000-powered Lightning Bolt in 1978, Vesco, on the fastest bike in the world, was the first person over 500 km/h.

Vesco’s record stood for twelve years until 1990 when Dave Campos on Easyriders powered by twin, 1,500-cc Harley-Davidson engines reached 322.15 mph, or 518.45 km/h. Campos held the record for sixteen years until 2006.

Then came the battle royale between Rocky Robinson in his 2.6-litre Top Oil-Ack Attack streamliner and Chris Carr in his 3.0-litre BUB Seven streamliner.

The two men traded blows, first Robinson in September 2006 at 342.79 mph (551.67 km/h), then Carr countered just forty-eight hours later with 350.88 mph, or 564.69 km/h.

Two years later in September 2008, Robinson hit 360.91 mph (580.83 km/h) and it took Chris Carr a year to retake the title of the world’s fastest motorcycle. He got up to 367.38 mph (591.24 km/h).

In 2010, Rocky Robinson became the top dog again, and this time, so far, the record for the fastest motorbike on Earth remains unbeaten. On 25 September, he hit an astonishing 376.36 mph, or 605.69 km/h. It was the first time a motorcycle had been ridden over 600 km/h.

The End of the Road?

The hand of a motorcyclist in a protective glove, on a throttle control. (Credit: victorass88 via Getty Images)

Will the motorcycle land speed record ever be beaten? While the staggering technical, physical, financial, and environmental hurdles don’t make it impossible, they certainly haven’t made the herculean task of building the world’s fastest motorcycle any easier.

Whether or not new records will be set remains a tantalising question, but one thing is certain: the spirit of competition and the allure of unmatched speed will forever drive individuals and teams to venture into the unknown, riding the very edge of possibility.


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