The world’s fastest indian
Let me give you a bit of an insight into the world of Burt Munro and how he put himself in the record books and became a New Zealand legend.
Herbert James Munro or Burt, as he was most commonly know as, was born in 1899 and grew up in Invercargill, New Zealand. Well actually just outside of Invercargill on a farm in Edendale. He helped out on the family farm and loved racing their fastest horse across the paddocks despite his father’s disapproval. This was his first taste for speed, a passion that he would chase after his whole life. A rare source of excitement for him were the train rides to the Invercargill port.
As cars, motorbikes and planes began to appear, Burt’s interest grew. He soon became bored with the daily farm routines. Once World War I started, Burt was keen to join the army and see the world as soon as he was old enough. The war ended before Burt got the chance to hit the road and at this stage his father sold the farm. Burt then worked in a construction job, working on the Otira Tunnel for sometime until returning to a new farm his father had purchased.
Modifying his Indian
Later he became a professional speedway rider sliding his way around the oval dirt tracks. He again returned to the farm when the Great Depression hit before finding work as a motorcycle mechanic and salesman. Again his taste for speed got him into racing motorbikes, He rose to the top of the New Zealand motorcycle racing scene, racing on Oreti Beach and later in Melbourne, Australia.
Burt had purchased his first motorbike when he was 15 and in 1920 he had his first Indian Scout. The factory top speed of this bike was 89km/hr which didn’t satisfy Burt so in 1926 he started modifying it. He would often stay up all night working on his bike and then go to work on no sleep to sell bikes. With not much spare cash in the piggy bank, Burt would make many parts and tools himself. He would cast parts in old tins, make his own barrels, pistons, flywheels etc. His micrometer (a precision measuring instrument) was an old spoke.
Once the second World War ended, Burt split with his wife, stopped working and moved into a lock up garage. Living in his lock up he had plenty of time to work on his bike. Burt spent 20 years modifying and testing his bike. In the final stages the displacement had been modified from a factory 600cc to 950cc. He called it “The Munro Special”.
Burt Munro set his first New Zealand speed record in 1938. He continued to chase records through the 40’s and 50’s setting another seven. He then set his sights on the Bonneville salt flats in Utah. In 1961 he managed to make it there as a spectator and straight away knew he had to take his Indian motorcycle back. The following year, aged 63, Burt did make it back with his bike. He managed to set a land speed record of 178.97mph. He was hooked.
He ventured there a further eight times after this managing to set two more records. The most impressive is his 1967 record of 183.58mph firstly because the record still stands today, but also because he was 68 years old and his bike was 47 years old. On this trip he also managed to hit 190.07mph during a qualifying run which is the fastest ever speed recorded on an Indian motorcycle.
In 2005 the story of Burt Munro was brought to the big screen in a film called “The world’s fastest Indian”. The film shows Burt’s determination and obstacles he has to overcome to get to the USA to test the speed of his bike. Burt Munro is an extraordinary character that represents real and positive kiwi attributes such as ingenuity, dogged determination, and a laid back and humorous demeanour.
- In 1962, he set a 883 cc (53.9 cubic inches) class record of 288 km/h (178.95 mph) with his engine bored out to 850 cc (52 cubic inches).
- In 1966, he set a 1,000 cc (61 cubic inches) class record of 270.476 km/h (168.066 mph) with his engine punched out to 920 cc (56 cubic inches).
- In 1967, his engine was bored out to 950 cc (58 cubic inches) and he set an under 1,000 cc (61 cubic inches) class record of 295.453 km/h (183.586 mph). To qualify he made a one-way run of 305.89 km/h (190.07 mph), the fastest-ever officially recorded speed on an Indian. The unofficial speed record (officially timed) is 331 km/h (205.67 mph) for a flying mile.
- In 2006, he was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
- In 2014, 36 years after his death, he was retroactively awarded a 1967 record of 296.2593 km/h (184.087 mph) after his son John noticed a calculation error by AMA at that time.
Munro had four children—John, June, Margaret, and Gwen—with his wife Florence Beryl Martyn, whom he married in 1927. They were divorced in 1947.
Since the late 1950’s Munro suffered from angina. He suffered a stroke in 1977 and was admitted to hospital. After this his co-ordination had diminished leaving him frustrated. He wanted his motorcycles to remain in Southland, so he sold both machines to a local dealer. Munro died of natural causes on 6 January 1978, aged 78 years.
Burt’s legacy has been carried on by the Burt Munro Challenge, a motorcycle event started by the Southland Motorcycle Club after the success of the movie The World’s Fastest Indian, first running in 2006.