Set land-speed records on his home-built Indian Scout.
His story was the basis of the movie “The World’s Fastest Indian”.
By Leah Misch
New Zealander Burt Munro was a motorcycle land-speed record-holder of the 1960s. One of his dreams was to run his homebuilt 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle, dubbed the Munro Special, on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. He saved for years in spite of limited means to make the trip to America. He finally came over on a shoestring budget in 1962. Munro was 63 at the time with a bad heart, yet he still managed to overcome numerous obstacles to set world records, even as the hot muffler was burning the flesh on his leg. In 1967, Munro coaxed his beloved streamlined Indian to 183.58 mph. That set a record in the category of “streamlined motorcycles under 1,000cc.” To qualify, he made a one-way run of 190.07 mph, the fastest ever officially recorded speed on an Indian Motorcycle.
- In 1962, he set a 883 cc class record of 288 km/h (178.95 mph) with his engine bored out to 850 cc.
- In 1966, he set a 1000 cc class record of 270.476 km/h (168.07 mph) with his engine punched out to 920 cc.
- In 1967, his engine was bored out to 950 cc and he set an under 1000 cc class record of 295.453 km/h (183.59 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
“The World’s Fastest Indian”
Munro’s inspirational story was made into the movie “The World’s Fastest Indian” in 2005. The movie, starring Anthony Hopkins and directed by Roger Donaldson, was met with favorable reviews. Many in the motorcycling community called “The World’s Fastest Indian” the best motorcycle movie since the legendary documentary “On Any Sunday” made in the early 1970s.
The early years
Munro was born in Invercargill, New Zealand in 1899. He began riding motorcycles at the age of 15. His first bike was a British-built Clyno. He sold the Clyno to a blacksmith in 1920 and bought the Indian Scout, which he would continuously modify for the rest of his life. He later bought a 1936 Velocette, which he also modified and raced. In his mid-20s, Munro began competing in various forms of motorcycle racing in Australia. He rode in hillclimbs, trials, road racing, drag racing, flat track and early scrambles events. In other words, if there was a competition on two wheels, Munro probably tried it. He also participated in economy runs and once recorded 116 miles per gallon in one of the runs. In the mid-1940s, Munro and his wife divorced. He wanted to build a house with low ceilings to combat the New Zealand summer heat, but it was against local building codes. Instead, he got around the codes by building a low garage. It served as both his workshop and living quarters.
Dedication to motorcycles
Munro quit working in the late 1940s so he could devote his time fully to improving his Indian and Velocette racing bikes. During this period, he honed his skills at designing his own parts for the bike. Munro found unique sources for raw materials. As an example, he once carved out rods for his Indian using a Ford truck axle. It took him five months, but the rods lasted over 20 years, through countless high-speed runs. He experimented with a variety of metals by trial and error, once melting down an old gas pipeline and combining it with other melted metals to cast pistons for his bike. He converted his Indian, to overhead valves from a sidevalve. He made his own cams, often filing them by hand. From wheels, to engine parts, to the streamliner’s shell, Munro custom made just about every part of his bikes. It didn’t take long for the Munro Special to have very little of the original Indian Scout left. Munro’s dedication to his motorcycles was enormous. For years, he worked 16 hours per day in the shed. In later life he backed off a bit and was working just 70-hour weeks. While many of his neighbors viewed him as somewhat eccentric, he did not live the life of a hermit. Munro was a member of a motorcycle club and attended many club events and had a lot of friends whom he helped and who in turn helped him in his racing endeavors.
Land speed record attempts
Starting in the 1940s, Munro earned a number of New Zealand speed records. His first record was the New Zealand open road record set in 1940 at a speed of 120.8 mph. That record held for 12 years. He earned the New Zealand beach record of 132.38 mph in 1957 at the annual Canterbury Speed Trials. By the late 1950s, Munro’s bikes were getting so fast that he was running out of room to run them on New Zealand’s speed courses. He considered trying to run on some of Australia’s dry lakes, but in 1957 after visiting the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, his goal became to compete on the flat and vast expanse of Bonneville’s salt bed.
The 1962 trip to Bonneville
With his savings and additional funds from motorcycling friends in New Zealand, Munro finally made the trip to America in 1962 aboard a rusting cargo ship. In order to pay for his ocean crossing, Munro worked as the ship’s cook. Once in the U.S., Munro bought a dilapidated Nash station wagon for $90 in Los Angeles to haul the Munro Special to Bonneville. Munro arrived at Bonneville ready to make his runs only to be told he was not pre-entered so he wouldn’t be allowed to compete. At home in New Zealand, riders simply showed up, signed up and raced. Munro’s American friends, among them Rollie Free and Marty Dickerson, both of them long-time, well-respected members of the Land Speed Record fraternity, talked officials into letting Munro make his runs. Tech officials looked the other way, ignoring many of Munro’s unorthodox means of putting his ancient Indian together.
In his inaugural run at the Salt Flats, Munro set a world record of 288 km/h (178.97 mph) with his engine configured with 850cc of displacement. Munro continued to compete at Bonneville through 1967, when he 68 years old. He survived a crash at top speed in 1967. In a New Zealand motorcycle magazine, Burt was quoted as saying, “At the Salt in 1967 we were going like a bomb. Then she got the wobbles just over half way through the run. To slow her down I sat up. The wind tore my goggles off and the blast forced my eyeballs back into my head – couldn’t see a thing. We were so far off the black line that we missed a steel marker stake by inches. I put her down – a few scratches all round but nothing much else.”
In 1975, Munro’s failing health cost him his competition license. In spite of this, he still managed to make a few clandestine runs on his beloved Indian and Velocette. Doctors said Munro’s lifetime of heavy crashes caused damage to his heart. In January of 1978, Munro had returned from his daily walk when his heart finally gave out. During his life, Munro’s accomplishments were little known outside a select group of motorcycle enthusiasts. With the release of “The World’s Fastest Indian” in 2005, Munro suddenly became a cult hero in New Zealand. There, the movie became the biggest domestically produced film ever produced. Munro had a son and three daughters. His son, John, said that Munro would have shrugged his shoulders and smiled at the popularity he obtained after his passing. “I’m sure he would have never believed the popularity the movie gave him,” said John Munro. “I think he would have been quietly pleased at being able to share his life with millions of people.”
He was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2006.