Herbert James Munro

The Legend of the World’s Fastest Indian

Burt MunroH. J. “Burt” Munro was born in 1899, at his parents home in Invercargill, New Zealand.  His twin sister died at birth and Burt, said the doctor, “won’t live till he’s two.”  What he didn’t take into account was that Burt was a bad-ass.  Fortunately for New Zealand and motorcycle history, the doctor was wrong.

Burt was constantly bored with the daily routine.  His interest in speed began at a young age, riding the family’s fastest horse across the farm, despite the complaints of his father.  Trips via train to the port at Invercargill were a rare source of excitement, and the arrival of cars, motorcycles and aircraft added to Burt’s eagerness to join the world outside of his farm.  His family discouraged his endeavors outside of farm life, but that didn’t stop Burt.

Burt's Munro Special in its ongoing development, circa 1943

Burt's Munro Special in its ongoing development, circa 1943

In 1915 he bought his first motorcycle, a Douglas.  By 1919, Burt had saved £50 to buy a new Clyno with a sidecar.  He removed the sidecar and entered the Clyno in local races.  Speed records were set at the Fortrose circuit, near Invercargill, but the Clyno wasn’t kept for long when the Indian came on the scene.

World's Fastest Indian

In 1920, the 21 year old Munro stood gazing at a brand-new motorcycle in an Invercargill garage.  His eyes roved over the neat little V twin engine, the cast alloy primary case, and the leaf sprung front fork.  His hand lovingly stroked the gleaming red paint and the sparkle of the polished nickel matched that in his eyes.  The proprietor was spoken to, a deal was struck, and the young man bought his motorcycle—beginning a partnership which was to last until his death in December 1978.  Burt’s Indian Scout was very early off the production line, being only the 627th Scout to leave the American factory.  The bike wasn’t a very fast model and, in original condition, would have been lucky to achieve 60mph.


The motor: no pressure feed, just hand oiled before every run.

Burt began modifying his bike in 1926.  Burt wasn’t a rich man and his methods, to say the least, were unorthodox.  He used an old spoke for a micrometer and cast parts in old tins.  One American report has him casting pistons in holes in the sand at the local beach!  He built his own four-cam design to replace the standard two-cam system and converted the engine to overhead valves.  He made his own barrels, flywheels, pistons, cams, and lubrication system.  He hand-carved his rods from a Caterpillar tractor axle, and hardened & tempered them to 143 tons of tensile strength.  He built a thousand pound pressure clutch and used a triple chain drive.  He also experimented with streamlining and, in its final form, the bike was completely enclosed in a streamlined shell.  Basically, he redid damn near everything.  In its final stages, the Indian’s displacement was 950cc (as built it was 600cc).  Hell, he used a cork from a brandy bottle as a gas cap!

73-5654_600He competed around New Zealand and Australia regularly setting records and winning races.  His goal though, was to test the bike on the salt flats at Bonneville in Utah.  In 1962, at the age of 63, he made it to America with the Indian hoping to compete.  He had not signed up, but was allowed to race through the co-operation of Rollie Free and Marty Dickerson (also bad-asses).  He set a world record for 850cc engines of 179mph.

Burt at the FlatsHis visits to the salt were not without incident. In the 1973 first issue of Motorcycle New Zealand, Burt is quoted as follows: “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”  At the time Burt was traveling at close to 206 mph!


In all, Burt Munro made ten trips to Bonneville.  In 1967, at the age of 68, he set a land speed record of 185.586 mph—on a 47-year old machine with an original top speed of 55.  To this day, no one has broken his record (motorcycle under 1000cc).

Munro2The “Munro Special,” as Munro called his bike, is now owned by a motorcycle enthusiast on New Zealand’s South Island, and is on display at E. Hayes & Sons, Invercargill.  His efforts, and success, are the basis of the motion picture The World’s Fastest Indian (2005), starring Anthony Hopkins, and an earlier 1971 short documentary film Burt Munro: Offerings to the God of Speed.

The Munro Special at E. Hayes & Sons hardware store in Invercargill, NZ

Munro Special at E. Hayes & Sons hardware store in Invercargill, NZ

Here are the source links: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burt_Munro and here: http://thejanuscenter.com/heroworkshop/heromunro.htm and here: http://www.indianmotorbikes.com/features/munro/munro.htm and here: http://www.antiquemotorcycle.org/TheMagazine/burt_monro.html


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