Burt Munro's Speed Obsession

From a small shed in a small town in a small country at the very bottom of the world came an old man and an old bike - to capture the most remarkable world speed record ever

Everybody who's ever owned a bike has wanted to know how fast it goes. It's human nature. Trouble is, once you'veridden your bike flat out, you just know you're going to want to go even faster. That's human nature too. But while most of us are content to buy a few aftermarket parts to increase the bhp, some people feel the need to take things further. And in Burt Munro's case, much, much further.

In 1920, Munro bought a 50mph Indian Scout. He spent the next 46 years modifying it in his shed, then the 63-year-old grandfather took the vintage machine to the Bonneville Salt Flats and clocked 212mph. The equivalent today would be taking a Suzuki GSX-R1000 and modifying it - designing and building all the parts yourself, on a shoestring budget - and hitting 680mph!

Most people now know of Burt Munro through the movie The World's Fastest Indian, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as Burt Munro. But what was the real Munro like? What possessed him to live and sleep in a shed for a quarter of a century so he could achieve that one perfect run through the Bonneville timing lights? We tracked down Munro's son, John, in New Zealand, to find out what his father was really like and why he dedicated his life to making offerings to the God of Speed. The pictures published here are from the Munro family's private collection and most have never been seen before.

Herbert J. 'Burt' Munro was born near Invercargill at the south end of New Zealand's South Island. "It was originally spelled 'Bert,'" says Munro's son, "but the Americans decided to call him Burt so he went along with it."

At 15 years old, Munro bought his first bike. In 1917, at the age of 18, he paid £50 for a new Clyno with sidecar. After removing the chair, Munro raced the bike in local meets and set a few local speed records at the Fortrose circuit near Invercargill. But it wasn't until 1920 that Burt Munro encountered the machine which would change his life. It was a 1919 Indian Scout - a 600cc, side-valve V-twin with a three-speed, hand-change gearbox and a foot-operated clutch. It had no rear suspension, and only two inches of travel at the front. To this day, the bike has been referred to as a 1920 model (Burt even had this painted on the bodywork) but John Munro can now correct this universal misconception. "It was actually a 1919 model," he admits, "but Burt bought it in 1920 so he always called it a 1920 model."

The first major modifications were made in 1926. This consisted mainly of removing surplus items to reduce weight, plus some alterations to the riding position. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Munro designed and built his own four-cam system to replace the standard two-cam, push-rod set-up and converted the bike to run with overhead valves. Over the years, Munro would make his own barrels, pistons, flywheels, cams and followers, and even his own lubrication system. Impressive as all this was, it was Munro's unorthodox methods and shoestring budget which made his engineering feats so remarkable. He made barrels from pieces of cast iron gas pipe, scrounged from the gas company after they'd been dug up for replacement - Munro believed that after spending so long underground the iron would be 'well seasoned'. He hand-carved con-rods from an old tractor axle, carved the tread off normal tyres with a kitchen knife to make slicks, and one report even had him casting pistons in holes dug on the local beach! This, like so many stories surrounding Munro, is a myth, as his son reveals. "It's not true. There are so many myths about my dad. When we were filming at Bonneville people kept coming up to me and asking if all these weird stories were true. It happens here in New Zealand too."

For Burt Munro, time spent on even the most laborious jobs was time well spent. "It's almost impossible for me to give a true picture of the time I've spent on my cycles," Munro wrote in 1970. "The last 22 years have been full time. For one stretch of 10 years I put in 16 hours every day, but on Christmas Day took the afternoon off."

Wayne Alexander of Britten Motorcycles - who built two replicas of the Munro Special for the movie - is amazed at the time and effort Munro put into his project. "Burt would spend 40 hours hand-filing a piece that could have been done on a mill in 30 minutes," he says. Alexander also marvels at Munro's skill in designing and building complex working parts without technical drawings. "He was remarkable. He could hold huge images in his head."

According to Munro's son, his engineering talents were innate. "His skills were all self-taught. There's a bit of a mechanical bent in the family. One of his uncles invented some agricultural machinery which was sold around the world. I've inherited it to some degree - I've invented things and patented them."

Munro became so obsessed with his quest that he eventually split from his family to work full time on his bike. His son recalls: "Mum and dad separated in late 1945. Dad bought a plot on the other side of town and built a concrete shed where he worked on his bikes, slept and lived."

John Munro remembers helping his father out in the shed at the family home and even riding pillion on what would become the world's fastest Indian. "I used to help dad work on his bikes. Occasionally I'd get taken to school on the Indian or whatever bike was around at the time."

Although reluctant to speak on behalf of his 97-year-old mother - Burt's widow - John Munro concedes she may still not have forgiven Burt for spending so much time and money on bikes. "I can't answer for my mother but when you're living through a depression and money is being spent on other things, I'm quite sure there was some resentment.

"Mum hasn't seen the film and we haven't asked if she wants to. She'll say in her own time if she does. She has ups and downs about the whole thing but I think she's quietly pleased about it."

John is delighted with the film. "Myself and my sisters were thrilled when we saw it. I don't think dad would have believed they'd make a movie about him. I met Roger Donaldson in 1971 when he made a documentary about dad called Offerings to the God of Speed. Roger said then that he hadn't done my dad justice and he wanted to make a feature movie about him. I told him he was nuts. Dad just shrugged and said, 'Suit yourself fella.'"

Once he began attempting speed records, Munro realised he needed a bigger engine. In incremental stages he gradually bored the bike out to 850cc, 920cc, 953cc and, ultimately, 1000cc. It may sound straightforward, but keeping an engine running with almost double its original displacement is a feat in itself.

So why didn't he simply buy a more modern bike with a larger capacity? "He just liked the personal challenge," says John Munro, "he liked to confound the experts. If someone told him it couldn't be done, he liked to prove otherwise. It was just the challenge of seeing what he could do with it."

Munro also successfully converted the Scout from a flat-head to a push-rod, OHV configuration. Inevitably there was a price to pay for asking so much from an machine. As the movie depicts, Munro had the legend 'Offerings to the God of Speed' painted on the inside of his shed. Below it were stacked hundreds of failed and broken parts, usually due to con-rods and cylinder sleeves not being able to hack the pace demanded of them. Over a 50-year period Burt estimated he suffered 250 engine blow-ups.

But Munro's motto remained the same: 'If it's broken, fix it and try again.' After breaking 50 standard con rods, he spent five months making his own out of an old Ford truck axle. The man didn't know how to quit.

Munro had a long history in motorcycle sport before attempting world speed records at Bonneville. In the 1920s he rode Speedway in Australia before returning to New Zealand with his young family when the Great Depression struck. But while he raced in local events, his real obsession was with outright top speed. In 1948, Munro packed in his day job (he rode all over New Zealand on bikes trying to sell them to farmers) and dedicated the rest of his life to speed. His early achievements included setting the New Zealand record in 1940 with a speed of 120.8mph, and he set a further six records in his home country.

In 1962, Burt shipped his Munro Special to the US, bought a station wagon for $90 which acted as Team HQ and took on the fastest 'streamliner' motorcycles in the world on his 42-year-old home-brewed special. He astounded everyone by establishing a new world record of 178.97mph. Munro was 63 years old.

Danger was never far away on the hard-packed salt flats, but Munro didn't let it bother him "At the Salt in 1967 we were going like a bomb," he later recalled of one high-speed tumble. "Then she got the wobbles just over half way through the run. I sat up, the wind tore my goggles off and the blast forced my eyeballs back into my head - I couldn't see a thing. We were so far off the black line [the marked line which riders at Bonneville are supposed to follow] 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 Munro, then 68, was travelling at close to 200mph.

In a letter to fellow American V-twin enthusiast John Andrews in England, Burt wrote: "I had some of the worst out-of-control rides on record. The worst was in 1962. In an effort to stop wheelspin at 160mph I bolted a 60lb lead brick in front of the rear wheel. By the time I got to the three-mile marker, the top of the shell was swerving five feet and the wheel marks were five inches wide and snaking 30 inches every 200 yards. I wound it all-on for another one and a half miles and when I found out it would go on that way forever I rolled it back and got it stopped. When the gang found me laughing and asked the joke, I said I was happy to still be alive."

In 1967 Munro set the speed which officially made his bike the world's fastest Indian. To qualify to take part in the annual Bonneville Speed Week, riders must set a one-way timed run at a respectable speed. For Burt Munro, it was an unthinkable 190.07mph. It was then, as it still is now, the fastest speed ever officially recorded by an Indian motorcycle of any kind.

What made Munro's achievements even more remarkable was that he was the only man to ride a 'streamliner' in the conventional manner - all other entrants had feet-first machines. And while Burt had modified the Indian's frame, it was still the only one which resembled a traditional motorcycle frame.

As his health deteriorated in the late 1960s his trips to Bonneville lessened. In 1975 he finally lost his competition licence. "When dad realised he wasn't going to be able to ride anymore he wanted me to take over the Indian," says John Munro. "I didn't have the facilities or the money so one of Dad's friends, Irving Hayes, bought the bike and put it on display in his hardware store in Invercargill. Irving's grandson now runs the store and Burt's bike is still on display there."

Up until 1968, Munro worked out he had achieved an average speed increase of 3.5mph every year for the last 50 years. By the end of the bike's development, Munro had coaxed around 100bhp out of a machine which originally made just 18.

On 6 January 1978 Burt Munro succumbed to the heart condition which had troubled him for years. He was 78 years old. Yet he had never let health problems stand in the way of his goals. As Burt once said: "You live more in five minutes flat-out on a bike like this than most people do in a lifetime."

In October of 2006, Burt's son, together with his wife and sister June, will travel to Ohio to attend a ceremony which will see his father posthumously inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame for his achievements at Bonneville.

Directed by Roger Donaldson, The World's Fastest Indian is a moving and inspiring tribute to a man who never gave up on his dreams. It's a lesson to us all. Burt Munro's example proves there's nothing that can't be done if you want it bad enough.