Who is Burt Munro?

15th Mar 2013 by Admin

The World’s Fastest Indian Legend

He took a 1920 Indian Scout Motorbike with a top speed of 89km/h, when he bought it, to set a world record of over 300km/h 47 years later. This is a story of a life-time of dedication and achievement, to get this one bike to go faster, and that is what the legend is all about.

While touring New Zealand this summer, I chanced upon a hardware store where I discovered an array of vintage motor bikes on display. As I wandered about I came across the “world’s fastest Indian”. A motor bike owned by Burt Munro and made famous in a recent movie where the part of Burt Munro was played by Anthony Hopkins.

In trying to share my excitement of this discovery with people when I returned to Australia, I was amazed at how few people had heard of Burt Munro. So I thought I would share his story.

Burt Munro was born on the 25th March 1899 at Edendale, a country town 30km’s north of Invercargill, New Zealand.

In 1920 he paid ₤140 pounds cash for a new 600cc Indian Scout motorbike which had a top speed of 55mph (89km/h). By the time he sold this bike in 1977 he had increased the engine capacity to 1000cc and had achieved a speed of more than 200mph (320km/h), through modifications he made by hand in his own shed.

In 1926 Burt started tuning the bike for speed and reached over 90mph (145km/h) but couldn’t get it go any quicker. So, from the mid-1930s onwards, he made some major modifications, including going from side to overhead valves and going from two camshafts to a four cam system, until in 1940, he gained the New Zealand Motorcycle speed record of 120.8mph (195km/h). An example of his ingenuity was that as he went faster he found the original components like con-rods would not stand up to the strain so he started manufacturing his own, out of old Ford truck axles. Burt had very little equipment as far as machining was concerned so there was a lot of handwork associated with the manufacturing. He also cast his own pistons using a large kerosene blow lamp and casting dies he made himself.

The red outer casing, called streamline shells, was originally hand beaten out of metal, but as that proved too heavy the metal shell was used as a mold for future fiberglass ones.

In 1962, he made his first trip to the famous Bonneville Salt Flats, in the state of Utah, USA. On the 20th August 1962 Burt achieved a speed of 179mph (288km/h), a speed that people attending “Speed Week” found absolutely unbelievable considering the age of both the bike (42years) and the rider (63).

He made several more attempts over subsequent years until on the 26th August 1967 Burt claimed the World Record Class under 1000cc – with an average speed of 183.586mph (295km/h) but on one run, he officially achieved 190.07mph or 305.9km/h. This record still stands to this very day. Burt however always maintained that one of his runs was over 200mph but the timing mechanism failed.

In an article published in a British Bike magazine, Burt outlined some of his injuries he had sustained in achieving his dream including one in 1940 which ended his working life. In 1977 he suffered a partial stroke which affected his coordination and left him unable to work on the bikes. His wish however was to ensure that the bike stayed in Invercargill, and so a local businessman purchased the bike and it is now on permanent display in the Invercargill hardware store E Hayes and Sons.

Link to British bike magazine article

Burt died on 6th January 1978 – aged 78.
Note: The con-rods he built in the 1940s are still in the bike.

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