The World’s Fastest Indian
Herbert James ‘Burt’ Munro was a motorcycle racer from New Zealand, famous for setting an under-1000cc world record, at Bonneville, on the 26th of August 1967 and this record still stands. Born in 1899, Munro was 68 and riding a 47-year-old machine when he set his last record.
Working from his home in Invercargill, he spent 20 years highly modifying a 1920 Indian motorcycle that he had bought that same year.
Munro set his first New Zealand speed record in 1938 and later set seven more. He travelled to compete at the Bonneville Salt Flats, attempting to set world speed records. During his nine visits to the salt flats, he set three speed records, one of which still stands.
His odyssey and success inspired the film The World’s Fastest Indian (2005), starring Anthony Hopkins and an earlier 1971 short documentary film, Burt Munro: Offerings to the God of Speed, both directed by Roger Donaldson.
Munro’s interest in speed began at an early age, riding the family’s fastest horse across the farm, despite the complaints of his father. The arrival of cars, motorcycles and aircraft added to Burt’s eagerness to join the world of speed.
Munro worked on successive family farms, became a professional speedway rider and worked as a motorcycle salesman and mechanic. He rose to the top of the New Zealand motorcycle scene and also competed in Australia.
Studio photos courtesy of the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art
Munro’s Indian Scout was the 627th Scout to leave the American factory and originally had a top speed of 55mph (89km/h), but that was before his modifications began, in 1926.
Because he had full-time employment Burt often worked overnight on the Indian and on a 1936 Velocette MSS.
Following the Second World War, Munro was divorced and he subsequently resided in a lock-up garage.
Being of modest means, Bert Munro made his own barrels, pistons, flywheels, cams and followers, lubrication system and even carved the tread off normal tyres with a kitchen knife to make high speed slicks.
In its final stages, the Indian’s displacement was 950cc – way up from its factory 600cc – and had a triple-chain drive system.The engine was so highly stressed that it had to be stripped completely after every two or three runs.
The Munro Special, as Munro called his bike, is now owned by Neville Hayes, in New Zealand’s South Island and is on display at E Hayes & Sons, Invercargill. There is also a second motorcycle purported to be the original Munro Special in Te Papa Museum in Wellington.
At Bonneville, Munro set three world records: in 1962, in 1966 and in 1967. He also once qualified at over 200mph (320km/h), but that was an unofficial run and was not counted.
Following the misspelling of his name in an American motorcycling magazine in 1957, Bert Munro changed his name to Burt.
Having had angina since the late 1950s, Munro suffered a stroke in 1977 and was admitted to hospital. He sold both machines to his friend, Norman Hayes, of E Hayes & Sons and died on 6 January 1978, aged 78 years.
In 1962, he set an 883 cc class record of 288km/h (178.95mph), with the engine bored out to 850cc.
In 1966, he set a 1000 cc class record of 270.476km/h (168.07mph) with the engine at 920cc.
In 1967, with the engine bored out to 950cc, he set an under-1000cc class record of 295.453km/h (183.59mph). To qualify, he made a one-way run of 305.89km/h (190.07mph), the fastest-ever officially recorded speed on an Indian.
In 2014 – 36 years after his death, he was posthumously awarded a revised 1967 record of 296.2593km/h (184.087mph) after his son John noticed a calculation error made by AMA at that time.
In March 2013, Indian Motorcycle announced that it was producing a custom-built streamliner named the Spirit of Munro. The motorcycle was built to showcase the Thunder Stroke 111 engine to be used in one of the 2014 road models.