Herbert James ‘Burt’ Munro, (Bert in his youth) (25 March 1899 – 6 January 1978) was a New Zealand motorcycle racer, famous for setting an under-1000cc world record, at Bonneville, 26 August 1967. This record still stands today. Munro was 68 and was riding a 47-year old machine when he set his last record.
Working from his home in Invercargill, he worked for 20 years to highly modify the 1920 Indian motorcycle which he had bought in 1920. 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 ten visits to the salt flats, he set three speed records, one of which still stands today. 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 – both directed by Roger Donaldson.
Munro’s twin died at birth. He grew up on a farm in Edendale, east of Invercargill.
Munro’s 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. As Munro’s family discouraged his endeavours outside of farm life, he became constantly bored with daily routine, and at the outbreak of World War I, he intended to go to war as soon as he was old enough, for a chance to see the world.
Munro remained on the family farm until the end of WW1, when his father sold the farm while Munro worked on the Otira Tunnel construction until recalled to work with his father on a newly-purchased farm. After this he became a professional speedway rider, but returned home to the family farm at the start of the Great Depression. Finding work as a motorcycles salesman and mechanic, he still raced motorcycles, and he rose to the top of the New Zealand motorcycle scene, racing on Oreti Beach and later in Melbourne, Australia.
Post World War II, Munro divorced his wife, and then gave up work to reside in a lock-up garage.
Munro’s Indian Scout was very early off the production line, being only the 627th Scout to leave the American factory. The bike had an original top speed of 55 mph (89 km/h). But this did not satisfy Munro so in 1926 he decided to start modifying his beloved Indian.
The biggest two challenges for Munro to overcome while modifying his bike were his lack of money and the fact that he worked full time as a motorcycle salesman. He would often work overnight on his bikes (he had a 1936 Velocette MSS as well), then in the morning, he would go to work, having had no sleep the night before.
Because Munro was a man of modest means, he would often make parts and tools himself instead of having them professionally built. For example, he would cast parts in old tins, make his own barrels, pistons, flywheels, etc. His micrometer (a precision measuring instrument) was an old spoke.
In its final stages, the Indian’s displacement was 950cc (as built it was 600cc) and was driven by a triple chain drive system.
The “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.
Bonneville Salt Flats and Speed Week
The Bonneville Salt Flats in northwestern Utah, are known worldwide for their many miles of flat, compacted salt, perfect for testing speed machines. During Speed Week, usually in mid-late August, vehicle enthusiasts from around the world gather at Bonneville.
Munro travelled to Bonneville 10 times, the first time for “sightseeing” purposes. In the nine times he raced at Bonneville, Munro set three world records, in 1962, 1966 and 1967. He also once qualified at over 200 mph (320 km/h), but that was an unofficial run, and was not counted.
Following the mis-spelling of his name in an American motorcycling magazine in 1957, Bert Munro changed his name to Burt
Munro had four children — John, June, Margaret and Gwen — with his wife Florence Beryl Martyn, whom he married in 1927 and divorced in the mid 1940s.
Having suffered from angina since the late 1950s, Munro suffered a partial stroke in 1977. After getting out of hospital, Munro found he had a lack of co-ordination. Frustrated, but wanting his motorcycles to remain in Southland, he sold both machines to a local dealer.
Munro died on 6 January 1978, age 78, of natural causes.
- In 1962 he set a world record of 288 km/h (178.97 mph) with his engine bored out to 850 cc (51 in³).
- In 1966 he set a world record of 270.476 km/h (168.066 mph).
- In 1967 his engine was bored out to 950 cc (58 in³) and he set a class record of 295.44 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.
The 2005 cinematography awarded film The World’s Fastest Indian. UK heavy metal band Blaze Bayley wrote a song about Burt Munro on their second studio album Promise and Terror, entitled God of Speed, as did American Roots Rock singer-songwriter C.J. Benoit. [via Wiki]