Friday, 1 March 2013

Burt Munro and the World's Fastest Indian

Dogged persistence or bloody-minded obsession

I suppose we all love speed in one way or another. Some of us are content with the speed that our standard machines provide whereas others will bolt on aftermarket parts to increase that maximum, even though they will probably never reach that maximum on road or track.

And then there was Burt Munro. Not only did he buy, in 1920, a very standard Indian Scout of 1919 vintage (top speed around 50mph), but he spent the next 46 years modifying the bike to go faster and faster. And, don’t forget, there was no popping down to his local performance parts shop and buying what he needed; he had to make everything himself. Then, at the age of 69, he took the bike to Bonneville Salt Flats and clocked 190mph. But it is between these bookends that the real story lies.

Munro was born in 1899 near Invercargill at the south end of New Zealand’s South Island to a farming family. From an early age he displayed an obsession with speed, riding the farm’s fastest horse, much to his father’s disapproval. The arrival of cars, motorcycles and trains to New Zealand stoke Burt’s interest further and he longed to escape the farm and see the outside world.

The start of the First World War gave Munro the chance to escape and see the world, but it ended before he had the chance to enlist. At 15, he bought his first motorcycle. At the age of 18, he bought a new Clyno with sidecar. He removed the sidecar and raced the solo machine, setting a few local speed records. He began entering speedway races and turned professional, only to give it all up and return to the family farm when the great depression arrived.

He then got a job as a motorcycle salesman and mechanic and rose to the top of the New Zealand motorcycle racing scene. The Indian was purchased, probably for mere transportation reasons, in 1920 and remained stock for the first six years of ownership. It was a 600cc V-twin with a three-speed, hand-change gearbox and foot clutch.

Due to lack of finances, rather than selling the Indian and buying something more powerful and, therefore, more suitable for record-breaking work, Burt simply had no choice but to set to and modify the Indian himself. At this point he was still working as a salesman and would often work on the bike through the night, heading out for work next morning without having had a wink of sleep.

In 1926, the first major modifications were made. At first, this was mainly removing surplus items to lighten the bike and altering the riding position. But, as the years rolled by, major re-engineering work took place; in the 1940’s and 50’s, for example, Munro designed and manufactured double-overhead-cam cylinder heads and converted the engine to overhead-valve actuation in place of the sidevalve/pushrod original set-up. Over the years, he would make his own barrels, pistons, flywheels, cams and followers and his own lubrication system.

But what is more impressive is that he had no fully-equipped workshop; he did everything on a shoestring budget and used unorthodox methods. When Wayne Alexander of Britten Motorcycles was commissioned to build two replicas for the movie about Burt’s life – The World’s Fastest Indian – he was amazed at the time and effort Munro put into the project; ‘Burt would spend 40 hours hand filing a piece that could have been done on a mill in 30 minutes.’ Munro himself acknowledged the amount of time he spent pursuing his dream; ‘It’s almost impossible for me to give a true picture of the time I’ve spent on my motorcycles,’ he said in 1970. ‘The last 22 years have been full time. For one stretch of ten years I put in 16 hours every day, but on Christmas day took the afternoon off.’

He was the master of improvisation. He scrounged old pieces of cast iron gas pipe that had been buried under the streets for years to make cylinder barrels, reasoning that, after spending so long underground, the iron would be ‘well-seasoned’. He hand carved con-rods from an old tractor axle and carved the tread off tyres to make slicks. One apocryphal story even had him casting pistons in holes dug on the local beach. Not true, however, says his son.

In 1945, he and his wife of 20 years divorced and Burt set himself up in a workshop (built by himself, of course) where he worked on the bikes, lived and slept. Inside the shed was written, on one of the walls, ‘Offerings to the God of Speed’ and underneath was a pile of hundreds of broken engine components. Over a 50-year period, he estimated that he suffered 250 engine blow-ups. His motto summed up his character, however; ‘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. Obsession?

By 1948 he had stopped working to devote his life to his one passion; speed. By 1962, Bonneville Salt Flats were beckoning and Burt shipped the bike to the US where he bought an old station wagon for $90 to act as ‘Team HQ’ and took on the fastest streamliner motorcycles in the world. On a 42-year old motorbike, a 63-year old New Zealander established a new World Record of 178.97mph. Onlookers were astounded.

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."

There was something indefatigable about Munro; nothing, it seemed, would put him off. "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.

It was in 1967 that Munro set the speed that made his Indian officially the World’s fastest. To qualify to take part in the annual Bonneville Speed Week, riders had to set a one-way timed run at a pre-determined speed. By this time, the engine displaced 950cc and he managed a 190.07mph (305.89kmh) one way run and a 183.586mph (295.453kmh) average over two runs, which made it the World’s Fastest Indian; a record that stands to this day.

By 1975, aged 76, Munro had lost his competition licence and his speed attempts ceased. The bike was sold and is on display in a hardware shop in Invercargill. By the time he stopped, the engine, which originally produced 18bhp, was producing around 100bhp and Burt reckoned he had added 3.5mph each year to the bike over the 50 years he campaigned it.

Long a sufferer of angina, Burt succumbed to the heart condition in 1978. He once said ‘you live more in five minutes flat-out on a bike like this than most people do in a lifetime.’ On that basis, Burt Munro must have fitted dozens of lifetimes into his own.

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