Burt Munro and the Fastest Indian Motorcycle

January 20, 2017

Burt Munro is a true legend of vintage motorcycle history. He set land speed records on his Indian motorcycle when it was well over 40 years old. And he was 68 when he set his record in 1967 that still stands 50 years later! Never one to let age slow him down, he even set a record from beyond the grave. The 2005 film “The World’s Fastest Indian” with Anthony Hopkins commemorates his achievements. A documentary from 1971 entitled “Burt Munro: Offering to the Gods of Speed” provides further details of his story. Meanwhile, here’s our tribute to a man who truly loved his vintage Indian motorcycle.

Burt Munro with his Indian Motorcycle

Burt Munro with his Modified Indian Motorcycle with the Fairing

Burt Munro – Speeding From The Start

Munro was born in 1899 in Invercargill, New Zealand and grew up on a farm in nearby Edendale. From an early age, speed fascinated Burt. He would gallop across the farm on the fastest horse he could find, despite the objections of his worried father. Burt was always eager to take the train to Invercargill. He knew that there he could see cars, motorcycles, and aircraft promising a connection to the world outside.

At age 15, he got his first bike, a British Clyno. Six years later, he sold the Clyno and upgraded to a 1920 Indian motorcycle, the famous Scout model. He modified that bike for the rest of his life, and it is on that vintage motorcycle that he set his land speed records. He also bought a Velocette in 1936 which he modified extensively, but his focus remained on the Indian.

Racing and Working

A few years after he bought the Indian on which he would eventually set a world record, he started competing in motorcycle racing in Australia, where the sport was growing and diversifying. Hillclimbs, flat tracks, trials, drag racing, road racing, and some of the earliest scrambles – Munro was keen for anything that involved speed and two wheels.

Munro’s family sold their farm and he left to work on the Otira Tunnel, then returned to work with his father on a new farm. He enjoyed a brief career as a professional speedway racer, followed by work as motorcycle salesman and mechanic. He never made a lot of money, but at the end of the Second World War, he had saved up enough to build a garage that he lived in after divorcing his wife. There, he would work overnight to modify his two beloved vintage motorcycles and return to his sales job, sometimes with no sleep. Eventually, in the late 1940s, he quit working to dedicate himself fully to building the world’s fastest motorcycle under 1000cc.

Burt and his Indian Motorcycle

Modifying The Indian Motorcycle That Beat Them All

Munro’s Indian Scout Motorcycle was the 627th unit to roll off the factory line, one of the earliest 1920 Scout models.  His Indian Scout’s top speed, in stock configuration, was 89 km/h or 55 mp/h. He began work to modify his beloved vintage motorcycle in 1926 and continued into the 1960s, going full time in the late 40s and working up to 16 hours a day.

Munro had neither the budget nor the inclination to shop for stock parts to improve his Indian motorcycle. He made his own parts; pistons, barrels, flywheels; whatever he needed, he cast in old pots. Munro used an old truck axle to build new rods for his Indian. He worked for five months to machine them – a Herculean effort that paid off: they lasted through 20 years of brutal high speed runs. He created his own alloys, combining waste metal in experiments to create the ideal piston material out of scrap metal. Eventually, he converted his bike from overhead valves to side valves and installed a triple chain drive. He also built and experimented with fairings that were key to achieving the high speeds he yearned for with the small engine.

Burt's 1920 Indian Motorcycle

Burt’s 1920 Indian Scout Motorcycle with the Fairing Off

Indian Motorcycle Land Speed Records

In the 1940s, Burt began setting speed records, first in New Zealand. His 1940 open road record of 120.8 mph was more than twice the stock speed of his Indian, already 20 years old. The record was unbeaten for 12 years. In 1957 he set another record in New Zealand, 132.38 mph on a beach. Later that year, he made his first visit to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA, and resolved to return to the wide open flatlands where he would eventually achieve his lasting victory.

In 1962, with savings and some donations from friends in New Zealand motorcycle clubs, he traveled to the U.S. on a cargo ship with his bike. Being a little short of the full fare, he worked as the ships cook. He spent $90 on an old station wagon to haul himself and the Indian to Bonneville, where bad news was waiting.

In New Zealand, casual Kiwis simply showed up at land speed trials. In the U.S., the uptight yanks required pre-registration, a wrinkle he had not anticipated. Fortunately, two of his friends and colleagues in the great fraternity of pioneering speed demons interceded on his behalf. They talked the officials into letting him enter, and persuaded them to ignore his unorthodox assembly methods and his most unusual machine.

Burt’s Indian Motorcycle Still Holds the Under 1000 cc Bonneville Flats Record

On his first run at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1962, Burt set a new world record – 288 km/h or 178.97 mph – on his highly modified 850 cc  incarnation of the 1920 Indian Scout Motorcycle. He continued to compete up to the age of 68, when he survived a high speed crash and set a record that stands to this day. Burt was quoted in a Kiwi motorcycle mag:

“At the Salt in 1967 we were going like a bomb. Then she got the wobbles just over half way through the run. To slow her down I sat up. The wind tore my goggles off and the blast forced my eyeballs back into my head – couldn’t see a thing. We were so far off the black line that we missed a steel marker stake by inches. I put her down – a few scratches all round but nothing much else.”

Burt lived to the age of 78, passing away in 1978 from a heart condition. Doctors said his condition may have had something to do with the many high speed crashes he survived. Thirty-six years later, he broke another record from beyond the grave. His son John carefully reviewed the AMA Land Speed record data and discovered an error. As a result, the AMA posthumously awarded Burt Munro a new land speed record for his August 26, 1967 run, replacing his old 183.586 mph record with 184.087 mph. His modified record for under 1,000 cc’s still stands to this day.

The record he broke, like the life he lived, was his own. Here’s to a one-of-a-kind legend of vintage motorcycles!

If you are interested in reading more about vintage motorcycles, we have several articles that might interest you in our “Gentleman’s Lounge.” Here is one on vintage motorcycle tires and another on vintage motorcycle engines. We’ll be following up with another in our series of vintage motorcycle legends next month. Please stay tuned.