The Munro Special
The World’s Fastest Indian movie title, (2005) at first glance suggests several different possible story lines. For instance, Billy Mills, a South Dakota Sioux Indian inducted into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame in 1984. Mills set the 10,000 meter world record in 1964. Or it could have been about Native American Jim Thorpe, said by some to be “…the greatest athlete of the 20th Century.” But it was about neither. Instead, it was about a 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle and its owner, Herbert James "Burt" Munro, born March 25, 1899. He was portrayed by Anthony Hopkins.
Munro, a New Zealand motorcycle racer, set the under 1,000 cc world land speed record at the age of 68 on a 47 year old motorcyclehe had bought at the age of 21, in 1920. It happened at the Bonneville Salt Flats August 26, 1967…a record that stands today. The Bonneville Salt Flats in northwestern Utahare known worldwide. Long stretches of flat, compacted salt, make them ideal for testing speed machines and racing.
The racing enthusiast from Invercargill spent 20 years working at his home redesigning and modifying the 1920 Indian motorcycle. His first New Zealand speed record was set in 1938. He went on to set seven more. Eventually, Munro’s obsession for speed landed him at Bonneville Salt Flats at least ten times in his quest to set world speed records. He was successful in setting three. He once set an unofficial speed of over 200 mph.
Burt's interest in speed began at an early age when he lived on a small farm in Edendale, east of Invercargill. Anything that moved fast, horses, trains, aircraft or cars quickly caught his fancy. Compared to the exhilaration and excitement he derived from speed, young Bert naturally found the daily routine of farm life dull and boring. However, he remained there until WWI ended when his father sold the farm. Burt signed on with a project constructing the Otira Tunnel.
Later, his father purchased another farm and he returned to helping him for a time. But the call of the speedway kept tugging at him until he finally went to work racing motorcycles. Around the time of the Great Depression he returned home again becoming a motorcycle salesman and mechanic while still continuing to race. With his talents as a skilled rider he quickly rose to the top of the New Zealand motorcycle scene, occasionally racing in other events at Oreti Beach and Melbourne Australia.
Apparently, his obsession contributed to the breakup of his marriage after World War II. Racing motorcycles for a living wasn’t a profession known for making one prosperous. So, he set up a mechanic and machine shop in a small garage. Working on a shoe string budget Munro often made his tools and mechanical parts. He cast parts in old tin cans, made his own barrels, pistons, flywheels or anything else he needed but couldn’t afford. Bert even used an old wheel spoke as a micrometer.
The Indian motorcycle began rolling off the assembly line in 1920 with an 11hp, side-valve 596cc, 42-degree V-twin with a 3-speed hand-change gearbox and foot-operated clutch engine. Munro's Indian Scout was the 627th produced. It had an original top speed of 55-60 mph. That simply wasn’t fast enough to suit Burt. So in 1926 he began making modifications. By the time he was finished the engine displacement had been expanded to 950cc and the bike was propelled by a triple chain drive system. He called it The Munro Special.
Although he loved the sport, participation was made difficult by having suffered angina since the late 1950s. In 1977 he had a partial stroke that ended his racing days. Munro died of natural causes on January 6, 1978, at 78 years old.
The Munro Special is currently owned by a motorcycle enthusiast in New Zealand and can be seen at E. Hayes & Sons in Invercargill. Another, said to be the original, is on display at the Te Papa Museum, Wellington.
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