Burt Munro

Burt Munro

In 1920 a 21 year old Southlander stood gazing at a brand-new motorcycle in an Invercargill garage. His eyes roved over the neat little V twin engine, the cast alloy primary case, the leaf sprung front fork. His hand lovingly stroked the gleaming red paint and the sparkle of the polished nickel matched that in his eyes. The proprietor was spoken to, a deal was struck, and the young man bought his motorcycle, beginning a partnership which was to last until his death in December 1978. The man was Burt Munro and the bike was an Indian Scout, destined to become the world’s fastest Indian.

Burt Munro was born in 1899 at his parents home in Invercargill. His twin sister died at birth and Burt, said the doctor, “won’t live till he’s two”. Fortunately for New Zealand’s motorcycle history the doctor was wrong.

In 1915 he bought his first motorcycle, a Douglas, and by 1919 had saved enough to buy a Clyno with sidecar. This cost him £50 new. The sidecar was removed and the Clyno entered in local races. Speed records were set at the Fortrose circuit, near Invercargill, but the Clyno wasn’t kept for long when the Indian came on the scene.

The Indian Scout came from the board of Charles Franklin, an Indian employee since 1914 and the first trained engineer to be employed by the company. Franklin’s background well qualified him for the position. Born in Ireland in 1886 he graduated from the Dublin College of Science in 1908, securing a position in the engineering department of Dublin’s municipal government. He became interested in motorcycling, owning several makes of machine and becoming interested in Indian in 1910. He entered local competitions where his ability and success brought him to the notice of the sole British importer of Indians, Billy Wells. He was a member of the Indian team in the 1911 Isle of Man TT, gaining second place behind Oliver Godfrey, and in front of Arthur Moorhouse, both also Indian mounted, in the historic first 1-2-3 by the same make.

Franklin conceived the design for the Scout as early as 1912, through his studies of advanced motorcycle design and built a prototype, under Indian auspices, in early 1919. Tests were satisfactory and production started in September of that year on the 1920 models, commencing with engine number 5OR001.

The bike bought by Burt Munro carried engine no. 5OR627 and can therefore be seen to have come very early in the life of a machine which remained in production, in basically the same form until 1931.

The Scout itself was a 37cu.in. (60Occ) 42 degree V twin with side valves. A helical gear primary drive was contained in an oil-tight, cast alloy case and a 3 speed, hand change gearbox with foot clutch was fitted. A double down-tube cradle frame was used, rigid at the rear, and a leaf-spring provided the forks with nearly 2 inches of movement at the front. Chain drive was used in contrast to the drive systems still commonly used on English motorcycles.

Burt began modifying his bike in 1926. His methods, to say the least, were unorthodox. He used an old spoke for a micrometer and cast parts in old tins although one American report has him casting pistons in holes in the sand at the local beach! He built his own four-cam design to replace the standard two-cam system and converted to overhead valves.

He made his own barrels, flywheels, pistons, cams and followers and lubrication system. In their final form he in effect hand-carved his con-rods from a Caterpillar tractor axle, and hardened and tempered them to 143 tons tensile strength. He built a seventeen plate, thousand pound pressure clutch and used a triple chain drive. He experimented with streamlining and, in its final form, the bike was completely enclosed in a streamlined shell.The leaf-sprung fork was dispensed with and what appears to be a girder fork from a 1925 - 1928 Prince substituted.

All this was done through half a century of work and development. Originally the Scout was capable of about 55 mph. In 1926 it was raced on the Penrith Mile Dirt Track in New South Wales with sidecar attached, the passenger being Wells. The outfit lasted one lap for a speed of 46 mph. Despite this inauspicious start, Burt still held the Australian sidecar record, as-late as 1977, with a speed of 90 mph, set at Inverlock Beach, Victoria.

A succession of NZ road and beach records followed. In February 1957 he set a NZ Open Beach record of 131.38 mph, raising this in 1975 to 136 mph at Oreti Beach. In April 1957 he set a 75Occ Road Record at Christchurch at 143.59 mph. In March 1962 he covered the standing 1/4 mile at Invercargill in 12.31 seconds.

Burt, then a grandfather, visited the Bonneville salt flats several times from 1962 onwards. In that year he set a then world record of 178.971 mph with his engine out to 51 cu.in. (85Occ). In 1963 a con-rod broke while he was traveling at an estimated 195mph. In 1966 it was displacing 920cc, when Burt, unhappy with some loss in top speed, completely rebuilt it again.

In 1967, with his engine punched out to 58 cu.in. (950cc) he set a class record of 183.586 mph. To qualify he made a one-way run of 190.07 mph, the fastest ever officially recorded speed on an Indian.

His visits to the salt were not without incident. In issue no. 1 of Motorcycle New Zealand, published in 1973 Burt is quoted as follows:

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 Munro

At the time Burt was traveling at close to 206 mph!

His team at Bonneville consisted of Indian enthusiasts from all over the USA, who came voluntarily to provide help and encouragement. “Picked up a station wagon for $90 in Los Angeles last time,” said Burt in the same interview. “It was the headquarters for Team Indian”.

Burt Munro died in December 1978. The Indian, which had been his for 57yrs is in the hands of an enthusiast in the South Island. As well as the bike he left behind a legend of skill, perseverance, and courage which typifies the ingenuity and resilience of the New Zealand spirit, and of which all New Zealanders, motorcyclists or not, may be justly proud.

After a blow-up. The original engine no, 50R627 is visible. Rumor has it that Burt made his barrels from pieces of cast iron gas pipe, which he scrounged from the gas company after they had been dug up for replacement. He reasoned that, after some years in the ground, they were well seasoned. He then made aluminum slices which he shrunk over the pipe to make fins.

Records

  • 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.

Memorials

  • The 2005 cinematography awarded film The World's Fastest Indian.
  • In 2006 he was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.