The Spirit of Burt Munro
The World’s Fastest Indian
Speed takes time. The Bonneville Salt Flats, dubbed the fastest track in the world, is an extremely tricky race surface to figure out. Optimal conditions roll in around the end of summer, after the ridged and rigid crust has been appropriately baked by Utah’s summer sun. Unlike asphalt, that crust could quickly give way to a softer powdery bed below if it hasn’t had its time in the oven. Jumping on the power too early and creating too much torque or adding one too many spoilers for down-force could spell doom — especially for motorcycle riders chasing a land speed record — by swallowing or re-directing a wheel before a rider has time to react. So you see, going fast takes time — and for some, a lifetime.
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Burt Munro set his first speed record in New Zealand in 1938. He was riding an eighteen-year-old motorcycle that was factory built to top out at 55 MPH. Burt clocked 120.8. That sort of bump doesn’t happen on its own. When it left the assembly line, Burt’s Indian Scout was powered by a side-valved 600cc V-Twin complete with a mechanical oil pump and helical gear transmission, a very advanced system for the time. The tinkering began almost immediately, and the speeds increased.
By the time Burt began his top-end conversion to an overhead valve assembly he was hitting 90 MPH. With the help of a kerosene blow-lamp and hand-built castings, new pistons were forged to fit the over-bored cylinders, bringing the total displacement to 1000ccs. Those were connected to a larger crank pin via connecting rods that normally saw duty in Caterpillar tractor axles. The dry-sump system from the larger-engined Indian Chief was swapped in to meet the oiling demands, and those helical gears gave way to a chain driven primary, complete with homemade sprockets. With the bottom-end now built, an extra set of cams were introduced to allow for finer tuning during valve adjustments, and finally, the clutch was beefed up through the addition of extra springs to handle the extra power going to the 3-speed gear box. Built by his own hands in his own shed and seemingly held together with tie-wire and gaffer-tape, his 1920 Indian Scout was very much like the man himself: rough around the edges, but purpose built.
By the time he made it to Bonneville, everything had been changed in one way or another; most people wouldn’t dare swing a leg over his machine for fear it would fall apart, or worse, blow up with them on it. Despite the sport’s “grassroots” style, most other land-speed record seekers piloted machines that were team built, with professionally manufactured parts and in some cases, factory support, even back then. While other competitors were escorted to the staging lanes by their entourage of support staff and mechanics, who were also ready to change factory-finished parts if necessary, Burt usually had to ask folks for a push just to get his bike going. When asked in 1971 by then Bonneville chief referee Earl Flanders when he was going to wash that same (now fifty-one-year-old) machine, Munro replied confusedly, “Wash it? With water? Oh, I ‘aven’t ‘ad time to polish mine. It’s been nine months and nine days on that engine last year, and three minutes to three on a Saturday six weeks ago I got it to run right. New cylinders, new pistons, new cam rod, new cams — eight of ‘em — eight new pistons, new valves, all new eccentric tappets and guides. I wasn’t idle. I had three hours off on Christmas Day. In the middle of the day, when they eat”.
“Wash it? With water? Oh, I ‘aven’t ‘ad time to polish mine.”
- Burt Munro
Munro’s story as the rider of the World’s Fastest Indian gained worldwide recognition when Sir Anthony Hopkins famously portrayed Munro in the movie of the same title. It was a heart-warming summary, one that really highlighted the manner in which Munro approached problems: namely, getting to Bonneville, being allowed to race and logging a legit run. In life, Munro made the trek to Utah ten times, racing there on nine occasions and setting three different land-speed records in the process — the most famous of which occurring in 1967 when the Munro Special registered 183.586 MPH, a class record for engines under 1000 ccs in displacement that still stands today.
Rather than take his chances on the salt, Utah native Ken Merena took to the two-lane blacktop for his high-speed run. Back in 2008, at the age of 60, Ken (who already held the record for the fastest run on the highway at 241 MPH) tried to clock the fastest speed anybody on two wheels had gone: 270 MPH. Although not a backyard build, his bike is equally Frankensteined with go-fast bits, including a turbo charger. Ken didn’t hit 270 MPH (he barely broke 220), but it’s obvious that the relentless pursuit of speed is alive and well, on all surfaces and in all corners of the globe — especially Utah.
Burt has gone even faster on his Munro Special. “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”. He topped out at over 200 MPH, but that spill meant the run remained unofficial. He even made runs without the safety of aerodynamic bodywork, wearing only an open-faced Bell helmet and a pair of goggles, at the age of 72, but his quest to repeat 200+ MPH remained elusive. Had he not suffered a career-ending stroke in 1977, we’re sure he would have kept pushing the envelope with his trusty steed — and succeeded.
To commemorate his unwavering dedication to speed and his personalized Indian Scout, Indian Motorcycles recently released The Spirit of Munro. Built as a one-off custom to showcase their new Thunder Stroke 111 engine, America’s oldest motorcycle company looked to Long Beach metal fabricator Jeb Scolman to build the bike. The all-metal streamliner was designed to pay homage to Munro and other races of his ilk who helped cement the racing legacy of the Indian brand.
Stunningly crafted, the Spirit of Munro is also a runner, featuring custom exhaust and intake manifolds to allow it to fit within the body work and a final chain drive with extra tall gearing to challenge for a high speed run. Commemorative badging and a beautiful cork stopper serving as a gas cap truly complete the package. While it would no doubt bring a tear to Burt’s eye if he were still around to see it, he’d probably find it far too neat and tidy to trust on the track and opt to swing a leg back over his own creation. Such was the spirit of Munro.