Burt Munro: Offerings to the God of Speed

Burt Munro
Burt Munro at the Bonneville Salt Flats with his modified 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle (circa 1971)

“53 years ago, Burt [Munro] took his entire savings out of the bank — and to quote his brother —  threw the whole lot on a 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle. Since that time, Burt’s devoted half his life to making the bike go faster.

“He takes his bike regularly to the Bonneville Salt Flats in the USA, where he holds many international speed records, including a world record. Burt’s unorthodox approach to record breaking sounds like fantasy. He’s reputed to have cast pistons in the sand, made cylinder liners out of cast iron syringe pipes, carved by hand, conrods out of old aircraft propellers and track axels. The stories just go on and on, and on.”

These were the opening lines to a 1971 documentary short directed and narrated by filmmaker, Roger Donaldson, who having filmed Munro for two and a half years had gotten to know the speed pilgrim very intimately.

Donaldson’s time with Munro would leave him so moved that even after having released the documentary, Burt Munro: Offerings to the God of Speed in 1971, some 34 years later he went on to release the film, The Worlds Fastest Indian in 2005, with the incomparable Sir Anthony Hopkins CBE playing the part of Burt Munro.

Burt Munro was born, Herbert James Bert Munro, at the turn of the 19th century in 1899, in Invercargill, New Zealand. His family was a farming family. However, for a child who had developed an interest in speed at a very early age, the farmer’s life soon had him bored.

In fact, as soon as World War I hit, he was dreaming of joining the army just so he could run away from his life on the farm. Too bad he was just 15 when the war began and, therefore, too young to join the army.

When the war ended, Munro’s family found themselves in a state where they had to sell off the farm. This allowed Munro the chance to go off and pursue other work eventually landing him an opportunity to become a professional speedway racer. However, that pursuit came to a screeching halt when the Great Depression hit.

Fortunes would have him back in the motorcycle world, soon enough, this time as a motorcycle salesman and mechanic. His newfound profession left him some precious time to himself, which he used to — what else — race motorcycles.

As narrated by Roger Donaldson, the motorcycle that Munro rode was a 1920 Indian Scout, a very early model that maxed out at 89 km/h. For his racing needs, the top speed soon proved itself highly inadequate. So in 1926, Munro took to modifying the motorcycle, himself.

Burt Munro seated on his 1920 Indian Scout (circa 1928)
Burt Munro seated on his 1920 Indian Scout (circa 1928)
Burt Munro's Indian Special replica from the movie "The World's Fastest Indian"
Burt Munro's Indian Special replica from the movie "The World's Fastest Indian" (Image: Wiki Commons)
1920 Indian motorcycle used by Burt Munro
Replica of The 1920 Indian motorcycle used by Burt Munro to break the land speed record on display at Te Papa, photographed by DO'Neil. The replica reproduces the Munro's Indian in 1962, with three tail fins. (Image: Wiki Commons)

Problem was, again as narrated by Roger Donaldson, Munro had spent his last dime in acquiring his motorcycle, which is known to be the 627th Scout to have left its factory. On top of that, in between his day job and racing, Munro was left with very little time to work on the motorcycle. Munro, therefore, took to spending all-nighters and very creative — albeit unorthodox — means to soup up his steed.

The success of his modifications soon created a situation where he was simply too fast for the tracks that were available to him in New Zealand or nearby Australia. He, therefore, cast his eyes towards the Bonneville Salt Flats in northwestern Utah, USA, speed junkies from around the world gather to set land speed records on the unending miles of salt flats.

Over the course of the late 50s and all though the 60s, Burt Munro would make 10 trips to Bonneville with his modded 1920 Indian Scout, just about in the later part of August, which is known as Speed Week on the flats. He made official record attempts on nine of these trips and over time managed to clock three records: 288km/h in the 883cc class (1962), 270.476km/h in the 1000cc class (1966) and 295.453km/h, again in the 1000cc class (1967).

Burt Munro seated in the modified Munro Special
Burt Munro seated in the modified Munro Special
05-Burt-Munro

Mind you, now, that he did this all on his 1920 Scout, which he modified to kingdom come and back such that from its original specification of 600cc it got bumped up to 950cc by the time he set his 1967 record of 295.453km/h. Munro was 68 years old at the time. The story goes that in the qualifying run for that 1967 record Munro clocked 305.89km/h.

In 2017, it’s now been 50 years since Munro’s record. On the occasion, Munro’s great-nephew Lee Munro took to the Bonneville Salt Flats yesterday, the 13th of August, to recreate his great-uncle’s record run. Lee’s run was made on his own Indian Scout, which the engineers at Indian Motorcycles offered to modify with a souped up powertrain.

Burt Munro’s great-nephew Lee Munro
Burt Munro’s great-nephew Lee Munro

Cheering Lee’s ride on at the Flats, there was a name that is more familiar to us in the watchmaking industry, Baume & Mercier, who took the opportunity to announce their newly penned partnership with Indian Motorcycle.

Baume & Mercier are slated to create a series of limited edition watches inspired by the Indian Motorcycle company’s rich history and Baume & Mercier’s own watchmaking knowhow. These watches should be announced sometime around September of 2017.

Fans and admirers of Burt Munro and his achievements in life, and of course, the Indian Motorcycle company can look forward to these horological creations, which should prove to be a success among motoring enthusiasts, as was the case with the earlier Shelby Cobra limited edition watches that Baume & Mercier created.

Alain Zimmermann CEO of Baume & Mercier and Grant Bester, Vice President, Indian Motorcycle EMEA
Alain Zimmermann CEO of Baume & Mercier and Grant Bester, Vice President, Indian Motorcycle EMEA, celebrate their partnership in front of a Chieftain Dark Horse® motorbike.