“YOU live more in five minutes flat-out on a bike like this than most people live in a lifetime”—Burt Munro.
In New Zealand on a recent holiday, I had travelled all over the South Island and was making my way back to Christchurch when I checked the map and saw Invercargill, a town I remembered from the movie, The World’s Fastest Indian Motorcycle. I asked a local what is it was like in Invercargill.
“You should cross that town right off your itinerary,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because it is a shit hole; nothing to do there and see,” he said firmly.
That got me to thinking. I had travelled more than 3000 km in the last four days and there was no way I was going to miss Invercargill, as I remembered from the movie it was the home of Burt Munro.
Driving into Invercargill there it was a big sign that welcomes you with: The city where dreams are possible.
I booked into the first motel after a big day on the road and asked Debbie, the girl at the reception, if she knew anything about Burt Munro.
“Yes,” she said. “There’s a museum in town and I know Neville Hayes, the guy who has Burt’s old Indian; he’s just down the road from here.”
So she picks up the phone and arranges for me to meet Neville at 10 am the next day.
I got up early to take a look at Invercargall but mostly to get to the museum first. There’s an old guy there who wasn’t very friendly at all. “No photos,” he says.
Bidding the cranky old man G’day, I then proceeded to the reception area and asked the lady a few questions. She got out a map and showed me where to find the cemetery where Burt was buried.
Thanking her I took off to meet Neville, a forth generation family member of the Hayes family and also a serious motorcycle enthusiast. Also, apparently, Neville’s son appeared in the movie in the beach scene.
I explained to Neville I was from Ozbike. He was sincerely friendly and said, “All of Burt’s things are at my home; I’ll take you there to see my collection.”
I tell you I stood in awe in Neville’s garage. There were bikes everywhere, and right there in front of me, were the shelves filled with all of Burt Munro’s pistons and parts from his bike. I could not believe I was seeing the real things I had seen in the movie.
After some hours of browsing, Neville took me to Burt’s old home. I was shooting a photo of the place and the lady who was washing the windows pulled the curtains over. I guess she was wondering why I was taking photos.
Off again, this time to the cemetery to see Burt’s headstone as well as the other members of his family. Neville told me he had the photos put on the tombstone. I thought it a very fitting tribute to his hero.
Back at Neville’s business in down-town Invercargill, I took photos of Burt’s Monro’s real bike, not the replica they used in making the movie. Yeah, the sign reads, ‘Do Not Touch,’ but I could not help touching this bike for luck.
I took more photos and Neville made us a coffee and I sat down to take a look at all the old photos of Burt in his earlier days. Looking at those photos was mind blowing.
After spending half a day here, I bid farewell to Neville and his remarkable memories of Burt Monro, and started my journey home. Oh, what a day! It is one I shall treasure forever.
words & pics by Jules at Top Gun
The Burt Munro Story
IN 1920 a 21-year-old man 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. The proprietor was spoken to, a deal was struck, and the young man bought his motorcycle.
The young man was Burt Monro.
Almost 50 years later, aged nearly 70, the wiry New Zealander was still campaigning the American machine at Speed Week on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, a 12,000 mile trip from his Antipodean home, a shack shared with his motorcycles in Invercargill.
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 37 ci (60O cc), 42 degree, V-twin with side-valves. A helical-gear primary-drive was contained in an oil-tight, cast alloy case and a three-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 belt 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 hand-carved his con-rods from a Caterpillar tractor axle, and hardened and tempered them to 143 tons tensile strength. He built a 17-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.
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 75O cc 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 ci (85O cc). In 1963 a con-rod broke while he was travelling at an estimated 195 mph. In 1966 it was displacing 920 cc, when Burt, unhappy with some loss in top speed, completely rebuilt it again.
In 1967, with his engine punched out to 58 ci (950 cc), 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.” At the time Bert was travelling 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.”
Rumour 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 aluminium slices which he shrunk over the pipe to make fins.
Burt Munro died in December 1978. 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, should be justly proud.
Burt’s Own Words
WELL IT IS a bit hard to cram a brief history and spec of a bike I bought new in 1920 for 140 pounds cash and have been developing since 1926. It has gone 3 mph faster each year for 44 years which is about average for some factory bikes over the same period.
I have been riding since 1915 and owned a Clyno V-twin in 1919—1920 which I sold to a blacksmith and then bought the 1920 Scout. I have made five heads for it, countless pistons and con-rods, carburetors, magneto parts, scores of cams, fork changes, many wheels built as tyres and rims changed. The last one was for the front wheel last July when I changed from 19 to 18 as I cannot get high speed from 19 x 2.75 tires anymore. This I cut the tread off with a knife then smoothed down to the bottom of the non-skid groove.
For the first 22 years after 1926 it was weekends and nights getting ready for hill-climbs, trials, and standing and flying mile events, and 1 mile dirt sidecar races at Penrith Speedway, NSW, and Australia. Between ’26 and ’29 I had records in hill-climbs, standing and flying, and petrol consumption runs, one of 116 mpg.
This covers the start of my tuning efforts and has continued up to the present time.
In 1927, on Aspendale Speedway, Melbourne, Australia, I jumped off at 90 mph+ when in a bad speed wobble at the end of the straight with one hand on the oil pump. We hit a deep gutter and took off on the bend, landed with the bars pulled round a little, and my heavy 29 oversize tire on front just kept the wobble and was heading for the post and rail fence. The 10,000 spectators were told in the paper that I was unhurt but I was pretty sick in bed for a week or two with concussion and many bruises. The Saturday before this at Inverloch Beach in Victoria, my flathead Scout won a gold medal at 90.01 mph equal with a 1928 Chicago 61 Harley-Davidson ridden by an air force pilot from point Cook, Victoria, Australia.
From 1929 I returned to New Zealand after four years in Australia when work finally could not be had (this was the Great Depression). I spent the next 10 years as motorcycle traveller. This was finally given up around 1941 when one of my rare (by this time) crashes put me off for 11 months. When I returned to NZ I was invited to join the local motorcycle club and I am now a life member and have been for many years. After joining I just lived for beach races, grass track, hill climbs, speed trials, road racing, drags, and I think the beach was the greatest in 1940. About seven years ago I averaged 83.43 mph in a six-mile race which I won. This was on a championship fancied beach course a few miles from Invercargill. This is where I do most of my testing nowadays.
In 1948 I decided to give up work and concentrate on getting a good run out of my old bike as by this time I thought I was getting better at designing parts and would go to the Canterbury Speed Trials held each year north of Christchurch. Well I went there for 22 years; this was a 1000 mile round trip from home. I broke the NZ records more than once but was only three times satisfied I had gone as good as I could go at the time, and those three times their timer failed for me. The last time was 10 or 11 years ago and the ACU rep said, never mind, next year we will have a cable buried in the side of the road. Then they could not get it anymore because of increased use of this long straight road known as Tram Road, North Canterbury, NZ.
After finally getting 94 mph from the flatheads and running on Borneo Aviation Gas, I had a go at making OHV heads. A foundry told me how to go about making patterns and I finally had them finished after a year of work until the first day it ran. Believe it or not, the first runs were slower than my best on the side-valve, but over the years, I gradually got it going faster till in 1937 I was getting 110 mph from it, also breaking con-rods. About then a mate and I were returning from a distant beach meeting and another pair of rods had broken, and he said, why not write to the Indian factory and get special rods. This got me thinking and I acquired a broken Ford truck axle and carved out two rods in five months. These were in it for 20 years and were standing up to over 140 mph. By 1950 I was getting 150 mph unstreamlined.
The first full shell I built tool me five years to hammer out of sheet aluminium. I could only work at it when I had my bike ready for testing, then if it blew-up, I would work on the engine until running again, then hammer away at it again, or suddenly think of some new scheme to get more speed. Of course these brainwaves often made it slower or just more blown parts. By the way, I have read of E Fernihough’s death and perhaps I can offer a reason for him running off the road that day. I have several times had similar experiences caused by a side wind of only two to three mph. If one is travelling at over 180, as on most occasions with me, the bike steers over to one side but I start to steer it back at once. But I have had it go 12 feet over the outside of the black line before getting it back to the centre of track. If this were on a road there is no chance of survival.
The first shell I took with me to Bonneville in 1962 was the second I had built. The first one of aluminium was too hard to ride, too neat a fit and I had great difficulty getting the gears. So I modified it and used it as a mould for number two of fibreglass. I had my first run on it at Bonneville in 1962, and was ordered to have a test run with officials following in a car. It just veered from side to side at all speeds. I said to myself, I may as well ship it back home; they will never let me run a thing like this. When they came up with me they said, handles okay. I said what! They repeated, handles okay.
I should give you a rough idea of some of my best crashes. In 1916, out all day after landing on head. 1921, riding standing on seat of Scout waiting for Uncle Alf to get his King Dick going, I looked around and woke up that evening after a whole day’s absence from what was going on. In 1927, jumped off on a dirt track Aspendale Speedway at over 90 mph; concussion and bruising from feet to back of neck.1932, stopped to get a rider going in Western Southland when on my travelling job. I told the guy I would follow him in case it stopped again. We came to a farmhouse at a cross road. A dog ran at him. I caught it on the rebound and came around later concussed and bloody from a deep scalp wound. 1934, crashed Clifton Gorge; struck a wash-out before I could pull-up; came around concussed. 1937, in 20 mile beach race, doing 110 when Hugh Currie, BSA Special, the last rider I had to catch, turned in front of me. I hit the six-brake and tried to steer behind him as he banked over to turn. My bike climbed up and over his and sailed 120 feet clear of the beach before landing. He was knocked-out and had a broken collar bone. My bash-hat was split from crown to rim in two places. Weeks later he told me what knocked me out and split the hat. The underside of his engine landed square on my head. When he was repairing his bike he found the varnish marks from my hat on the cases. I had all my teeth knocked out and my brother picked up numerous gold filled ones from the sand. This was one of the saddest moments of my life when I found my priceless teeth no more.1940, running on home-built gas producer, I hit a ridge of wet gravel and ran off the side of the road but regained control on the fence line, but before I could shut off the gas and air lever, I hit a deep cutting into a farmhouse. The bike struck the far bank and shot right up into the air and back to the gravel road. My head hit the road; I was unconscious for one and a half hours and came-to blind from dried blood in eyes. I had haemorrhage of brain for a week and concussed, and was off work for 11 months. I had part concussional headaches for about 15 years from this so I gave up the travelling as I did not care to travel by bus or car to sell bikes.1959, was in a drag at Teretonga International track when at 110 mph the bike got into a sudden fast speed wobble. I jumped off the side and rolled and skidded and bounced 15 feet high they tell me. I finished up in the hospital for seven and a half weeks. When I finished the crash I had bash hat still on, waistband of pants, tennis shoes and pieces of socks. I was only slightly concussed. One finger was ground half way through the bone but still works but one joint is crook. All the other crashes involved just bones or scars or burns and one arm ripped apart at the shoulder. In five and a half months it grew back but still hurts at rest when I lie on it.