Who was Burt Munro?
Burt Munro was a motorcycle racer from New Zealand, best remembered for his remarkable Bonneville records. Born to a farmer, he was initially forced to take up the family profession. Munro's father never supported his wish to see the world outside his farm, which gave rise to Munro’s passion for motorbikes. He not only raced on motorbikes but had also given two of his beloved bikes, an 'Indian Scout' and a 'Velocette MSS,' some advanced makeovers. Munro had set his first New Zealand speed record in 1938, eventually setting seven more such records. He had traveled to the Bonneville Salt Flats 10 times, competing nine times and setting three records, one of which still remains unbroken. Munro was 63 when he managed to overcome several obstacles to set world records. He set his last record while riding a 47-year-old bike. Besides his speed, Munro was known for his bike transformation skills. Munro's inspiring story and achievements have been the subject of the film 'The World's Fastest Indian' (2005). His son has made a career in automobile transformation and inventions.
Childhood & Early Life
Munro was born Herbert James Munro, on March 25, 1899, in Invercargill, New Zealand, to William Munro and Lily Agnes Robinson. He grew up in Edendale, east of Invercargill.
At the time of his birth, doctors doubted Munro's survival. He had a stillborn twin sister.
Munro was 15 when he began riding motorcycles. He was also fond of riding the fastest horse of his family across the farm, much to his father's resentment. Munro had an eagerness to explore the adventurous world outside his farm, which his family discouraged.
Bored of his mundane life on the farm, Munro showed interest in going to war in the wake of the First World War. He believed this would also enable him to see the world.
Munro continued to work on the family farm until the First World War got over and his father sold the farm. He then worked on the 'Otira Tunnel' construction until he joined his father on their newly purchased farm.
By that time, Munro was a professional speedway rider. He returned to the family farm when the Great Depression began. He simultaneously worked as a motorcycle salesman and a mechanic, along with racing motorcycles, which brought him prominence in the New Zealand motorcycle racing scene.
Munro rode a 'Douglas' until he could afford a British-built 'Clyno' with a sidecar, which he later sold to a blacksmith. He bought an 'Indian Scout,' which he modified and rode throughout his life. Munro later bought a 1936 'Velocette MSS,' which he also modified and used for racing.
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Munro was in his mid-20s when he began competing in several forms of motorcycle racing, such as hill climbs, trials, road racing, drag racing, flat-track, and early scrambles events, in Australia. He also participated in economy runs and recorded 116 miles per gallon in one of them.
Toward the end of the 1940s, Munro quit working to devote more time to the modifications of his 'Indian' and 'Velocette' racing bikes. In the process, he eventually improved his bike-part designing skills.
The raw material Munro used for the modifications had unique sources. He used a 'Ford' truck axle as the rods for his 'Indian,' which lasted over 20 years, despite countless high-speed runs. He turned the 600 cc displacement 'Indian' into a 950 cc vehicle with a triple-chain drive system.
Munro worked 16 hours per day in his self-constructed garage. He was a member of a motorcycle club and attended club events regularly.
Munro's first visit to the Bonneville Salt Flats in northwestern Utah, known for its perfect geographical features for testing speed machines, was just for "sightseeing." In the rest of the nine times, he raced and set world records thrice. In 1962, he registered an 883 cc class record of 178.95 mph, with an 850 cc engine. In 1966, he set a 1,000 cc class record of 168.07 mph, with a 920 cc engine, and finally, in 1967, he set an under-1,000 cc class record of 183.59 mph, with a 950 cc engine.
Munro also qualified at over 200 mph but was not registered, as it was an unofficial run. In one of the qualifying runs, he made a one-way record run of 190.07 mph, which was the fastest officially recorded speed on an ‘Indian.’ His unofficial speed record (but officially timed) was of 205.67 mph for a flying mile.
In 1975, Munro saw a downfall in his career because of his failing health. He even lost his competition license but still managed to make a few unknown runs on his ‘Indian’ and ‘Velocette.’
Doctors suggested that Munro's continuous heavy crashes had damaged his heart. On January 6, 1978, Munro died of natural causes.
In 2014, 36 years after Munro's death, a 1967 record of 184.087 mph was retroactively awarded to him, after his son, John, noticed a calculation mistake by the 'American Motorcyclist Association' (AMA).
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Munro was inducted into the 'AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame' in 2006.
Director Roger Donaldson turned Munro's inspirational life story into his 2005 movie 'The World's Fastest Indian,' starring Anthony Hopkins. The motorcycling community regarded the movie as the best motorcycle movie since the release of the classic documentary 'On Any Sunday' made in the early 1970s. It was also the biggest domestically produced film in New Zealand.
The 'Southland Motorcycle Club' has honored Munro by starting the 'Burt Munro Challenge,' which is now one of New Zealand's major motorsport events.
In March 2013, 'Indian Motorcycle' announced a custom-built streamliner named 'Spirit of Munro' to honor Munro's achievements. The streamliner showcased the 'Thunder Stroke 111' engine, which was later used in one of their 2014 road models.
Australian former butterfly swimmer Neville Hayes now owns Munro's special bike, known as the "Munro Special." The bike is currently on display at 'E. Hayes & Sons,' Invercargill.
A second motorcycle, which is said to be the original "Munro Special," is now on display at the 'Te Papa Museum' in Wellington.
Family, Personal Life, & Death
Munro's father was a farmer and owned a farm in Invercargill. His grandfather was from northern Scotland and later settled in Invercargill.
Munro's family had fostered J. B. Munro, a New Zealand politician of the 'Labour Party.' His parents had adopted J.B when he was 9 and had then changed his name to “John Baldwin Munro.”
Munro married Florence Beryl Martyn in 1927. They had four children: John, June, Margaret, and Gwen. They divorced in 1947, and Munro subsequently quit his job to live in a lock-up garage.
Munro's son, John, owns several bikes.
John has also patented many of his inventions, such as an innovative way of insulating the underground water pipes and control systems for school boiler houses. He was a cabinet maker, farmer, earthmover, and telephone operator, before he started his heating and ventilation business.
One of Munro's uncles, Jim, had invented the ‘Munro’ topdresser and the ‘Munro’ seed sower.
Munro wanted a house with low ceilings to survive in the scorching summer heat of New Zealand. However, it was against the local building codes. Hence, he built a low garage, which served as both his workshop and residence.
Since the late 1950s, Munro had been suffering from angina. In 1977, he had a stroke and was hospitalized. Munro ended up losing his coordination. He was frustrated, which affected his motorcycle works. However, Munro wanted his motorcycles to remain in Southland. Hence, he sold both his bikes to his friend Norman Hayes.
On January 6, 1978, Munro died of natural causes and was cremated at Invercargill's ‘Eastern Cemetery,’ beside his parents and brother.
In 1957, Munro's name was misspelled in an American motorcycling magazine, and following this, he had changed his name to “Burt.”