The motorcycle Burt Munro bought in 1920, when he was 21, was not his first. It was his third. But turns out the third time was the charm. And no one would have guessed that he'd rise to fame by tearing it apart — setting speed records on that same bike that still stood 94 years later.
Growing up in New Zealand, Munro always craved speed, starting with childhood rides on the fastest horse on the family farm. His second motorcycle was a Clyno v-twin, from which he removed the sidecar and then set speed records. He wanted to go faster and promptly sold the Clyno to a local blacksmith to pay for an Indian Scout. It was the 627th Indian in production for that model. Stock condition, 600cc engine, three-speed transmission. It was perfect. But six years later he got the itch to make it even more perfect.
Not that he went about it perfectly. Working at night and on weekends, his early tinkering resulted in a bike that had the capacity to hit 55 mph, but only reached 46 mph in its first run. Still, over decades, his fiddling and monkeying increased the motorcycle's speed by more than 3 mph each year — for 44 straight years.
He would make his own parts, at one time carving a connecting rod down from a Caterpillar tractor axle. He switched out side valves for overhead valves. He filed the cams himself. His adjustments were so excessive that he eventually called the motorcycle his "Munro Special," as there was little of the original Indian left.
His fiddling increased the motorcycle's speed by more than 3 mph each year — for 44 straight years.
The fixes came so fast and so furiously in part because Munro crashed so often, at least in the early days. He once jumped off his motorcycle at 90 mph. Another tumble saw him hit the ground, bounce 15 feet, and skid so badly that all that was left of his clothes was the waistband of his pants, some scraps of socks, and his shoes. Often, he would black out and then wake up in a hospital a day or week later — or would wake up blind, because blood pouring from his helmet had crusted over his eyes. In one of his worst bouts, he was hospitalized for 11 months.
The more he jerry-rigged his ride — by the end the whole contraption was encased in a shell, giving it the look of a grounded fighter jet — the more he jerry-rigged his own body. But the drive to see what both machines — the mechanical and the biological — could withstand pressed him onward.By the 1950s, he was racing so fast that he was running out of space in New Zealand's racetracks. The great, flat frontier of America beckoned.
Arriving in America on a rusty cargo ship, Munro went on to race nine times at Utah's Bonneville Flats, mostly in the 1960s, when he was a sexagenarian. His first ride there was a world record of 178.97 mph on a 850cc engine — set despite a muffler charring the flesh on his leg. In one of his final runs there, in 1967, his sat up halfway through the race to fix a wobble in the bike. At top speed, the move tore off his goggles and shoved his eyes deep into his head. He couldn't see, barely missing a steel marker. He crashed the ride and got only a few scrapes.
Munro died in 1978. One of his records, of 183.586 mph on a 953cc engine at the Bonneville Salt Flats— stood until 2014. That year, he was finally beaten 36 years after his death, by himself. His son, John, had noticed a miscalculation in how officials averaged Munro’s two timed runs back in 1967. Munro’s new record stands at 184.087 mph.