book110Burt Munro, Indian Legend of Speed

by George Begg

200 pages, $34.95

Begg & Allen, copyright 2002

by Sev Pearman

Thanks to the film “World’s Fastest Indian”, even non-riders have heard of Burt Munro, the plucky New Zealander who set several speed records with his 600cc 1920 Indian Scout. If you enjoyed that movie, you have to read Burt Munro, Indian Legend of Speed.

Author, George Begg, was a friend of Burt Munro; both living on New Zealand’s South Island. Mr. Begg is an accomplished racer in his own right, occasionally having competed against Burt at New Zealand events. In his book, he compiles first-hand anecdotes, personal histories and other stories that illuminate the unique and contradictory person that was Burt Munro.

Burt Munro worked Hobbit-like, by himself, 16-hours a day, in his combination workshop-house. Pistons for both the Indian and ‘36 Velocette (the “new bike”) were created by melting down scrap and broken parts. Con-rods were first rough-stamped from junk Caterpillar axles, then finish-machined using only a tired Myford lathe. Valve train components and gears were all created by hand; using only an electric drill, files and a hacksaw.

Working in the days before finite-stress analysis, Munro would develop his motors until a component failed, strengthen it, and then run until the next-weakest component broke. Using this laborious trial-and-error method, he recorded over 100 total mechanical failures. After each one, he would have to create his own pistons, cylinders, connection rods or valve components. Munro tirelessly worked in this manner for over 40 years. Staggering.

Over his career, Munro took what started as a 600cc, side-valve, 15bhp Indian twin and caressed it into a near-1,000cc pushrod monster that generated upwards of 100bhp. In a testament to the integrity of the original Indian design, despite 57 years of abuse, Munro’s Indian Special still ran in its original crankcases, number 50R627.

The best section is the chapters on Burt’s efforts at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Each summer, Burt would load his racer into a ship, meet it in the US, buy some beater car, and haul it the several hundred miles to Speed Week. Munro quickly charmed his fellow competitors and recruited their help. Marty Dickerson and Rollie Free, accomplished record-breakers on their own, volunteered as his crewmen year after year. There are fantastic color plates of Munro and his streamliner roaring down the Bonneville salt.

Munro’s accomplishments speak for themselves. At Speed Week, he took his Munro Special to a two-way average of 183.586 mph, on Aug 26, 1967. That was a 68-year-old rider piloting a 47-year old machine.

This is a case of the book being better than the movie. Burt Munro, Indian Legend of Speed is in its twelfth printing, and for good reason. If you are fascinated by the world of Bonneville speed trials, you will hear first-hand accounts of records and wrecks. If you simply enjoyed World’s Fastest Indian, you’ll learn more of Burt Munro and his amazing life. Burt Munro, Indian Legend of Speed thunders past the finish, WFO, on four-out-of-four cylinders.

Verdict: Non-rider – If you think the motorcyclist in your life is obsessive…

Tuner or machinist – Munro did what with what?!?

Speed Week Freak – Loaded with Bonneville minutiae.

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