Burt Munro

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Burt Munro
Burt Munro.jpg
Herbert James Munro [1]

(1899-03-25)25 March 1899
Invercargill, New Zealand
Died6 January 1978(1978-01-06) (aged 78)
Invercargill, New Zealand
Resting placeEastern Cemetery, Invercargill, New Zealand
New Zealand Home Guard
Speedway rider
Motorcycle salesman
Known forLand Speed record holder
Spouse(s)Florence Beryl Martyn
(m. 1927; div. 1947)

Herbert James "Burt" Munro (Bert in his youth; 25 March 1899 – 6 January 1978) was a motorcycle racer from New Zealand, famous for setting an under-1,000 cc world record, at Bonneville, on the 26th of August 1967.[2] This record still stands; Munro was 68 and was riding a 47-year-old machine when he set his last record.[3]

Working from his home in Invercargill, he spent 20 years highly modifying his 1920 Indian motorcycle that he had bought that same year. Munro set his first New Zealand speed record in 1938 and later set seven more. He travelled to compete at the Bonneville Salt Flats, attempting to set world speed records. During his ten visits to the salt flats, he set three speed records, one of which still stands.

His efforts, and success, are the basis of the film The World's Fastest Indian (2005), starring Anthony Hopkins, and an earlier 1971 short documentary film Burt Munro: Offerings to the God of Speed, both directed by Roger Donaldson.[4]

Early life[edit]

Munro was born in 1899 to William Munro, a farmer and Lily Agnes Robinson in Invercargill.[5] His twin sister died at birth[2] and Munro grew up on a farm in Edendale, east of Invercargill. His grandfather was from northern Scotland and settled on a farm in Invercargill.[5]

Munro's interest in speed began at an early age, riding the family's fastest horse across the farm, despite the complaints of his father. Trips via train to the Invercargill port were a rare source of excitement, and the arrival of cars, motorcycles and aircraft added to Burt's eagerness to join the world outside his farm. As Munro's family discouraged his endeavours outside farm life, he became constantly bored with daily routine. At the outbreak of the First World War, he intended to go to war as soon as he was old enough, for a chance to see the world.[1]

Munro remained on the family farm until the end of the First World War, when his father sold the farm. At that time, Munro worked on the Otira Tunnel construction until recalled to work with his father on a newly purchased farm.[1] After this he became a professional speedway rider, but returned home to the family farm at the start of the Great Depression. Finding work as a motorcycle salesman and mechanic, he raced motorcycles and rose to the top of the New Zealand motorcycle scene, racing on Oreti Beach and later in Melbourne, Australia.[1]

After the Second World War, Munro and his wife divorced, and he subsequently gave up work to reside in a lock-up garage.[6]


A replica of the 1920 Indian (with half the exterior removed to show detail) that Burt Munro used to set his record in 1967

Munro's Indian Scout was an early model, the 627th Scout to leave the American factory.[7] The bike had an original top speed of 55 mph (89 km/h),[2] but this did not satisfy Munro, so in 1926 he began to modify his beloved Indian.

Munro's two greatest challenges while modifying his bike were his lack of money and that he worked full-time as a motorcycle salesman.[citation needed] He would often work overnight on his bikes (he had a 1936 Velocette MSS as well), then he would go to work in the morning, having had no sleep. Being of modest means, he would often make his own parts and tools instead of having them professionally built. He would cast parts in old tins, make his own barrels, pistons, flywheels, and such; his micrometer was an old spoke.[2]

Munro's Indian on display in Invercargill

In its final stages, the Indian's displacement was 950 cc (as built it was 600 cc) and was driven by a triple chain drive system.[2]

The "Munro Special," as Munro called his bike, is now owned by Neville Hayes, in New Zealand's South Island, and is on display at E Hayes & Sons, Invercargill.[7] There is also a second motorcycle purported to be the original "Munro Special" in Te Papa Museum in Wellington.[8]

Bonneville Salt Flats and Speed Week[edit]

The Bonneville Salt Flats in northwestern Utah, US is known worldwide for its many miles of flat, compacted salt; perfect for testing speed machines. During Speed Week, usually in mid-late August, vehicle enthusiasts from around the world gather at Bonneville.

Munro travelled to Bonneville ten times, the first time for "sightseeing" purposes. In the nine times he raced at Bonneville,[9] Munro set three world records: in 1962, in 1966 and in 1967. He also once qualified at over 200 mph (320 km/h), but that was an unofficial run and was not counted.

Following the misspelling of his name in an American motorcycling magazine in 1957, Bert Munro changed his name to Burt.[1]

Personal life[edit]

Munro and Florence Beryl Martyn were married in 1927 and had four children, June, Margaret, Gwen and John. They were divorced in 1947. A son of William Munro (?–1949) and Lily Agnes Munro (?–1967), he had two brothers and a sister. The accidental death of his older brother at the age of 13 had a profound effect on his life.

Having suffered from angina since the late 1950s, Munro suffered a stroke in 1977, and was admitted to hospital. He found his coordination had diminished. Frustrated, but wanting his motorcycles to remain in Southland, he sold both machines to his friend, Norman Hayes, of E. Hayes & Sons.[10] Munro died of natural causes on 6 January 1978, aged 78 years. He is buried at Invercargill's Eastern Cemetery, with his parents and brother.[11]


  • In 1962, he set an 883 cc class record of 288 km/h (178.95 mph) with his engine bored out to 850 cc.[2]
  • In 1966, he set a 1000 cc class record of 270.476 km/h (168.07 mph) with his engine at 920 cc.[12]
  • In 1967, his engine was bored out to 950 cc and he set an under 1000 cc class record of 295.453 km/h (183.59 mph). To qualify he made a one-way run of 305.89 km/h (190.07 mph), the fastest-ever officially recorded speed on an Indian.[2] The unofficial speed record (officially timed) is 331 km/h (205.67 mph) for a flying mile.[2]
  • In 2006, he was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.[13]
  • In 2014, 36 years after his death, he was posthumously awarded a 1967 record of 296.2593 km/h (184.087 mph) after his son John noticed a calculation error by AMA at that time.[14]

Feature film The World's Fastest Indian[edit]

Burt Munro was the subject of a 2005 film, The World's Fastest Indian, based on a composite of his Bonneville speed runs. This film depicts a determined old man who, despite facing many difficulties, travels from New Zealand to the USA to test run his motorcycle west of the Great Salt Lake. The disclaimer says: "While this motion picture is based upon historical events, certain characters names have been changed, some main characters are composites or invented and a number of incidents fictionalised."

2013 Indian named Spirit of Munro[edit]

In March 2013, Indian Motorcycle announced that it was producing a custom-built streamliner named the Spirit of Munro.[15] The motorcycle was built to showcase the Thunder Stroke 111 engine to be used in one of the 2014 road models. The company said the Spirit of Munro Scout was a tribute to Munro's achievements with the Indian Scout and to all Indians of old.[16]


  1. ^ a b c d e Tim Hanna One good run: The legend of Burt Munro, Penguin Books, 2005; ISBN 0143019740
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h [verification needed]The World's Fastest Indian, The Munro Special. A Tribute to H.J 'Burt' Munro, archived from the original on 23 July 2011
  3. ^ Bonneville certified bike records
  4. ^ Burt Munro: Offerings to the God of Speed at IMDB
  5. ^ a b Birss, Neill. "Burt Munro:The Lost Interviews". Retrieved 21 November 2022.
  6. ^ "A Bike, a Shed, and Burt Munro". tepapa.govt.nz. Archived from the original on 1 October 2009. Retrieved 1 July 2009.
  7. ^ a b E Hayes & Sons website Archived 25 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ Richard Backus (August 2010). "Burt Munro Special takes top honors at Pebble Beach". Motorcycle Classics. Retrieved 16 November 2009.
  9. ^ Motor Cycle, 20 April 1967, pp. 482–484 Dragnut by George Wilson. "Last year marked Bert's [sic] ninth Stateside visit". Accessed and added 22 October 2014
  10. ^ Hayes Motorworks Collection
  11. ^ "Cemetery result". Invercargill City Council. Archived from the original on 8 February 2021. Retrieved 8 February 2021.
  12. ^ "Burt Munro's Records". Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. 2005. Archived from the original on 24 January 2012. Retrieved 8 February 2012.
  13. ^ "2006 Burt Munro Challenge". Southland Times photo archive. Invercargill: Fairfax. Archived from the original on 19 August 2010.
  14. ^ Harley, Bryan. "Burt Munro Breaks Record 36 Years After Death". Motorcycle USA. Retrieved 11 August 2014.
  15. ^ "Indian Motorcycle 'Spirit of Munro'", BikeEXIF, 11 March 2013
  16. ^ Dave Moore (30 March 2013). "World's newest Indian honours Burt Munro". stuff.co.nz. Retrieved 30 March 2013.


  • Burt Munro: Indian Legend of Speed, George Begg (2002)

External links[edit]