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As Burt Munro’s World’s Fastest Indian record turns 50, it remains unbroken

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Photo via E Hayes Motorworks Collection.

Partly the result of rulebook changes, partly the result of Burt Munro’s sheer determination and resourcesfulness, and maybe partly the result of the respect he commanded, Munro’s much-heralded land-speed record establishing his motorcycle as the world’s fastest Indian remains unbroken nearly 50 years after Munro set it.

Munro famously first set foot on the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1962, but his fascination with motorcycles and speed dates back far earlier, at least to the day he bought his 1920 Indian Scout side-valve brand-new in New Zealand. The Indian’s 60 MPH top speed wouldn’t suffice for Munro, however, so he began tinkering with and re-engineering its 600cc V-twin. Munro had it up to about 90 MPH before he decided that the engine’s original side-valve configuration didn’t provide enough speed, so he designed and cast his own overhead-valve setup for the engine.

While Munro did most of his testing on Oreti Beach, south of Invercargill, he took part in motorcycle races of all sorts all over New Zealand as he continued to refine both his Scout and his 1936 Velocette MSS. By the 1940s he had his Indian running 120 MPH, and in 1957 he set the New Zealand beach record at 132 MPH. New Zealand beaches, however, didn’t provide much room to go faster, so Munro visited the Bonneville Salt Flats that year and decided to continue his land-speed racing efforts there.

He wouldn’t return until 1962, bootstrapping his way across the Pacific (as a cook on a cargo ship that transported him and his Indian) and the American West (flat towing the Indian behind a $90 Nash station wagon). That year, he pushed the streamlined Indian to a record of 179 MPH in the 850cc class, and due in no small part to the encouragement he received from fellow racers, he continued to return to Bonneville throughout the Sixties.

In 1967, the last year he would race at Bonneville, Munro had enlarged the Indian’s V-twin to 950cc and entered it in Class S-A 1,000cc. His top speed of 191 MPH and his average speed of 183.586 MPH at that year’s Bonneville Speed Week not only set the class record, but also established Munro’s then-47-year-old bike as the fastest Indian motorcycle. That record went on to stand until 2014 when Munro’s son John convinced the American Motorcycle Association to correct a calculation error, bumping Munro’s record to 184.087 MPH.

While many land-speed racers have refrained from competing in the S-A 1,000cc class specifically to avoid breaking Munro’s record, a group of students from Northern Ireland has made it their goal to break that record largely because Munro showed that anybody, including a self-financed garage-dweller such as himself, could break a land-speed record.

In the meantime, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Munro’s record, his grandnephew Lee will take to the salt flats this August in another Indian in pursuit of another class record.

Munro, who died in 1978, was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2006. Both his Scout and Velocette remain in New Zealand as part of the E Hayes Motorworks Collection.