The Burt Munro Story

2017 marks the 50th Anniversary of Burt Munro's World Land Speed Record

Burt Munro was born in Invercargill in 1899, and grew up on a farm in Edendale. It was in 1919 Burt bought his first motorcycle, a £50 Clyno. Twenty and invincible, Burt began to race. A year later Burt invested an Indian Scout for £140. The Scout was a very early model, being only the 627th Scout to leave the American factory, and had an original top speed of 55mph. Burt was ticketed for speeding in 1924. In 1925 he married Beryl Martyn and together they travelled to Australia and had two children. After a crash on the Aspendale Speedway in Sydney, the family returned home to NZ. 

Burt Munro racing on the beach

Burt raced his way through the motorcycle scene in New Zealand, and found work as a travelling motorcycle salesman at Tappers in Invercargill in 1930, selling some of his favourites: Velocettes, Triumphs, Francis-Barnetts and the occasional Harley. His record sales run was 44 bikes in 42 days. At Tappers he modified his Indian to reach speeds of up to 90mph. The more Burt tinkered, the faster he became and in 1933 he renamed the Indian ‘Munro Special,’ painting the name on the side of the tank. By 1937 Munro Special was racing at 110 mph. 

On the 29th April 1939, Burt Munro attempted to break the NZ Land Speed record. He failed, but in 1940 set an Open Class record of 120.8mph. He also set records for the fastest Bluff Hill climb. In 1941 a horrific crash on a Triumph Twin Speed saw Burt in recovery for over a year, but it would not stop him. A house fire, a divorce, and the death of his father could not deter him either, and in 1948 Burt gave up work to devote his life to making the Indian go ever faster. 

In 1951 Burt built a garage where he would live and work for the next 22 years. The Indian was getting faster, reaching speeds of up to 133.33 mph.

Burt Munro Special

On overseas trips through Europe, and later to the Bonneville Salts in Utah Munro witnessed Land Speed records being broken. He returned to New Zealand determined to build a streamliner for the Indian. Modeled on the shape of a goldfish, this begins to take shape in 1957. Munro set a half-mile record at the Canterbury trials:143.43 mph, and another on Oreti Beach. 

In 1960 Burt tested the first streamliner at highspeeds. He clocked 161.75 mph before the engine failed and after an epic skid, miraculously walked away unscathed. 

A second streamliner, made from fiberglass, wider than the original and with a tri-blade aluminium fin was built, and after recognising it was no longer safe to test such speeds at Oreti Beach Burt attended the Bonneville National Speed Trials for the first time in Utah. Clocking 178.97 mph Burt set a new record.

Two washed out events at Bonneville saw Burt not compete again with his third streamliner until 1966. Here, with an enlarged engine Burt clocked 168.066 mph in the S-A 1000 class, and was unofficially timed going over 200 mph outside the course. 

In 1967 Munro returned with a fourth streamliner, this time with the nose cut off, and a longer tail. He set an incredible two-way average record of 183.586 mph which still stands today. Burt Munro was named ‘American Motorcyclist of the Year.’

Burt Munro passed away in 1978 and was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2006. In 2014, 36 years after his death, Munro was retroactively 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.

His legacy continues in the Southern Hemisphere’s largest motorcycle rally, The Burt Munro Challenge

The Records


1967

296.26 km/h
(184.087 mph)

Under 1000cc Class Record


1966

270.476 km/h
(168.07 mph)

1000cc Class Record


1962

288 km/h
(178.95 mph)

883cc Class Record

Events