The World’s Fastest Indian
Burt Munro – The Fastest Human on Motorcycle
“The World’s Fastest Indian” tells the story of New Zealand native Burt Munro on his journey to set a new land speed record with his 1920 Indian motorcycle at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. The film begins in his hometown of Invercargill, New Zealand in the Southland region, where Burt spends most of his time tinkering on his Indian motorcycle in his garage. Many old parts are scattered throughout his garage, and he spent most of his time trying to modify his Indian to go faster.
Set in the 1960’s, Munro was already of advancing age. He develops a friendship with the neighbor’s son Tom, who comes over to assist Burt as he modifies his motorcycle. Tom’s parents, particularly his father George, have a somewhat contentious relationship with Burt. George was not a fan of Burt’s odd habits of firing up his loud motorcycle at dawn, peeing on his lemon tree (which he tells Tom is because he thinks urine is the best fertilizer), and never cutting his grass. In order to appease his neighbors, Munro dumps a jug of fuel all over his lawn and lights it on fire, which he casually chuckles about as the fire department arrives to put out the flames.
Frustrated neighbors were the least of Burt’s worries. One morning he has an episode of chest pain that sends him to the hospital, where he learns that he’s had an attack of angina. The doctor gives him nitroglycerine pills to take in case of another attack, then suggesting he take it easy and that his motorcycle riding days are over. Burt disregards
the suggestion and it just fuels his burning desire to get the Bonneville Salt Flats to race his Indian before he “kicks the bucket.”
Eventually, Munro scrounges together enough money to make the trip to America. Upon arrival, he discovers the shipping container of his Indian motorcycle was damaged but to his relief, the motorcycle seemed to be unharmed. As Munro learns to adjust to the American culture, he maintains an optimistic, assertive, and friendly attitude that carries him throughout the journey. He makes friends with many people along the way, including a motel clerk named Tina who dresses in drag.
After settling briefly in the Los Angeles area, Munro drives to Utah while towing his motorcycle behind a car he bought for $250 and repaired himself. Along the way, he meets several helpful people, including a Native American that gives him “dog balls” for his swelling prostate, a lady that helps him fix the wheel that fell off his trailer, and a young soldier that needs a ride to Utah.
When he finally arrives at the Bonneville Salt Flats, he learns that he is unable to race because he did not pre-register for the event. He pleas with the registrars to no avail, and then calls over Jim Moffet, an American driver from California whom he met and befriended upon arrival. At first, Jim is unable to convince them but eventually, the let Burt go through inspection and run a time trial. His Indian does not technically pass inspection because the suspension, brakes, and other safety parts were all outdated and fragile.
Before he makes his timed pass on the Indian, people gather together and contribut to a pouch of money to honor Burt for his long, inspiring journey from New Zealand to the Salt Flats. As he prepares for his timed run, Munro is aware of multiple problems with the Indian. Under extended acceleration, the heat from the exhaust pipe could potentially burn his leg. Additionally, the bike has a “speed wobble” at high speeds, with the back end completely unstable and fishtailing.
Despite these risks, he makes the run and at the final timed marker he is clocked at 201 mph, breaking a land speed record. He then crashes at the end of the run and is shown pulling out his burned leg. Even though he is hurt, Munro celebrates while laughing in very simple terms: “I did it. I did it.” He survives as a new record holder and then returns to his home town in
Southland to celebrate with his friends and neighbors.
Contributing author: Jeffrey D. Hill
Real Life, Reel Differences
- In the film, Burt Munro’s record is vaguely called “a new world record.” His official record was for the AMA Land Speed Record in Class S.A. 1000, the record for top speed of motorbikes under 1000cc.
- Unlike the depiction in the film, his record was not 201 mph, but rather 183.586 mph. This was later adjusted to 184.087 mph due to a calculation error. Unofficially, he did reach 205 mph on his Indian in a qualifying run.
- Anthony Hopkin’s portrayal of Burt Munro has been argued to not have the appropriate “kiwi” accent Munro would have had as a native of the Southland region. Instead, it could be described as hybrid of Hopkin’s native Welsh accent, a bit of a South African accent, while blended with common New Zealander terminology.
- Munro was not known to actually urninate on his lemon tree. Director Roger Donaldson added this detail to honor his own father whom actually did pee on his lemon tree.
- The first time Munro attended the Bonneville Salt Flats was for sight seeing, unlike in the film where he sets the new record on his first visit.
Where Are They Now?
Burt Munro would continue to return to the Bonneville Salt Flats 10 times over an 11 year span. He set multiple land speed records, all on his 1920 Indian as he gradually modified the motorcycle. Part of his modifying process was to bore out the engine to larger capacity, running first in the under 883cc class, then running in the under 1000cc class. He would set records in both categories throughout his visits in the 1960’s.
Burt died in 1978 from natural causes related to his heart condition, but he was working on his Indian for his remaining days. He wasn’t a wealthy man, so he would often take an old school “good enough” approach by fabricating parts from scraps as opposed to buying expensive new parts. For example, he would cast his own parts to make flywheels, barrels and
Employed as a motorcycle salesman that didn’t earn much money, Burt had difficulty finding time and money to work on his Indian. It was known that he would sometimes stay up all night after work to modify his Indian, and then he would go back to work in the morning without any sleep.
His 1920 Indian motorcycle’s original top speed was merely 55 mph, showing how much he truly modified a bike that was never intended to go so fast. It would eventually be capable of over 200 mph. The current owner of this motorcycle, Tom Hensley, produced this home video about the restoration of this vehicle:
There is debate, however, on whether the bike Tom owns is authentic or whether the actual bike is in New Zealand.
Before his trips to the Bonneville Salt Flats, Munro was married to Florence Martyn from 1927 to 1947, and together they had four children: John, June, Margaret, and Gwen.
Burt was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2006.
In 2013, Indian Motorcycles announced they were building “The Spirit of Munro,” a streamliner bike made to showcase the new Thunder Stroke 111 engine to be used in some new road models.