What happened to the World’s Fastest Indian?

Published: 03 February 2016

It starred in a hit movie but the original ended up in a most unlikely place

The 2005 Anthony Hopkins movie The World’s Fastest Indian was a huge success but the story it was based on is even more astonishing. Self-taught New Zealand engineer Burt Munro spent 46 years developing an Indian Scout in his shed and travelled to Bonneville Salt Flats in America to set a new world record of 183.58mph – the fastest speed ever recorded by the marque. Munro was 68 at the time. 

What was the original bike like?

The 1919 Indian Scout was a 600cc V-twin with side valves and a three-speed, hand-change gearbox, capable of just 50mph. The engine was housed in a double down-tube cradle frame which had no rear suspension but there was about two inches of travel at the front thanks to a leaf spring.

How did Munro make it so fast?

Working in his garden shed for 16 hours a day and only ever taking off a half day for Christmas, Munro developed his Scout over a period of 46 years, always seeking ways to make it go faster. Over the years he would make his own barrels, pistons, flywheels, cams and followers, and even his own lubrication system – all on a shoestring. He made barrels from pieces of cast iron gas pipe which he scrounged from the local gas company after they’d been dug up; he hand-carved con-rods from an old tractor axle, and even carved the tread off normal tyres with a kitchen knife to make high speed slicks!

Why didn’t he just buy a faster bike?

“He just liked the personal challenge of making an old bike go faster,” says son, John Munro. “He liked to confound the experts – if someone told him it couldn’t be done, he liked to prove otherwise. It was the challenge of seeing what he could do. I don’t know what he paid for the Indian but it was somewhere in the order of $130-$150.”

What records did he set?

Munro established six speed records in his native New Zealand before travelling to Bonneville in 1962 and setting a new 883cc class record of 178.95mph. Five years later – and with the Scout now bored out to 1000cc – Munro set a new world record in the 1000cc class of 183.58mph. To date, no one has ever gone faster on an Indian – except Burt himself. In an unofficial one-way run (world records must be set over a two-way run) Munro was clocked at an eye-watering 190.07mph on his ancient streamliner!

What became of Munro?

By 1975, Burt’s health was too poor to allow him to keep travelling to Bonneville but he continued to develop the Indian at home. In 1978 he finally succumbed to the heart condition that had troubled him for years. He was 78. In 2005, director Roger Donaldson made a movie about his childhood hero and The World’s Fastest Indian became a global success. The following year, Burt was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

So where’s the bike now?

The bike that Burt Munro devoted his life to now sits in a hardware store in Invercargill, New Zealand, surrounded by lawnmowers and BBQ sets. The store’s late owner, Irving Hayes, bought his old friend’s bike after Munro passed away and put it in his shop – E. Hayes & Sons Ltd. His grandson now continues that tradition. “The most authentic Munro Special is here in Invercargill,” John Munro says. “The first time Dad took his bike to Bonneville he brought it back with him again but that proved too expensive, so in future he left the frame and shell over there and only brought the engine and gearbox back each time. He had another engine here as well and when he sold a bike to collector Dean Hensley in the USA, he fancied it all up and chromed it and painted it. But the bike here in Invercargill is the real McCoy – it still has the original engine number on it.”

Indian Tech Specs

Model: It’s a universal misconception that the world’s fastest Indian was a 1920 Scout. “The Indian was actually a 1919 model,” says Burt Munro’s son, John. “But Burt bought it in 1920 so he always called it a 1920 model.”

Engine: Originally a 600cc, Munro bored it out to 850cc, then 920cc, 953cc and, ultimately, 1000cc.

Power: By the end of its development, the original 18bhp Indian was pumping out 100bhp.

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