You need to look at a map and see where Invercargill is. It is way on the southern tip of the South Island a mere 3,019 miles from the South Pole. We visited Invercargill on our first (and only) visit to New Zealand prior to attempting to move here. Invercargill is famous for Burt Monroe, an iconic, eccentric New Zealand motorcycle racer who for almost 50 years built, rebuilt and modified a 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle eventually setting the world speed record in his class (183.586 mph) at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in 1967, a record that still stands today.
Burt’s story is memorable for a number of reasons including that he epitomizes the can-do, just-get-on-with-it attitude of New Zealanders and particularly those of the South Island. His motorcycle, an Indian Scout purchased in 1920 (627th off the American assembly line) had a top speed of 55 mph. Initially he worked during the day to support his family, and worked on the motorcycle only at night, working in a cold workshop lit by a solitary 150-watt bulb. Although portrayed somewhat as an old bumbling fool in the movie about him—“The World’s Fastest Indian” (2006) starring Sir Anthony Hopkins—in reality Burt Munro was an engineering genius particularly considering that he was most often curtailed by lack of money and access to quality tools and engineering facilities.
Burt made all his own parts and tools including casting such things as his own barrels, pistons and flywheels himself. He redesigned the cylinder head on the Indian Scout to accept overhead valves and changed the position of the sparkplugs recasting new cylinder heads with molten cast iron in a sand cast. He made valves and other parts out of discarded metal he would salvage, including using old broken Ford Truck axles (for their high grade steel) or his favorite, old Caterpillar axles, to make crank rods. He melted his old destroyed pistons in a crucible to forge replacements often experimenting with his own mixtures of various metals to achieve the desired strength and lightness. He filed, hack sawed, hammered , welded, retrofitted every part on the Indian Scout and his other bikes numerous times working for days at a time on some part that with proper engineering facilities could be done much more rapidly and efficiently.
Hundreds of blow-ups that required a complete rebuilding of the engine, not to mention dozens of accidents many at high speed and his fearlessness to travel close to 200 mph just a few inches off the ground were all endured with a seemingly cheerful stoic equanimity.
All the redesigned and broken parts as well as the toll on his own body were what Burt termed offerings to the “God of Speed” which as he often said demanded so much. With “just one good run” he was sure the old Indian motorcycle could go 200 mph. That was all he was asking for—just one good run. He did actually travel at 200 mph at Bonneville but not during a record run.
The “Munro Special” as he called his beloved Indian Scout remains on display at E. Hayes & Sons, a large hardware store on the main street in Invercargill. The Burt Munro Challenge, a motorcycle rally and racing event, is scheduled each summer (remember, that’s December in the Southern Hemisphere) outside Invercargill. Many of the race events occur at nearby Oreti Beach, a beach famous for its hard flat sand where Burt practiced and raced. You can drive your car up and down the beach—we did— which is exhilarating. As the promo for the Burt Munro Challenge says, “Pack up your bike, round up your mates, and ride South for one hell of a week!”
For more information, the above-mentioned movie despite its shortcomings is still inspiring to watch and Tim Hanna’s excellent biography “One Good Run – The Legend of Burt Munro” is a good read.
And after all, just like Burt, isn’t that what we are all after, just one good run. That one time when the God of Speed or whatever our particular God is deems our offerings enough and gives us that one good run.
1) Burt Monroe, 1962, AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame