Indian Scout

1920 Indian Scout

There aren’t many classic motorcycles which star in their own feature films. But then, there aren’t many classic motorcycles which can claim to be The World’s Fastest Indian.

Although Anthony Hopkins is the headline star of a new film, The World’s Fastest Indian, all classic bike fans will no doubt be rather more interested in the hardware on display.

Hopkins plays Burt Munro, a New Zealander who spent a lifetime perfecting his 1920’s Indian Scout. In the 1960s, Munro took the Scout to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and, following repeated attempts, year after year, he finally set a new speed record and in doing so captured the spirit of his times. Burt Munro’s 1967 world record remains unbroken – and the film is director and writer Roger Donaldson’s tribute to Munro’s determination.

Burt Munro bought his Indian Scout at the age of 21, in 1920. Five years earlier he’d bought his first bike, a Douglas, and Burt started racing soon after that on a Clyno. But the Indian proved to be the bike of Burt’s life – he kept it for 57 years until his death in 1978.

The Scout was an 11hp, sidevalve 596cc, 42-degree V-twin with a 3-speed hand-change gearbox and foot-operated clutch. The helical-gear primary drive lived in a cast alloy case, and power was delivered to the rear wheel by chain drive. The double downtube cradle frame used a leaf-spring system for front suspension (although Munro soon swapped to a girder fork set-up), with a rigid rear end.

As standard the Scout weighed around 340lb and was a little over 54-inches long. The American price for a 1920’s Scout was $325.

In standard trim, the Scout would travel at about 60mph and ‘exceeded nearly everyone’s expectations for performance,’ according to American motorcycle expert Tod Rafferty

To go racing on his Scout, Munro modified the Indian – but that’s only the half of it. In Humbernut style, he rebuilt the Indian’s engine from scratch (home-made barrels, pistons, cams and followers); even going so far as to develop a four-cam, overhead valve engine. Eventually, Munro’s Scout needed a 17-plate clutch, capable of transmitting 1000lb…

Munro also experimented with streamlining, as you’ll see from the photos; he needed the sleek profile to attack the serious speed records. By the 1950s Munro was regularly setting racing records. In the 1960s (when Munro was a grandfather, let’s not forget!), he started to take the Scout to the Bonneville Salt Flats.

By then the bike was radically different to the machine he’d purchased some 42 years before – its capacity had been boosted to 850cc, for one thing.

In 1962 Munro set a world speed record of 178.971mph… but that wasn’t enough. On the following year’s campaign, a conrod broke during one of the speed runs – when Munro was travelling at around 195mph. More frustration followed in the next season, until Munro finally hit the jackpot in 1967 with a 950cc engine. Munro recorded a one-way run of 190.07mph.

This is still the fastest official speed record for an Indian motorcycle. Munro’s aggregate speed was given as 183.586mph.

Achieving the record was far from straightforward, as Munro explained in the 1970s. ‘At the Salt in 1967 we were going like a bomb. Then she got the wobbles just over half way through the run. To slow her down I sat up. The wind tore my goggles off and the blast forced my eyeballs back into my head — couldn’t see a thing.

We were so far off the black line that we missed a steel marker stake by inches. I put her down — a few scratches all round but nothing much else.’

Director Roger Donaldson’s two-hour film follows Munro’s progress, his tribulations and his eventual success. Donaldson was determined to bring Munro’s story to the big screen.

‘I first met him late one winter’s night in 1971. Burt was excited that some young filmmakers had come all the way down to meet this old man and discuss the possibility of a documentary about his exploits. In his enthusiasm he wheeled an old 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle out of the cinder-block shed and jumped on the kick- starter.

Indian Scout

‘The engine roared to life; a sound to split your eardrums. The noise, you can’t hear yourself talk let alone think! Lights started coming on in the neighbours’ houses.

When Burt finally stopped revving the engine and you could once again hear, the night was filled with the yells of his disapproving neighbors suggesting that 11pm was an inappropriate time to start demonstrating his un-muffled motorcycle.

‘I have been intrigued by Burt’s story for many, many years; some would say my obsession with this film matches Burt’s obsession with his bike.’

Not everyone is quite so tuned-in to Munro’s way of thinking. Actor Anthony Hopkins, who plays the New Zealander, admits to feeling less enthusiastic about Munro’s high-speed life.

Indian stuff on

‘Well I’m no speed freak myself but Burt Munro… Burt loved speed. He was, I don’t know if he was obsessed with it, but he loved the thrill of speed, he said that you can live more in five minutes on a motorbike going high speed than you can in your whole lifetime. That was the challenge.

I suppose there are obviously people who flirt with mortality. I mean, you’re taking a huge challenge, a courageous challenge to risk your life…

‘But that was it – to overcome fear is the greatest virtuous courage and I think Burt is one of those characters, one of those guys. That’s his whole philosophy of life, to live life to the full, because When you’re dead you’re a long time dead he says, and Once you’re dead you never come back.

‘I’m not a speed thrill freak though – I’m a careful driver, so I don’t like speed. I used to when I was younger but now, I like to live.’

Several versions of Munro’s Indian Scout were built for the film, which goes on general release in the UK on March 10th 2006. Let us know what you think of it…

Indian Scout
Indian Scout
Indian Scout
Indian Scout
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