Cycle News - Archive Issues - 2000's

Cycle News 2005 11 23

Cycle News is a weekly magazine that covers all aspects of motorcycling including Supercross, Motocross and MotoGP as well as new motorcycles

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By CHICANERY HENNY RAY ABRAMS A Motorcycle Movie Worth Seeing he World's Fastest Indian, a wonderful tale of passion starring Anthony Hopkins, tells the story of Burt Munro, a New Zealander who made his life's work the perfection of the 1920 Indian Scout and his quest for speed at the Bonneville Salt Flats. As movies go, this is one worth seeking out when it opens later this year in selected markets, and more widely in 2006. As a movie about a motorcyclist, it's the best to come along in years, maybe decades. Torque and Supercross: The Movie notwithstanding. Burt Munro was a lovable rogue, a worldly man from a small town near the bottom of the world whose natural charm was as boundless as his energy. His passion for performance was so far off the charts of what is considered normal behavior that it's hard to fathom in our increasingly impermanent, attention-deficit-disorder world. His commitment to the mechanical perfection of his "motorsickle," as he pronounced it, in a near-pitchperfect accent, cannot be overstated. In a letter to a fellow enthusiast dated March 21, 1970, and originally published in New Zealand's veteran and vintage motoring magazine Beaded Wheels number 189, Munro writes: "It is almost impossible for me to give you a true picture of the time I have spent on my cycles. The last 22 years has been full-time, and for one stretch of 10 years, I put in 16 hours every day, but on Christmas Day only took the afternoon off." Makes whining about your mandatory IS-minute coffee break seem a little churlish. Working out of the brick shed where he lived in Invercargill, a small town on the South Island of New Zealand, Munro was a one-man speed shop - engineer, fabricator, and foundryman. And racer. He cast and poured his own pistons after superheating the metal on a small stove. He built his own four-cam design to replace the two-cam system and converted the Scout to overhead valves. He made his own barrels from iron gasworks pipes that were cast off by the city. Flywheels, cams, followers, an oiling system - he made them all. He built a 17plate, 1000-pound pressure clutch and used triple chain drive. His streamliner T was rare in that it used most of the original motorcycle chassis, though it was lengthened and the suspension altered. What did it all add up to? The original 37-cubic-inch/600cc 42-degree side-valve V-twin Scout was capable of 55 mph. When it was finished, the Scout, now christened the "Munro Special" and pumped up to 1000ccs, was good for over 200 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats. To this day, nearly 40 years later, he still holds the 1000cc streamlined fuel record of 183.586 mph. The movie begins with an affectionate sweep of the spare and discarded parts on the shelves in the shop where he lived in Invercargill. Before long, he's turning molten metal into pistons and waking up cuts through the bureaucracy that's keeping the streamliner in customs. "What exactly do you intend to do here in the United States?" he's asked by an immigration officer. "Well, set a land-speed record," he says matter-of-factly. When it's delivered, with the crate in less-than-pristine condition, he does a quick inventory and is on his way. He barters his mechanical skills for cheap transportation from L.A. to Utah. He fashions a trailer out of spare parts. He befriends a motel clerk who Munro doesn't realize is a transvestite. He gets nabbed by a police officer going 160 mph, and both men walk away with a smile. He has a passion for life, and women, that the neighbors with the unmuffled rumble of the constantly expanding V-twin. The first glimpse of speed is shown on Oreti Beach in Invercargill, where he does test runs. Such is his legend that a pack of locals on Triumphs come to take him on in a speed contest. But the big prize is in Bonneville. Unable to afford the trip - it's never really clear how he supports his speed addiction - the local community comes to his aid, and he's off on a steamer ship to Los Angeles, working to pay his freight. The quest to get to Bonneville consumes most of the 126-minute running time and is given more weight than the mechanical details, which may disappoint the gearheads in the audience. Like the Scout that keeps getting faster, nothing can stop him. Health problems that would halt a normal man are brushed aside. He belies his years, which is something the senior set isn't often given credit for. Like a shark, he is constantly moving forward, undeterred and unflappable. When a wheel comes off his trailer, he props it up with a piece of wood and drags it on the plank until he can find a solution. Not only does he fix the trailer, at the first available stop, but he gets more than he asked for, in a good way. As portrayed by Academy Award winner Hopkins, Munro is the eternal optimist, single-mindedly determined, but not selfish. The opposite, in fact. His boundless enthusiasm sweeps up allies along the way. Hopkins portrays this dream as a passion, not a burden, and certainly not an obsession, though that argument could easily be made. At first glance, it's easy to dismiss Burt Munro as an antipodean nutter. Roger Donaldson, the New Zealandborn writer and director, makes sure that doesn't happen. In 1971, well before he became an accomplished director - The Recruit, Thirteen Days, The Bounty Donaldson, a motorcycle enthusiast, and his collaborator Mike Smith made a documentary about Munro in New Zealand. The pair accompanied Munro to Los Angeles and then to Bonneville on one of his last runs. The title of the documentary, Offerings to the God of Speed, was written in chalk on one of the parts-lined shelves in Munro's shed. The documentary was shown on television in New Zealand in 1973. ':All my life I wanted to do something big, something bigger and better than all the other jokers," Munro says. "This is it - Bonneville. This is the place where big things happen." The beaches of New Zealand that constrained the speed were not an issue in Bonneville. Once unleashed to maximum potential, the red streamliner was a wobbling handful of Jello. Counterweights proved useless, even detrimental. Rider skill was the only way to control the beast. That, Munro was able to keep the liner on the black line in the salt cannot be adequately conveyed on film, though Hopkins and Donaldson do a very good job without resorting to special effects. The 1967 Bonneville record included a one-way run of 190.07 mph in qualifying. Another run was more eventful. Halfway down the line, Munro had to sit up to stop the bike from wobbling. That tore his goggles off, and the wind under his open-faced white Bell helmet threatened to strangle him. He wasn't deterred. When he crashed, just past the eight-mile marker, he was going over 206 mph. "I did it, Tom, I did it," he tells his onceskeptical neighbor in Invercargill on a transpaCific phone call. "She's the world's fastest Indian." This was a nearly 50-year-old motorcycle being asked to do things its designers could not possibly have conceived of. Certainly it helped that the forks were altered and the wheelbase lengthened. Even so, the quest for speed was as quixotic as it was noble. But maybe that's the point. "If you don't follow through on your dreams, you might as well be a vegetable," Munro says. Amen. eN CYCLE NEWS • NOVEMBER 23, 2005 95

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