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Going South : The Real World’s Fastest Indian

Smith journeys as far south as he could go for just a glimpse of New Zealand’s most famous motorcycle – the Munro Special – aka the World’s Fastest Indian.

There in the world is the World’s Fastest Indian? Not in Hollywood, though a total of five replicas were produced for the film starring Anthony Hopkins. Not at Bonneville Salt Flats, either, the venue where H. J. Munro was officially timed at 191.34 mph on the Special. And while I saw a convincing replica of Munro’s record breaker at the Legend of the Motorcycle Show in Carmel, California a few years back, that wasn’t it either. Turns out, it’s nowhere in the Americas.

If I were to tell you the original Burt Munro Bonneville bike (aka The World’s Fastest Indian) was presently parked in a hardware store, you probably wouldn’t believe me. Though if you knew the hardware store was in Invercargill, New Zealand—Munro’s hometown—it might make more sense.

But it’s true. Burt Munro’s legendary salt racer, based on a 1920 600cc Indian Scout is on display in a glass case in the hardware store of E Hayes and Sons.

There are very good reasons why the Munro Special ended up here. First, Irving Hayes, son of company founder Ernest Hayes, was a good friend of Munro’s and provided sponsorship money toward the cost of his record attempts in the US. 

Second, Irving’s son Norman also knew Munro well, and was a pallbearer at his funeral. Third, Munro would have bought plenty of tools and parts from the E Hayes store.

world's fastest Indian without streamliner body on display

Present E Hayes Company managing director Neville Hayes (great-grandson of the founder) acquired the Munro Special (and Burt’s other racer, a highly-modified Velocette) after the racer’s death; and now displays it as part of the E Hayes Motorworks Collection housed inside the store.

On vacation in “Un Zud,” I heard about the Collection and the Munro Special and decided to pony up the airfare to Invercargill to check it out for myself. The biggest challenge I had was that the Special is inside a glass case to prevent any of its uniquely hand-made parts going missing: and, as Neville explained to me, it was staying in the case as a condition of the insurance policy. So the quality of photography available to me was necessarily attenuated. 

world's fastest Indian fuel tank and engine on display

So be it. The Munro Special is about as historically significant as any motorcycle can get; and the chance to just be in its presence was enough. It certainly bore the craftsmanship and ingenuity of its builder—a creative but notoriously cheap mechanic, characteristics that most Kiwis might identify with.

Munro started with a new 1920 Indian Scout, an iconic design from the pen of chief designer Charles Franklin. The Scout was known for its exquisite handling; but its 600cc side-valve engine lacked the power Munro needed. So over a half century, he hacked, wrenched and reconstructed the Indian into a speed record challenger. Capacity went out to 1000cc, with Munro reportedly casting his own pistons from melted-down aluminum pans. The side-valve heads were replaced with a Munro-made OHV conversion, like the early Crockers; and the frame cut-and-shut to suit the demands of the salt.

 

world's fastest Indian fuel tank and steering head on display

Now the naked Munro Special forms the centrepiece of the Motorworks Collection, accompanied by one of the Ducati-powered replica movie stand-ins—and a kiddy’s ride-in  streamliner body.

Yes, it’s a long way to go to see the ” World’s Fastest Indian “. Invercargill is about as far south as you can drive in New Zealand, and unless you have a week or so to get there, you’ll have to fly. But seeing the real Munro Special makes it worth the trip.

By Robert Smith Canadian Biker Issue#330

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