Uneasy rider, Bernard Carpinter

One Good Run: The Legend of Burt Munro
Tim Hanna
Penguin, $35.00,
ISBN 0143019740

You’ve seen the movie, now read the book. In the case of the film The World’s Fastest Indian and this book, that is the better order in which to approach the two accounts of the exploits of Southland speed fiend Burt Munro. The film is proving to be one of the most popular ever made in New Zealand, and I enjoyed it very much. But if you read the book first, you could be vexed by the film’s readiness to modify the facts in order to make the story flow better. I would not criticise the film for fiddling with the facts a little, but it is distracting when you’re watching a film and you see something that you know to be wrong.

For those unfamiliar with the background, Burt Munro was a motorcycle fanatic who raced bikes with considerable success – he was once second in the New Zealand Grand Prix – and then turned to setting speed records. He was remarkably successful, considering the age of both his bike and himself. This was in the 1960s, Munro was in his sixties and his bike was an American-made 1920 Indian Scout that he had modified himself over decades of dedicated tinkering till it was capable of speeds around 200 miles an hour (320kmh).

The film opens with Munro aged about 60, working on his Indian in the garage where he also lived. Hanna fills in the story up to that point. Munro’s grandfather James emigrated from Scotland, his family forced off their land by the clearances. He established a farm in Southland and his son William, Burt’s father, followed suit. Burt hated the farming life; it was much too slow and too repetitive for him. But he did enjoy riding horses fast and he taught himself mechanical skills, which he used to make a cannon during WWI, skill which of course he later applied to his motorbikes.

Bikes became Munro’s reason for living. Once when he was introduced to a fellow who had never ridden a motorbike he exclaimed, “By golly, you might as well be dead!” He raced bikes, talked endlessly about them, tuned them and got away with ill-advised exploits on public roads. He did have another life – he held some responsible jobs, such as managing a fair-sized staff in a motorcycle service department, and he married and raised a family. While married, he persisted in chasing – and sometimes catching – other women, but Hanna says he was still a good father.

In 1945 the family house burnt down. Munro built a new one but:

When he announced that he was going to move his motorcycles into the front room, however, the long-suffering Beryl [his wife] decided she had had enough. She decamped for Napier, taking all the children except Margaret, who by that time was romantically attached to someone and elected to stay with her father.

 

When Margaret married a few years later Munro decided to devote himself entirely to his bikes. In 1951 the Invercargill council would not let him build the type of house he wanted, so he built a garage instead – and lived in it with his bikes for 28 years. Entirely self-taught, he designed and made major engine components like pistons and cylinder heads, sometimes using machinery at local businesses where he had friends.

The quest for sheer speed eventually led him to the Bonneville salt flats in Utah, which was now the best place to set records. After a few exploratory visits – not mentioned in the film – Munro took his Indian there several times and achieved some notable results, although never the “one good run” he dreamed about. There were so many things that could go wrong, and most of them did. But at the age of 76 he broke his own New Zealand beach speed record – a lot of his racing had been done on beaches – with a speed of 136mph. In spite of all his hair-raising adventures and crashes (he was knocked out several times) Munro eventually died peacefully at home.

Both the film and the book show Munro as a remarkably single-minded individual. According to the Hanna version, he was also stubborn to the point of bloody-mindedness, opinionated, talkative (his main subject being his own motorbike exploits), parsimonious and possessed of a strange charm that ensured he always had a band of friends and supporters to keep him going. Tact, however, was not his strong point. Hanna recounts an argument Munro had with an official at Bonneville who said his clothing – which included the woollen trousers he had worn for his wedding – was not safe apparel for a motorcycle speed record attempt. Of course, the official was absolutely right but Munro argued his case in vigorous fashion. Hanna’s reconstruction reads thus:

The inspector glared back. “All right, you do what you want. But don’t blame me when they take you away in a box.” Burt grinned. “If that happens I’ll put in a word of recommendation for you with the old fellow down below! I’ll tell him you’re just the sort of bloke he’s looking for.”

 

Incidentally, if you remember him as Bert Munro, you’re right. He was christened Herbert and called Bert till he got to America and a magazine article misspelled his name as Burt. Munro liked America and he liked Burt, so he used that version thereafter.

Munro was a blokey man, and this is a blokey book. Some of his activities – such as riding at 140mph on a public road near Invercargill – will not amuse non-blokey readers. Hanna, who also wrote a very detailed book about John Britten, gives a lot of technical information, some of which was over my head. But essentially the book is very readable, simply because Munro was such an interesting fellow, and Hanna tells his story in good clear prose. For a Penguin book, though, it does contain a surprising number of obvious mistakes: “persue”, “vocal chords”, Scottish settlers arriving in New Zealand in the middle of the 18th century. It appears that publishers are not applying the same resources to book editing that they used to.

Hanna says this book is “a dramatic recreation of Burt Munro’s life” rather than a history. There are a lot of quotes; presumably many of them were made up. So long as the author gives fair warning, I have no problem with that. Hanna also pays tribute to an earlier book on Munro by George Begg, another remarkably gifted race engineer from Southland – he built Formula 5000 cars in the 1970s that were competitive with the world’s best. Begg knew Munro personally, so his book would be the place to go for anyone with a really serious interest in Burt Munro’s life and works.

 

Bernard Carpinter is a Napier-based journalist who writes, inter alia, about motorcycle racing.

 

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