Not just the beautiful setting for blockbuster film The Hobbit, New Zealand has much more to offer in its heritage, including two motorcycle legends
As a ‘kiwi kid’, I grew up around people who lauded their colonial reputation for ‘kiwi ingenuity’. New Zealand history is replete with examples of it: people who could build or fix anything in a shed out of fencing wire, duct tape, lateral thinking and hard work; people who pushed the boundaries back. It was impossible not to cultivate an admiration of this attitude through the archive of achievers from a country that punched above its weight. From Kate Sheppard, whose campaigning gave equal voting rights to women in 1893, a world first, to Jean Batten, legendary aviatrix. Not to mention, Richard Pearce, a farmer who flew his winged contraption 100 metres nine months before the Wright Brothers; Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics; Edmund Hillary, who along with Tenzing Norgay was the first to climb Mount Everest in 1953; and of course, Peter Jackson. You get the idea, and at the risk of breaking into a tearful rendition of the national anthem, I’ll stop. But this serves as a pretext for introducing two other legendary New Zealand figures who continue to inspire the motorcycling world through their ingenuity: Herbert (Burt) Munro and John Britten.
Although Munro and Britten lived two generations apart, they had a lot in common. Both were massive dreamers, were insatiably persistent, oozed kiwi ingenuity, and spent an extraordinary number of hours in a shed.
Burt Munro grew up on a farm where he was able to nurture his passion for speed. He began modifying his newly obtained Indian Scout in 1926 which would eventually evolve into the dream of riding it in a straight line as fast as possible. Munro tinkered with his Scout by night and sold motorcycles by day. As he was of modest means, Munro fashioned many of his own tools, using an old spoke as a micrometre, and casted his own barrels, flywheels, cams and other parts in old tins. Rumour has it that he cast his pistons in sand holes dug at his local beach. He even carved his own con-rods from a Caterpillar tractor axle, built a seventeen-plate thousand-pound pressure clutch and used a triple-chain drive. He experimented with aerodynamics and, in its final form, his Scout resembled a torpedo.
Unconventional maybe, but he achieved his goal. After widening the capacity of his Indian – also known as the “Munro Special” – from an off-the-line 600cc to 950cc, he eventually set the under 1Kcc world record at the famous Bonneville Salt Flats reaching 190.07mph on the Scout (factory speed: 55mph), the fastest ever officially recorded speed on an Indian – a record that stands today. He was 68 riding a bike that was 47 years old.
After reaching 206mph during an unofficial run at Bonneville in 1967 Burt commented: “…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.”
Just prior to his death in 1978, aged 78, Burt Munro’s Indian Scout, his labour of love of over half a century, was sold to a local dealer near his Southland home.
I remember waiting for my bike to be serviced when I saw a quote scrawled on my mechanic’s shop wall: “4 wheels moves the body, 2 wheels moves the soul”. This triggered a conversation about another kiwi motorcycle legend, John Britten. Britten was far more than a motorcycle enthusiast. At the age of 13 he dragged an old Indian Scout out of a ditch and restored it, perhaps as homage to one of his boyhood heroes, Burt Munro. Britten’s story is one of ambition, nous, creativity and persistence, and with the help of a few like-minded mates, he would design and build one of the fastest racing bikes the world had ever seen. Britten began working on motorcycle designs in his spare time, setting up the Britten Motorcycle Company in 1992. The V1000 and V1100 represent his motorcycle legacy, advancing bike design and technology by quantum leaps. And yes, they were built in his shed.
Without the huge research and development budgets that established motorcycle companies had to invest, Britten worked on the basis of trial and error, naturally, with mixed results. To save weight, he negated the use of a supporting frame, opting to bolt the ancillary parts of his bike to the engine itself. Britten led the way in exploiting the benefits of carbon fibre and composite materials, custom-making almost all of the several thousand parts that went into his bike, all in his back yard. During a race at Daytona, one of the V1000’s cylinders cracked, one of the parts that Britten and his team didn’t build themselves. When asked why anyone would want to make life so difficult for themselves, Britten replied, “I suppose for the satisfaction. The more difficult something is, the more satisfaction you get out of it if you get a good result”. The pinnacle of the Britten Motorcycle Company’s achievements came in 1995 when they won the world individual BEARS (British, European, American Racing Series). Other achievements were a win in the Battle of the Twins (Daytona, 1994), and the fastest recorded top speed at the Isle of Man TT. The Britten bike also set a number of world speed records.
I remember seeing the Britten V1000 on display at New Zealand’s National Museum and was astonished by how beautiful it was up close. It looked like something an artist had envisaged and an engineer had built. For most of the motorcycle manufacturing world, John Britten was both, having rewritten the rulebook for motorcycle engineers the world over. Britten’s wife Kirsteen summed up her husband’s approach as having “something to do with the kiwi attitude of ‘you can do anything’, and you can do it in your back yard, and I think that’s a really special mentality and something we ought to treasure in ourselves”.
Image from: http://www.dudeworld.com.au/ARTIBURTMUNRO.HTML
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