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Burt Munro Special takes top honors at Pebble Beach

Munro Special
The "Munro Special" won top honors at the 2010 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. New Zealander Burt Munro rode this 1920 Indian Scout-based streamliner (our understanding is that this bike has the original 1920 Indian frame and shell no.3) to a record 183.586mph at Bonneville in 1967. (Photo courtesy Corey Levenson.)

The “Munro Special,” the 1920 Indian Scout piloted by New Zealander Burt Munro to 183.586mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1967, won top honors for prewar American racing motorcycles at the Aug. 15, 2010, Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. A car-only show since its founding in 1950, the prestigious Pebble Beach event opened its doors to motorcycles for the first time in 2009. The Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum won top honors in 2009 for its 1954 AJS E95, one of four claimed built.

Munro’s quest to ride his Indian into the history books started in 1926, when he began a decades-long process of modifying his 1920 Indian Scout, a bike he bought new, to become the fastest Indian in the world. It took Munro 41 years to achieve his dream, and his exploits became legendary in the motorcycling world, ultimately inspiring Indian motorcycle rider and movie producer Roger Donaldson to release The World’s Fastest Indian in 2005. The film starred Anthony Hopkins as Munro, a role Hopkins played with relish and which he took on for a fraction of his normal fee because he was so drawn to Munro’s character. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, rent or buy it now; it’s one of the greatest motorcycle movies of all time. (Check out our review of The World’s Fastest Indian.)

Munro’s devotion to his quest bordered on the pathological, a single-minded obsession with wringing every ounce of performance — and then some — he could out of his ancient Indian, years after anyone might have considered such a machine competitive. It was a life of both privation and celebration. While Munro often barely scratched out a living, his life was clearly rich, as his quest found him racing and becoming good friends with some of the most famous riders of the day, including the likes of famed Vincent drag racer Marty Dickerson, a highly successful rider in the 1950s and 1960s who set a new vintage record of 150.685mph aboard a Vincent at Bonneville in 2007 – at the age of 80. Munro was 68 when he set his record, and Dickerson was one of his big supporters.

Burt Munro at Bonneville
Burt Munro with his Munro Special at Bonneville in the 1960s.

Munro died in 1978, and one of his streamlined racers (he built at least two) sat forgotten at Indian expert Sammy Pierce’s shop in California, where Munro left it, sans engine (Sept. 1, 2010, update: We've recently learned that the machine did in fact have an engine when found, complete with AJS-inspired cylinder heads made by Burt Munro, but it was not necessarily the engine used in the 1967 run), following a final Bonneville attempt. As I understand it, Dean Hensley in California purchased the bike in the mid-1980s, and then had it restored by American motorcycle restoration specialist Steve Huntzinger. Dean passed away following an accident, but his brother, Tom Hensley, has shown the Munro Special several times over the ensuing years; its win at Pebble Beach is a fitting honor for such a historic machine. — Richard Backus