In December 2005 The World's Fastest Indian, a film directed by New Zealander Roger Donaldson about fellow New Zealander Herbert James 'Burt' Munro (1899-1978) was released. The film depicted how the sixtyeight- year-old Munro set the world speed record with his much modified 1920 Indian Scout motor cycle, and it was popular with both motorcyclists and non-motorcyclists, in large part because Munro was played by Sir Anthony Hopkins. But it also did well because the story was a classic tale of a man driven by a dream to achieve greatness.
Munro was neither wealthy nor highly educated in the formal sense, and from a country far 'Down Under'. He was a self-admitted 'speed junkie' and was committed to riding the motor cycle that he bought new in 1920 and never stopped modifying as fast as humanly possible. Because Munro ultimately achieved his dream in 1967 at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah by setting the SCTA (Southern California Timing Association) class S-F ('Streamlined - Fuel') under-1,000 cc motorcycle world speed record - a record that still stands - and because the film has done so well, one interesting question among many others related to the man and the film arises: what can historians - especially technology and mobility - glean from his story?
Because of Munro's charisma as a man and a legend, especially as portrayed by Hopkins, it would be understandable to focus on the fact of Munro's riding such a mechanical beast himself at such an advanced age as the starting point for a serious historical analysis. Yet Munro himself says, in a filmed interview with director Donaldson, that riding is 'only one-hundredth' of the effort. Thus historians would be wise, I think, to explore the other ninety-nine hundredths of the story.
As a historian of technology who has also been an active member of the speed junkie world as well as a special-interest magazine editor and writer,1 I think the most important lesson to be learned from Donaldson's movie is embedded in the episode, at about thirty-eight minutes into the movie, involving Hopkins-as-Munro and actors portraying officers of the US Customs Service.
In the film it is the answers Hopkins's Munro gives to the first customs officer he encounters that trigger a further examination of his reasons for coming to the United States. Two more customs officials ask him to explain in detail. Munro repeats his goal of setting a world's speed record at Bonneville with his 'motorsickle.' One customs officer looks dubious, but the second says, 'You know what - I think I read about your bike.' Munro replies, 'Oh yeah?' The officer continues, 'It was in, um, Popular Mechanics a couple of years ago.' Munro grins and says, 'That's right - that's me. Leslie Hobbs from Christchurch sent that story in.' To which the customs officer says, 'What was it - fastest motorcycle in Australia?' Smiling, Munro says, 'Yeah - and in New Zealand!'
This is the critical moment for Munro's odyssey, because the second customs officer's validation of Munro's identity and accomplishments convinces the senior officer that Burt is 'legitimate', and he gives Munro a visa for a stay of six months. This fictional scene is an adaptation of an actual exchange that the real Burt Munro related to Roger Donaldson in 1972, when he was making a documentary called Burt Munro: Offerings to the God of Speed.2 Munro told the director that in 1959 he had come to Los Angeles and driven to Edwards Air Force Base in order to see the legendary X-15 rocket plane. Ignoring warning signs, he drove into the base. He stopped to take some photos, and an Air Force security detail arrived and asked him what he was doing and why. His replies, of course, seemed very odd to the policemen, who confiscated his belongings and took him to an interrogation room, where he eventually faced the senior officer, Lieutenant Colonel Terry Thomas. He told Thomas his tale, and mentioned that he'd been the fastest man on two wheels for quite a while in New Zealand and Australia. …