Thursday, March 15, 2007

Motorcycles in NZ

New Zealand, biker Heaven?

Written by Gilles

As a motorcycle enthusiast (me, not Lynn) being in NZ is pretty good for the soul, that's assuming you have one? The roads alone on the South Island are enough to convert anyone with a cold heart towards motorcycles into a hard core biker. The scenery, mountains, river, glaciers, ocean, it never really ends and lack of traffic makes it a top destination to ride in. Of course it goes without saying that the kiwis friendliness is unsurpassed and their accents aren't too shabby either which only adds to the already charming NZ landscape.

The Kiwis have a passion for all things mechanical, and actually everything non mechanical as well, but they are especially fond of their motorbikes, new and old, and even more fond of the creators of two of the most famous rides that ever came out of NZ . These two bike creators are known globally for different but equally impressive reasons, one is John Britten and the other Burt Munroe (played by Anthony Hopkins in the movie The World’s Fastest Indian). They are definitely proud of these two New Zealanders and they both are a testament to NZ ingenuity and that never give up attitude.

Trivia-Oddly enough the two gents from different eras share a common link- John Britten's motorcycle company built the bikes used in the The World's Fastest Indian movie, and well I guess the other thing in common is unfortunately they both have passed away.

Good on ya mate!

“John Britten was a visionary, a genius, a motivational legend who created the distinctive home-built bright pink and blue Britten motorcycle that achieved iconic status world-wide”.

It's hard to explain to a non Motor head the significance of both Britten and Munroe, Britten especially. John Britten was able to produce a world class one off motorbike working out of his garage with only a small team of helpers and friends. The Britten bike was capable of not only competing with the best that the Japanese corporate machine could offer but actually beat them on occasion!! Today, that would be compared to you or me building a Formula One car in the backyard and beating the likes of Team Ferrari or Team McLaren on the F1 circuit, it's unheard of.

It was John's technical genius and his dedication to his belief that he could build such an advanced machine to compete on the world stage that sets him apart from most men. It wasn't just a pipe dream to him, it was to become reality. Where most fail to even conceptualize their dreams, John put his together from plan to product in a very short period of time and now had is own offering to the God of Speed.

Britten built a radical 300kph+ V1000 twin using carbon/kevlar composite for the top chassis ( there was no frame per se) carbon/kevlar rear swing arm and front girder style forks that used only one shock. He also designed and built the engines in his back yard, molded and casted. The whole bike was designed with speed in mind and with John's theories of aerodynamics he did just that, go fast! ( There's too many features to go through right now and there are plenty of websites about him if you want to take a look go to . His bike was capable of over 300kph and produced at least 166 horsepower at 11,000 rpm so I'd suggest if you're gonna ride it that you hold on for dear life, and make sure your insurance policy is up to date.

Team Britten scored a number of wins, they hold land speed records and international track records as well, but what really put them on the map was placing 2nd and 3rd against all the factory machines in the 1991 Battle of the Twins in Daytona, Florida.
Britten only built a handful of his hand and home built bikes, 10 or so in the short while that he was alive, it's unfortunate for the motor heads out there that Britten died of a brief illness related to skin cancer at the age of 45. Who knows what the future of bike racing could have been.

As fate and luck had it this day, while waisting time waiting for our rental car in Christchurch I walked around the corner to the many local bike shops one by one looking at some vintage and classic bikes from side car racers to old cafe racers that they had on display and the selection of bikes was fantastic. The street had a good mix of hole in the wall bike shops and the big factory shops. I walked over to the Harley Davidson shop but it was closed for the day so I ended up next door to the Honda shop instead and you couldn't get luckier if you tried, I walked right into where one of only ten of the Britten bikes was on display and had just arrived from Auckland!
Here's a couple of pics of me with the legendary bike at Christchurch Honda.

“If you’re a Buddhist you go to Tibet,
If you’re a Motor head you go to Bonneville”.

"The Ol' Speed Demon lived until he was dead" Gilles' original quote, feel free to use it!

Burt Munroe's story is much better known to the average Joe than John Britten's thanks to the movie "The World's Fastest Indian" starring Anthony Hopkins. If you haven't seen it you really should give it a look, the movie is more about his obsession, determination and quest to achieve something out of the ordinary then it is about a simple motorbike.

"All my life I've wanted to do something big... something bigger and better than all the other jokers"...Burt M

Burt was born in 1899 (died in 1978 of a heart condition) in Invercargill, NZ, the southern most part of the country, an ol' coot by any standard and there were more than one who thought he may be a little too old to be playing speed demon. But the likable character that he was he won people over easily on both sides of the pond and his spirit for living was indeed contagious making it extremely difficult not to rout for him. Burt bought his now legendary Indian Scout new in 1920, (1926 Scout shown above) manufactured that in Sprinfield Massachussets. He raced and modified it for close to 44 years, he also built a fiberglass aerodynamic body for it that made it look and ride like a missile.

At age 68, he risked everything, including his own life, taking the bike to Speed Week at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to break the world land speed record. He did so in 1967 posting a record breaking speed of 183.586mph that still stands to this day for a bike of its class. Burt went to Bonneville nine times in 11 years, running his V-twin 1920 Scout, and he would leave the bike there but take the engine back to New Zealand every year to work on it. He was unfunded and without team support .

It wasn't just the speed of his machine that captured the peoples imagination, but his ability to tinker around with his machine, building parts out of scrap metal, forging his own pistons, heads, cannibalizing old ford car parts to build cam rods, cutting the treads off tires to make them faster, you get the idea, the man could make something out of nothing, a real MacGyver. Burt's life may seem a little absurd and obsessive to some but I'd be pretty sure he didn't care, he was a man searching for something, hoping for something big to happen to him, to accomplish something great and even though he did, it may have been the journey he took to get there that he was actually looking for.

Burt, the colorful character that he was had many quotes attributed to him such as..
"You live life more in five minutes on the back of a motorbike than you can in an entire lifetime."
"It is better than being a cabbage watching television all the time. And having a nice couple of pretty ladies around can help a lot."

"Once you're dead, you're dead. You never come back. You're like a blade of grass and you just blow away. So you may as well enjoy it."

"If you don't follow your dreams, you might as well be a vegetable".

"If you don't go when you want to go, when you do go, you'll find you've gone".

Anthony Hopkins on Burt and the movie .

Burt Munroe- "At the Salt in 1967 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. We were so far off the black line that we missed a steel marker stake by inches. I put her down - a few scratches all round but nothing much else".

At the time Burt was traveling at close to 206 mph! Hopkins said about the role:
"I started laughing when I read the script for The World's Fastest Indian," he says. "I thought, this is no way for a 67-year-old man to behave!

"It's been the best film I've been in and Roger Donaldson is one of the best directors I've worked with. "I originally got the script and thought it was just terrific. It was just well written, very very well written, beautifully written, and so refreshing. It’s not the bang bang, of big Hollywood movies.

So as you can see read it is a must see movie with a little something for everyone and who's to argue with Hopkins about what is good and what is not..

Anyway once again I was lucky enough to stumble upon the Southland museum in Invercargill that was holding and exhibiting original "The World's Fastest Indian" movie props, motorcycles, car and trailer, they also had some of Burt's personal items, story boards and the full mock up of the tool shed Burt lived in. I snapped a couple of shots of it although technically wasn't supposed to. With help and information from the curator of the exhibition he lead me to "E Hayes and Sons" the local hardware store, the owner is one of Burt's old friends and sponsors that now has his bikes on permanent display for all to see...and it's free!


Anonymous said...

i would love to take my bike down the routes you have described here although i fear i would need some specialist motorbike insurance as my UK cover wouldnt be sufficient. I have found a classic bike insurance company which allow multi-national cover which is great for country hopping journeys...

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