Indian motorcycles have a cult following in a most surprising place … a little town right at the bottom of New Zealand.
Invercargill is pretty much the last stop on the way to Antarctica.
For most of the year, it’s home to around 50,000 people (not counting hobbits). But every November, the population explodes for a weekend, as 20,000 motorcycles roar down the wide straight streets of this sleepy little town.
This is the Burt Munro bike rally.
It’s a joyful celebration of Indian motorcycles – and an annual tribute to a local motorcycling legend.
Invercargill is the birthplace of New Zealand motorcycling hero Burt Munro. Burt loved Indian motorcycles. And riding very fast.
Back in 1967, he combined these 2 passions and did something incredible: he set the record for the fastest ever officially recorded speed on an Indian: 190.07 miles per hour.
That’s pretty impressive, alright.
But when you hear how he did it, we’re moving out of impressive territory, and into the world of miracles.
- Burt’s dream was to set the world land speed record.He managed that, and more than once. He set three speed records for a flying mile: 178.95 mph in 1962, 168.07 mph in 1966, and 184.087 mph in 1967.One of these records still stands.And these were just his officially recorded times.His best unofficial time was 205.67 mph.
- To compete on the world stage, Burt needed to get to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.That’s a long way from the deep south of New Zealand.And it’s a little tricky when you’re living in a shed and money is tight.But Burt made it to Bonneville.Ten times.
- Burt was in his 60s at the time, with a heart problem.That didn’t stop him, either.
- Burt’s 1920 Indian motorcycle would need some serious mods to be competitive.So he made those mods in the little garage he was living in.These rebuilds and improvements took some 20 years.And many of his tools and parts were home-made.
He allegedly cast his own pistons by melting down old gas pipes.
When you know some of his back story, it’s not that surprising that Burt Munro is a cult figure in Invercargill.
His story is pure inspiration – whether you care about motorcycles, or not. Here was a guy with a dream and an absolute determination to make it come true, no matter what.
Movies are made about exceptional people like Burt Munro.
And sure enough, one has been.
In The World’s Fastest Indian, Anthony Hopkins does a great job of capturing the eccentric spirit of this stubborn pioneer of speed.
He almost even gets that distinctive Kiwi accent right.
Of course, once you’ve seen the movie, you have to go to the rally.
The Burt Munro bike rally is not just about Indian Motorcycles
The Burt Munro bike rally has a jam-packed program. There’s a speedway night, street motorcycle racing, a hill climb and even a beach race which anyone can enter.
But, just like the movie which celebrates the man, the Burt Munro rally is about more than bikes, and Burt’s achievements on his modified Indian motorcycles.
This little southern town opens its arms to motorcycle people from all over the country. Many of the local stores have wheeled a vintage motorcycle into their window display, and you’ll see a Big Biker Breakfast on every café menu.
The local hardware store has some amazing old Indian motorcycles on display, and dozens of other beautiful vintage bikes. It’s quite a sight to see the Ariels, Triumphs, Nortons and a Matchless next to a row of lawnmowers for sale.
And if you’re into Vincents, you’ll find one parked next to the duct tape and tire pressure gages.
For the 4 days of this friendly bike rally, Invercargill becomes the mini Sturgis of the south. Riders are welcome – and not treated like serial killers hunting for their next victims.
This year, Pat and I had our own unique Burt Munro bike rally moment.
It really couldn’t have happened anywhere else.
We parked our Indian Scout on the main street in a cluster of other motorcycles.
Strapping our helmets to the bike, we laughed in delight at all the MOTORCYCLE PARKING ONLY signs. Bathed in the warm glow of the motorcycle-friendly vibe, we strolled off in the sunshine to tuck into one of those famous Big Biker Breakfasts.
An hour later, full of free range eggs and crispy bacon, we wandered back to the bike.
Hmm…where’s that damn key? said Pat, patting himself down with a rising sense of urgency.
My stomach tightened (despite all the bacon).
Oh no! Have you dropped it somewhere?
We groaned, and scanned the sidewalk frantically as we walked.
Maybe we’d have to just stay in Invercargill, and start a new life in the closest little town to Antarctica…
Ah! Found it! Pat sighed, with obvious relief.
I followed his gaze, and we both burst out laughing.
There was the key, safely waiting for us in the ignition of the Indian Scout. The bike was just where we’d left it, helmets and all.
Maybe we’d just time-travelled back to the 1950s.
Or maybe some friendly local hobbits had been secretly guarding it, I don’t know.
But I could almost see Burt Munro himself standing there on the sidewalk with us, grinning at our astonishment.
This was a perfect motorcycling moment.
The bike was safe. We were safe – deep in the embrace of a friendly community that respects these amazing machines, and the people who ride them.
Truly, the Burt Munro bike rally is a one-of-a-kind motorcycle event.