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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Groove Book Report - Burt Munro - The Lost Interviews by Neill Birss

Herbert James "Burt" Munro was a New Zealand motorcycle racer, famous for setting an under-1,000 cc world record, at Bonneville, 26 August 1967. This record still stands; Munro was 68 and was riding a 47-year-old machine when he set his last record.

"In the late 1960s in Invercargill, two blokes sat in a modest shed drinking tea. The old bloke was telling stories about his life, the young bloke, a junior reporter, was typing on his portable typewriter. Dramatic tales of youthful scrapes, motorcycle races, international travel and friendships. The young journalist Neill Birss moved away from Invercargill and never published the typescript interviews. They surfaced again many decades later"

Apart from racing and Salt Lake experiences, this new book also brings stories of Burt’s early motorcycling adventures Southland, his 'prior' life in Australia in the 1920s and again in the early 1950s, and of the great moments on the road through the United States (which are only touched on in Donaldson's movie).

Early Kiwi motor-ventures cover Burt’s ride up the Hollyford Valley while the road was still being built, and therefore extremely treacherous, and as a salesman for H&J Tapper’s, riding his  coal-gas powered one-speed flat out around the streets of Invercargill. ) bike powered by the coal-gas unit he built. And then there's explosion as a result of tempering steel at Melhop’s and another high-speed crash, this time at Teretonga.

If anything this is the Munro story you'd most likely get if Burt was your grandad and you were sitting attentive and quiet on his knee after he'd finished a plate of good roast and a couple of whiskeys.  It's all in his own words as recorded in a series of interviews with Southland reporter Neill Birss, nearly 50 years ago and  rounds out the Munro history with stories of his life not printed before.  In those days Burt was well known among New Zealand and American motorcyclists, but it was before the 2005 film, The World's Fastest Indian made Burt a world celebrity.

Birss' plan was to write series of articles on Munro for overseas and New Zealand motorcycle magazine. But the project was interrupted when Birss moved to Christchurch and the notes, which had been taken in the first person, were lost. Then after the Christchurch earthquakes he was dumping rubbish to make room for repairs and he found the notes just as they were about to go into a skip and it was this collection that we now have.  Maybe good things can come from bad, occasionally.

Neill Birss is a Christchurch business and technology reporter. As a young journalist in Invercargill he interviewed Burt Munro for a few months with the goal of writing a series of articles about Burt for overseas motorcycle magazines. Then he lost the interview material : until now. Birss rode an ex-army Indian motorcycle on a farm as a schoolboy, and much later commuted on a Honda road bike, but computers and electronics generally have long been his main technology interest.

 Burt's Indian, with commentary by Jay Leno

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