By now, most of you are aware of the movie, The World’s Fastest Indian, opening nationwide next month. It’s about Burt Munro, a New Zealander who came to Bonneville multiple times in search of speed. Of course, when you do a movie like this, you need a replica motorcycle, or two, so they went looking for a builder and found Wayne Alexander.
Wayne sat down for an interview with the promoters which reveals a few things about his backgound and the work that went into recreating this special Indian (Also noting one of the bikes will be at Bike Week in Daytona):
How did you happen to be chosen for this project–what is your background?
I’m located in Christchurch, New Zealand, and am with Britten Motorcycles. I was in the business with John Britten, now work in what was the original factory, and was involved in the race team in 1993 when I was the race and prototype manager.
The movie people had a plan in mind to do a replica and Murray Frances, the line producer for New Zealand, contacted me in June. They had an incredibly tight schedule, as for a race meeting, and the cost of missing the date was really high. They planned to start shooting that September.
The first replica bike was built in six weeks, taken to the States for early filming in September, and the second was built in four weeks.
Why did you build two replicas?
To get insurance for a movie in which there is total reliance on a mechanical object, you need two. We used both hard and long.”
Where is the actual bike ridden by Burt Munro today?
The actual bike has been restored and is with Tom Henly’s collection in California. I only saw photos of it, but we had the actual motor and the streamlined tail section.
What was involved in building these replicas?
We started with a donor bike, and bought a set of engine cases from a contact in New Zealand; in fact we got everything from New Zealand except the oil pumps. Burt’s bike was a 1920, and the cases on the replicas were from a 1924 and a ’26, which were essentially the same except for the serial numbers.
We needed Scout front ends, and engine and gearbox cases. The rear wheel was a Powerplus hub, and everything else we made including the frame, shift and brake levers. The thought really was to make it as close to Burt’s as possible . . . but without the fragility.
We had Burt’s original engine here from Norman Hayes–the actual Bonneville engine–so we had the exact external dimensions and rocker gear. There was a second engine that Burt had sent to America and cobbled together, and that’s the one that wound up in the Henly bike.
There’s nothing on the original engine that wasn’t modified. He made the flywheels, rods, pistons, rocker gear, he cast the head. The carburetor was split in two with a hacksaw; he dropped in a 3/16-inch brass rod and made it larger. That engine was crucial to us. Burt went 187 mph on it in 1967! I figure it was knocking on 100 horsepower.
The streamlined body was 11 feet, nine inches long, it was only 22 inches from the ground to the top of the engine, and the bike had a 60.5-inch wheelbase. He ran it on 18- or 19-inch tires. For the movie we used trials tires and a grinding jig to grind them down to get that lovely, round case profile.”
Give me a quick timeline on Burt Munro.
Burt was born in New Zealand in 1899, and his parents came from Scotland. He bought this bike new in 1920 from an Indian dealership. He built an overhead cam for it, and ran it as a single with a dummy rear cylinder in back on grass tracks. It was a Charley Franklin engine; he was Indian’s first educated engineer. It was gear-driven from the crank to the primary and into the clutch, so though it was a pre-unit engine it was gear driven so it behaved like a unit engine.
Burt went to Bonneville nine times in 11 years, running both cylinders of course, and he would leave the bike there but take the engine back to New Zealand every year to work on it.
He was remarkable in that he didn’t do a lot of drawings. He could hold huge images in his head. He would put in 30 or 40 hours hand-filing a piece that he could have done on a mill in a half hour. He stayed at it 57 years, and had some accidents that would have killed a lesser man. Burt died in 1978 of a heart condition.”
Who did the actual riding for the movie? Do you appear in it?
I rode the bike to record the sound track, but Perry Moore (an Indian aficionado) was the right shape and size, and rode it in the movie. The clutch was operated with the left foot and the gear change with the right foot, and it was nice to ride, a docile steerer; I felt comfortable on it.
For the sound track we wanted to record the bike tapped out, but we only had a 2.6-kilometer straight and essentially no brakes, so we geared it down. It had plenty of power, but it only did 113 mph for the sound track with the low gearing.”
What was the most difficult aspect of building these replicas?
The most problems were with the gearbox. It had a 15-horsepower gearbox and a 50-horsepower motor. Burt had more time to solve the problems than we did.
The key things were the heads and rocker gear. The internal dimensions were not as critical. The replicas were slightly taller in the engines so we could use proprietary rods; Burt made his own.
Burt changed the engine over the years. The Scout started as a 600cc, but grew constantly. It ended up as a 1,000cc, but our replica was 883cc, or 55 cubic inches. It was a replica of his 1962 bike.
We got the original 1962 tailpiece from Norman Hayes, who has all of Burt’s stuff. The streamliner tail was actually three tails. He used it one year, but it wobbled badly. The pressure was hunting from one side of the tail to the other. We effectively took out one degree from each of the outside blades to make it steer straight. Burt wouldn’t have done that; it dragged a little more air and would have slowed him down. Having the replica was crucial for scaling.
The streamlined shell was modeled on a goldfish. Burt liked the shape. In the replica we added an inch in the hips to accommodate Tony Hopkins; he’d put on a few pounds. We had to be sure it didn’t move the pressure too far back.
Other than that, nothing was really difficult except the time. In a way that helped, as we had to stay on it. There was no choice. Our team included Sean Chamberlain, who has been with me and Britten for nine years, and Kerry Norriss, who has done a lot of composite work. He built the bodywork from a handful of photos.
Where are the replicas now? Will they play a part in the movie promotions?
One is in Invercargill and the other in Auckland, New Zealand. As they say in the movie, Burt spelled Invercargill with one “l” to save money. The replica in Auckland is returning to me soon, and it will be in Daytona for Bike Week.
What was it like to work with actor Anthony Hopkins?
Let me tell you a story. The only time the bike didn’t start was with a stunt double on it, and the scene was lost. It was with the setting sun, and he over-choked and over-throttled it; you have to do it properly for it to start. Roger Donaldson, the director, bit a chunk out of my ass over that–we never thought that putting a stunt double on it was a good idea.
We took it out again at sunset after making some changes, and I explained to Tony Hopkins how he had to pull a few levers, and do this, walked him through it. He did everything seamlessly and, bang, it started! He was supposed to blip the throttle in the scene to wake the neighbors, but instead he pinned it–held it wide open! It sounded fantastic, but you could just hear the engine straining; you can see the scene in the movie. It was right at its limit. I was afraid it was going to blow up.
After the scene Tony was so proud of himself he bolted off to the lean-to to watch the film, and while he was gone Roger asked me what I thought of it. I said, ‘Well, I wouldn’t lend him my car!’ Later Tony came out and someone repeated what I’d said and everyone laughed. We all cringed, as Tony had been very pampered on the set. But Tony loved it that people were laughing about it. He’d made some noise, and was now one of the boys!