Movie audiences around the world are about to learn the story of New Zealander Bert Munro, a man who spent a lifetime perfecting his classic Indian motorcycle. In the film *The World’s Fastest Indian, Anthony Hopkins plays the role of Munro who went to Utah in 1967 to set a new land-speed record. But in Matakana, another Kiwi has been making a name for himself in Indian motorcycle circles around the world – not as a racer but as a restorer. Jannette Thompson spoke to Ken Campbell at his home in the shadow of Mt Tamahunga ….
What is it about the early bikes that makes you want to restore them?
Between the two World Wars, motorbikes underwent a huge change. The early bikes were very crude machines. They were belt-driven with no lights or trimmings. By World War II, the motors were a lot more sophisticated, and they’d incorporated electrical wiring, suspension and good gearboxes. Those 20 to 25 years between the wars represent the development years. Changes since then have only been refinements. About 70 per cent of my work is on pre-1915 Indians, mostly for collectors in America.
How do people find you?
Most of my work comes by word-of-mouth. Sometimes the restoration starts with as little as the front forks. Most of the early Indians were used for board track racing in velodromes, which became so dangerous they were re-named murder-dromes. The bikes were about four or five times more expensive than road bikes so restoration isn’t cheap either. The average cost is US$40,000 but can go as high as US$150,000. Jobs can take anywhere between three months and three years.
Are you restoring bikes or building new ones?
Although there may not be much of the original bike left by the time the restoration is complete, it is still an authentic and accurate rebuild on a bike that did exist. I don’t do replicas. I take some pride in making reproduction parts that are indistinguishable from the original. I had a customer in the US question the construction of one my frames once. He didn’t believe I could produce the tapered oval tubing because he’d tried unsuccessfully for years. I sent him a sample in the mail and asked for an apology. He apologised and then became one of my best customers.
Where do you think your fascination for bikes comes from?
My Dad, Sandy, owned the garage in Matakana (on the site of the Rusty Pelican) so I’ve been around grease pits since I was a kid. He taught me to weld when I was seven and I was still at Matakana Primary when I started building my first bikes. My Dad encouraged me to do things for myself and would set me challenges. I owned a 150cc James at 12 and got my licence at 15 on a 500cc Matchless.
Are you a collector?
I’ve got 17 bikes at the moment, none older than World War II and my favourite is an AJS but don’t ask me why. AJS was a British company that was bought out by Matchless in 1931. I’ve got AJS models representing the year the overhead valve bike was released, the year the cam shaft bike was marketed and the last year the 500cc single cylinder overhead cam was made, and a 1913 V-twin four valve per cylinder overhead Indian (known as the 8 valve).
Do you still ride?
Since 1982, I’ve concentrated on racing vintage bikes – hand-changed cycles, pre-1931, which can reach speeds of between 90 and 95 miles an hour. They run on methanol (alcohol) which is nicer on the motor, cold running and gives the bike speed. Fuel costs about $3 a litre but the bike uses three times as much.
Is there more to your life than motorbikes?
I have a passion for motorbikes and I feel sorry for people who don’t understand what it means to feel passionate about something – anything. But, yes, life is more than motorbikes and they don’t compare to my family – my wife Judy and our three daughters. We recently completed building a straw bale house together – it took seven years and the girls all helped so it was a real labour of love. In 2000, I had a serious health scare when I was diagnosed with cardiovascular disease/hypertension (CDH) and celiac disease (gluten intolerance). It certainly put things into perspective – now, every day above ground is a good day.
*The World’s Fastest Indian will open in New Zealand in October. The rocker shafts used on the Munro bike in the movie were supplied by Ken Campbell.