Burt Munro’s pistons

12 July 2013: Burt Munro’s pistons and Katherine Mansfield’s typewriter

You would not expect to find motorbike pistons in a library.

But when it’s the Alexander Turnbull Library, and the pistons were made by New Zealand motorbike racer Burt Munro, they are as much a part of the collection as Katherine Mansfield’s typewriter.

Turnbull Curatorial Services Leader John Sullivan explains the library isn’t just about “high culture”. “I want to challenge that perception. I want to make it clear that the work and life of people like Burt Munro are as important to New Zealand history and culture as Katherine Mansfield.

“We bought a collection of Munro’s letters, photographs, clippings and other memorabilia at auction in April this year. The pistons were among the memorabilia, which also included a valve and a conrod. We acquired the collection because of its significance in documenting a tradition of mechanically-adept New Zealanders whose skills and adaptability have cemented our reputation as a country that can punch above its weight in the sporting and technological arenas."

John says the pistons, which were made by Munro for his racing Indian and Velocette motorcycles, are works of art in their own right.

“They were hand-cast using sand from local beaches in a variety of receptacles, including tin cans. They were then painstakingly finished with file and lathe,” he says.

“They are a testament to patience, a sure hand, and an innate feeling for design.”

John says the collection of scrapbooks, photographs and letters form a valuable resource for anyone researching the history of sport and technology in New Zealand.

“New Zealanders have a long history of turning sows’ ears into silk purses. The tyranny of distance has forced us to make do with limited resources, and backyard mechanics have long been turning collections of miscellaneous parts intro creations that perform better than anyone has a right to expect,” John says.

“It is this skill that has seen New Zealanders so well represented as mechanics on international Motor Racing teams since the 1960s.

“These pistons have as important a place in the holdings of the Alexander Turnbull Library as Katherine Mansfield’s typewriter. They document an inventive, entrepreneurial aspect of the New Zealand character that has given birth to enterprises such as Fisher & Paykel, HamiltonJet boats, and Gibbs Sport Amphibians.”

Get in touch for more information. Allen Walley, Department of Internal Affairs, phone 04 495 9351 or 027 384 3009.