Tragic Genius

Story by Alan Cathcart// Photos by Alan Cathcart Archive
May 13 2020

A man with no formal motorcycle education designed and built one of the world’s most renowned motorcycles.

The words “genius” and “tragedy” are often overstated, but it is surely beyond question that New Zealander John Britten was an engineering genius, and that his death in September 1995 at the age of 45 from skin cancer was a tragedy of significant proportions for the world of motorcycling. Although a crowded existence meant he had to combine family life with two full-time careers – as a commercial property developer (a business he took over after his father passed away) as well as a hands-on two-wheel visionary – Britten’s achievements have received just acclaim the world over. The motorcycles he developed, by their technological excellence and avant-garde engineering, would have been sufficient by their very creation to ensure Britten’s name is remembered. The fact that his bikes also won races around the world by defeating the products of established manufacturers having far greater resources only adds to the calibre of his achievement.

The fact that the initially weird, but later wonderful Britten motorcycles were created in Christchurch, capital of New Zealand’s South Island and the most remote outpost on Planet Earth from the mainstream of motorcycle evolution, only added to the mystique of Britten’s creations. But the extra dose of self-reliance that Kiwis get by being so remote from biking’s world stage added to Britten’s spark of dedicated enthusiasm and innovative thought and resulted in a series of machines that probably could never have been constructed anywhere else. The fact that such avant-garde, innovative motorcycles came to be built so far from the epicentres of two-wheeled development speaks volumes for Britten’s determination, which was fuelled by a healthy dose of traditional Kiwi self-reliance.
If you were a New Zealander who raced a Manx Norton in the olden days and you blew the engine, you fixed it yourself with locally made parts that often worked better than the originals. What Britten did was to go the extra mile and make the whole bike from scratch in the first place, using radical techniques and advanced materials – and all without a single formal motorcycle qualification to his credit; only his hard-earned experience in the school of life.

Self-Taught

That self-tuition began at the tender age of 14, when Britten found a derelict 1927 Indian V-twin abandoned in a ditch, lugged it home on the train and restored it to running order. Shortly afterward, he did the same thing with a truck in similar condition, which he then drove daily to school.

Later in life, Britten forged his own multifaceted career, dropping out of college in favour of a long-haired hippy lifestyle in the N.Z. wilderness during his 20s, which ended in 1979 only when he bought an abandoned stable in a suburb of Christchurch that had been used by squatters. Britten used the stable as a base for making and selling glass lamps and other items of furniture. Hang-gliding, motorcycling, restoring old British sports cars he bought on the cheap had to be fitted into his schedule of restoring the stable as a future home during evenings after work and on weekends. In addition to doing all the work himself, he even cast his own doorknobs and bathroom taps because he couldn’t find any he liked.

The house that the Britten family lived in came complete with a two-storey conservatory covered by a glass roof that opened automatically via Britten’s self-designed hydraulic system when temperatures reached a certain level. All that fabricating was good practice for building Britten motorcycles – although Britten’s future wife, Kirsteen, a London-based fashion model from Christchurch whom he married in 1982, couldn’t have guessed that at the time. She and their three children were a focal point of Britten’s hectic life in spite of his efforts to cram two full-time careers into one lifetime.

Doing it His Way

Yet, John Britten was an unlikely candidate to display such technical expertise – a reading disability bordering on dyslexia made the acquisition of knowledge from books a laborious process for him. Perhaps that’s why Britten displayed such creative innovation throughout his life: he did what he thought was right and would work best; not what the books told him was correct.

Britten developed an ingenious method of working with innovative materials, such as his wet-lay carbon fibre process. He used his own design of girder forks. He used the engine as a fully stressed chassis member. He put the rear shock just behind the front wheel. He put the radiator under the seat. And he employed his own system of home-brewed electronic fuel injection when Bimota/Ducati’s Marelli EFl was still in its infancy.

Britten was an innovator, and throughout the 10 years we knew each other, I stood beside him many times as he examined another builder’s handiwork in a race paddock. The ones Britten admired most were those displaying similar mould-breaking design features. He had the eye of a critical observer who, at the same time, was on a constant quest for knowledge to fuel his flow of radical ideas. Knowing him was a stimulating experience, for talking to him about bikes or houses or flying or wine or any of his myriad other interests was rewarding because of the way I was forced to re-examine my accepted beliefs while in conversation with him.

Getting to Know the Man

I first met John Britten in December 1987 on a grass bank overlooking Manfeild race circuit on New Zealand’s North Island during the European winter I spent racing in the NZ BEARS (British, European, American Racing and Supporters) Championship. We were both in our racing leathers, having strolled out from the paddock to watch practice and check on track conditions. Britten had become one of New Zealand’s demon vintage bike racers aboard a pre-Second World War Triumph Tiger he built and tuned himself.

Britten’s interests weren’t restricted to vintage bikes, however. He was already collaborating with Bob Denson, another local engineer, on the manufacture of a fearsome, methanol-burning 1,000 cc engine for the Denco, a sidecar speedster. Britten had already taken the DOHC eight-valve, 60-degree V-twin design to its next logical step to power the first in the series of Britten road racers, all of which utilized a similar engine format – although liquid-cooled in future rather than air-cooled like the Denco.

But the chassis format of the new BEARS racer was what made that racer truly attention-grabbing: whether the element that caught your eye was its Kevlar/carbon monocoque, the modular design that allowed the WP upside-down fork and fuel cell to be unbolted from the stressed engine and rear wheel/swingarm, the horizontally underslung rear shock or the weird-looking aerofoil bodywork that tested Britten’s theories about two-wheeled downforce.

(Those theories had been acquired during the building of a 7.3-metre wingspan glider a decade previously. Its aerodynamics were so efficient the glider needed only a 16 km/h wind to carry him aloft and which worked so well that it once took off all by itself when not pegged down, while its creator was having a cup of tea!)

A Win Within Reach

I’d seen the Denco-Britten in magazine photos and was eager to ride it, even if Britten hadn’t built the Aero-D-One – officially known as the Winged Wonder – as an attention-grabber, with the aim of winning races to demonstrate the effectiveness of his ideas. By then, he had begun to recruit the nucleus of the band of helpers and admirers who would help him create such a remarkable line of Futurebikes on the most slender of resources, including Mike Sinclair, who was Kenny Roberts’ 500GP team’s chief engineer and also a resident of Christchurch.

The closest the Winged Wonder ever came to winning a race, however, was when I raced it in the final round of the 1987-88 NZ BEARS Series at Christchurch’s Ruapuna track after the engine of the Bob Brown Ducati F1, which I’d been riding to lead the points table, expired in practice.

A fairy-tale race test seemed on the cards when the 120 hp that the Denco motor delivered – that was a lot back then – took me from fourth to first place in one go down the main straight at the end of Lap 1. But after leading for most of the race and being set for victory, first place became second and then third as one cylinder of the engine began cutting out intermittently. You can guess the rest: on the last corner of the final lap, with the NZ BEARS title in my grasp thanks to the first-ever Kiwi-built Superbike, the V-twin engine cut out, then chimed in again while I was cranked hard over on the long fast turn before the straight and the chequered flag. The resulting high-side sent me off to the hospital to join Britten, who was already there having been spat off the bike in practice. Which was how come I came to race it!

A New Engine Emerges

The Denco engine’s unreliability persuaded Britten to build his own, and that’s how the Britten V-1000 was born, making its début on the world stage at Daytona in March 1989, ridden by Gary Goodfellow – a proud New Zealander. Britten was always careful to make his whole race effort as Kiwi as possible, including the rider if feasible.
At a time when Bimota and Ducati had only just begun to forge the future pre-eminence of electronic fuel injection in four-stroke racing, the fuel-injected Britten was radical in the extreme –even if problems with the software meant a troubled Daytona début. Britten’s team struggled to get the 999 cc engine to deliver to the tarmac the 135 hp at
9,500 rpm produced on the dyno. But the remarkably light, 139 kg (dry weight) bike from the Shaky Isles got shaken down well during 1989, allowing the two Britten bikes ridden by Goodfellow and Robert Holden to run at the front of the Daytona BoTT (Battle of The Twins) race in March 1990, in which Holden finished fifth with a misfire and Goodfellow’s bike suffered a fuel leak.

Designers Take Notice

That same year, the Britten V1000 came to Europe for the first time, finishing a close second in the pouring rain at Assen in the hands of German Superbike rider Hayri Winter before going on display at the Cologne Show. Bimota designer Pierluigi Marconi joined rival chassis designer Fritz Egli in homing in on the Britten motor like a bee to pollen, each ordering a supply of engines from Britten – with the proviso that he could find a way of fitting the race-bred engine with an electric starter for the street.

Marconi summed up Britten’s achievement perfectly: “John Britten has designed the only motorcycle engine in the world today that gives the bike designer a completely free hand with the chassis. By creating the engine as a load-bearing structure, he’s given people like me the motor we’d build ourselves, if we could. The engine is a far-sighted design because it includes such vital details as fuel injection, a narrow valve angle, correct bore-to-stroke ratio and excellent breathing with a direct inlet tract. It’s the best there is. Everything else in the motorcycle world today is a compromise, but the Britten is single-minded in the pursuit of excellence.”

Well, the Egli-Britten and the Bimota BBl never got built – but only because Ducati rider Doug Polen made Britten angry by pulling wheelies en route to victory in the 1991 Daytona BoTT race, a race when Paul Lewis finally put the Britten in Victory Lane with a fine second place to the Superbike world champion’s works Ducati. But the manner of Polen’s parade to victory fuelled Britten’s determination to return to Daytona and win, so instead of giving up racing in favour of developing a street version of his engine, Britten began again with a clean sheet of paper to build his putative Ducati-beating Mark-2 Britten V1000.

The Win Was So Close – Again

Retaining the same engine, Britten concentrated instead on the carbon fibre chassis, making the bike as slim and aerodynamic as possible yet without any conventional bodywork, and fitting his own design of carbon fibre “girder” forks similar to the Fior alloy wishbone design, but with different geometry and, of course, construction. The first test went badly when the forks snapped off the bike due to a design flaw (with a TV camera on board!), but changes were made and the system worked.

By now, Britten had decided to make a new 1,100 cc version of the eight-valve engine by boring the engine out to 99 x 72 mm dimensions for 1,108 cc and manufacturing all the components himself, apart from the pistons and gearbox, while wet-laying up the chassis, forks and carbon fibre wheels in his patented method of working with carbon fibre.

Three weeks before Daytona, the bike didn’t exist, but a superhuman effort by the band of Britten helpers got it to Florida on time after delivering a Ducati-humbling 171 hp at 9,700 rpm on the dyno – only to crack a cylinder in practice. Mechanic Mike Brosnan welded it up and Britten sent Andrew Stroud to the line more in hope than expectation.

Coming from the back of the grid, the Britten was clearly faster than Picotte’s factory Ducati. And it was payback time, as Stroud toyed with Picotte by pulling wheelies alongside him down the infield straights! Stopping the race when it rained seemed only to delay the inevitable Britten victory – but then, tragically, the ignition was left on during the break between races and the battery was drained flat, so Stroud coasted to a halt when that elusive Daytona win seemed within his grasp.

Winning the Assen BoTT race in Europe later that year was little consolation, especially as Daytona management declined to run a BoTT race in 1993.

Victory, Finally

Instead, Britten founded the Britten Motorcycle Co., and began making the first of the 10 limited edition customer replicas he would create of his universally acclaimed V1000 racer, the first going to Italy, then two more to the U.S.
An attempt to succeed in the 1994 Isle of Man TT ended tragically when rider Mark Farmer was killed in practice, a tragedy that left Britten shocked and concerned until an official inspection cleared the bike of any blame for the incident. But earlier that year, the Britten had at last triumphed at Daytona, the first of four such victories for Britten machines in Andrew Stroud’s hands – in 1994, 1996, 1997 and 1998 – then made a clean sweep of the first three places in the ’94 New Zealand GP as well as winning the NZ Formula 1 title with Jason McEwan aboard.

Although this feat, and the several world speed records at higher than 300 km/h that the bike set at the end of 1993, brought John Britten recognition at home, the Britten didn’t achieve true success on the International stage, until Stroud rode to victory in the 1995 BEARS World Series rounds at Daytona, Thruxton, Zeltweg, Brands Hatch and Assen. Andrew Stroud was named champion one race early, with Stephen Briggs on the Italian customer’s Britten clinching second place in the series. A fairy-tale ending – albeit, just in time: John Britten passed away three weeks after Stroud was acclaimed as champion.

A Life Well Lived

John Britten certainly achieved a great deal in his short life, more than most do in one twice as long – but he had so much more yet to accomplish, so many exciting projects his fertile mind was itching to complete. Losing Britten meant that several projects he’d intended to bring to life would never happen – most notably the Britten Supermono, a radical liquid-cooled six-valve single with head and cylinder cast as one and attached to a carbon fibre crankcase to produce an ultralight, fuel-injected race-ready Supermono racer weighing less than 90 kg that would employ the same carbon fibre forks as the V-twin, but employ an even more radical chassis design. Britten intended that same engine, from which he was aiming to extract 100 hp in 650 cc form, would also be used for Open MX racing in a less peaky guise with just a three-speed gearbox fitted as well as form the basis of a family of four-stroke singles with various applications.

But, at least, before Britten left us he had the satisfaction of knowing that the bikes bearing his name – conceived, designed, constructed, developed and raced all by himself with the aid of handful of friends – had succeeded in defeating the products of bigger, more established manufacturers from all over the world. Those fortunate enough to have known John Britten will remember his boyish smile, his shy stammer and his intense appreciation of the different and the unusual. His memory will linger on wherever there’s an appreciation of avant-garde two-wheeled design done right – and proven to work on the racetrack!

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