Legacy, it has got to be one of the core desires of every human being. That undeniable urge inside of you to be remembered long after you pack your bags and leave the world. Legend, we all want to leave a legend of ours behind, something that could inspire the world for years. The automobile industry has no dearth of men who left their mark on history, men whose legends are well embossed in the history forever. However, John Britten was a man who will be remembered till eternity and his story will guide ambition and believing in achieving the impossible for generations to come. The legacy John Britten has left is a story of how One Engineer did the Impossible.
John Kenton Britten was a New Zealand mechanical engineer who designed a motorcycle which the world remember as The Britten Motorcycle V1000, the motorcycle he created was a design well ahead of its time. With innovative features and materials, the Britten Motorcycles achieved what any of the giants of Motorcycle technology could not even think of back in those times.
John was born to Bruce and Ruvae Britten at Christchurch at 10 minutes to midnight and his sister Marguerite just after midnight. So although they were twins they celebrated their birthdays on different dates. A dyslexic, he needed to have exam questions read to him at school and during his tertiary education, and his answers recorded by a writer, but that didn't stop him from developing into a remarkable engineer and architectural designer. But that didn’t stop him from becoming one of the most versatile and creative designers New Zealand has seen.
He was born in Christchurch in 1950, and lived there nearly all of his life. He learnt by doing. As a teenager, he was already applying himself to practical mechanics. He restored a 1927 Indian Scout motorbike and a derelict truck – he even drove himself to school with them.
His childhood heroes were notable fellow New Zealanders, Richard Pearse (pioneer aviator), Bill Hamilton (father of the jet boat), Bruce McLaren (champion driver and founder of the McLaren Formula One Team), and Burt Munro (world record motorcycle speedster). In his own short lifetime, Britten was regularly and favourably compared with all of his heroes.
Britten completed a four-year mechanical engineering course at night school before joining ICI as a cadet draughtsman, giving him a wide range of work experience including mould design, pattern design, metal spinning and various mechanical engineering designs. By day, he worked as an engineer making concrete mixers and glass kilns. In his spare time, he continued restoring vehicles, including one which he turned into a house truck. People noted his resourcefulness in using materials in these projects, as well as his meticulous attention to detail, yet still managing to do them at minimal cost.
Britten travelled to England where he worked for four months with Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners on a highway design linking the M1 motorway to the M4 motorway. Back in New Zealand he was design engineer for Rowe Engineering, designing off-road equipment and heavy machinery.
He travelled around the local coasts in the house truck, studying birds in flight. This was in pursuit of a dream to fly like a bird – by making an ornithopter, a machine that could fly with a bird’s wing action. The ornithopter was never developed, but he made a glider that could take off in virtually a puff of wind – which is what it did one day during testing, when no one was in it!
The ornithopter project was typical of John’s concentrated approach to design – intense study, observation, experimentation and practical application in the workshop. His skills were not confined to mechanical things. He was a glass craftsman and a furniture maker, selling his own products. In 1976, he built glass kilns and went into business as a fine artist designing and making hand-made glass lighting, later joining the family property management and development business.
He spent over a decade turning some derelict stables into a magnificent home, using building materials from demolition sites. At one point, he designed clothes and put on a fashion show. In his late twenties, he became interested in racing bikes – the seeds of the Britten bike project were sown.
In 1982, he married Kirsteen Price. To earn the money to finish their stables house, Kirsteen and he invested in developing a luxury apartment complex. He went on to develop several other large-scale city buildings. Throughout this time, his ambition to build a perfect racing bike took shape.
His garage workshop became a focus for a night and day pursuit to create a New Zealand bike to stun the world.Britten worked on motorcycle design for some years, developing innovative methods using composite materials and performance engine designs. He created the Britten Motorcycle Company in 1992 to produce revolutionary machines to his own design made of light materials and using engines he built himself, which became famous around the world. His Britten motorcycles won races and set numerous speed records on the international circuits, and astounded the motorcycle world in 1991 when they came a remarkable second and third against the factory machines in the Battle of the Twins at Daytona, United States Of America.
The Britten V1000 was a handbuilt race motorcycle designed and built by John Britten and a group of friends in Christchurch, New Zealand during the early 1990s. The bike went on to win the Battle of the Twins in Daytona International Speedway's Daytona Bike Week festivities in the United States and set a number of world speed records.
The bike was designed from first principles and hosts a number of innovations including extensive use of carbon fibre, the radiator located under the seat, double wishbone front suspension, frameless chassis and engine data logging. A total of 10 Britten V1000s were produced by the Britten Motorcycle Company and now exist in collections and museums around the world.
Renowned motorcycle journalist Alan Cathcart said of the bike:
"It’s an easy bike to ride, in the sense it’s got a very wide power delivery, but to really get top performance, you have to ride it like a grand prix bike. And having ridden all the superbike contenders in the world today, I can say that the Britten is the closest to a grand prix bike. It’s incredibly ironic that instead of Europe or Japan, the most sophisticated and technically advanced motorcycle in the world comes from New Zealand."
It all started when in 1986 John Britten decided to redesign his bevel drive Ducati race bike by creating his own body work, but the motor and chassis proved hopelessly unreliable. John then turned to a New Zealand made Denco motor in a home built frame. This motor also proved to be a weak link. So after much fiddling and rebuilding he decided to wipe the slate clean and start again creating a new race bike, motor and all.
John pictured his finished result first with a hot glue gun and a roll of number eight wire. All the body work was to be made out of carbon fibre.Back in those times, it was used in the making of yachts, ski-boots etc. The motor was to be made by casting steel. John did all his own drawings, made his own patterns and designed his own engine. He designed two engines of differing cc ratings because some race events allow a higher cc rating - the Britten V1000 and the Britten V1100 racer versions in 4 and 5 valves per cylinder, with power varying between 155 and 170 bhp. The 1100cc engine is in the Cardinal bike.
The Brittens have had a very good race history. Back in 1991 they came 2nd and 3rd in the Battle of the Twins in Daytona USA. This version of the Britten had a full fairing and was quite different to the Brittens as we know them today. The Daytona version was painted blue and red with the stars from the NZ flag painted on the side. One of these two bikes has recently been restored at the factory as a precursor to the existing Britten. To this day the Britten has been placed in nearly every event that it has raced in.
The Britten has been so successful because what started out as a hobby in a garage at home, became a world class motorcycle recognised for its brilliance in engineering all over the world. Unlike established companies who invest huge amounts of money in the development work and are obligated to show a result for that money, John Britten persevered on a trial and error basis until he was successful.
The innovative use of carbon fibre gave the bike extra speed on the race track as it was so much lighter than conventional materials. The aerodynamics of the design also have given the bike extra speed. For his work on the bike John Britten was made an Honorary Fellow of the NZ Engineers Institute and posthumously they awarded him an Entrepreneurial Engineer Award.
One of Britten's radical motorcycles is on permanent display at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, in Wellington, New Zealand.
Britten set up a company to manufacture limited runs of the Britten bike. He himself switched his attention to other projects – another commercial property, and a design for a bike to relaunch the Indian Scout marque.
All this was cut short when diagnosed with an inoperable skin cancer related illness, he died on 5 September 1995 just over a month after his forty-fifth birthday. His funeral at Christchurch Cathedral was attended by over one thousand mourners and he was widely mourned throughout New Zealand.
To many, John Britten was the embodiment of ingenuity – someone with a ‘can do’ attitude, a shoestring budget, and a hands-on approach, who could put together an internationally competitive product in his own backyard. He was a world class designer, engineer, and craftsman – a genius of technology.
What John Britten achieved in his short life of 45 years, is what Dreams are made of. His story, his example, his legend and the legacy he has left behind will be a great motivation for generations to come and it will inspire many to fight all odds and achieve the unthinkable.
He was the man who dreamt of doing the impossible and in process created a moment in history that will keep the name, John Britten, alive shining like a star, forever.