John Britten’s Racing Motorcycles: A Romantic Endeavor

1995 Britten V1000

Scattered like seeds in the wind, the 10 existing Britten motorcycles have blown to the far corners of the earth. Metallic reminders of one man’s motorcycling dream, they stand as silent testimony to the drive, vision and genius of the late John Britten. Exquisite motorcycle artwork in their repose, they once were warriors, possessed with a great spirit from the Maori nation of their birth. Hardened veterans of the world’s racetracks, for the many who battled against them the result was usually the same: Defeat.

1995 Britten V1000

A mechanical engineer from Christchurch, New Zealand, John Britten was a brilliant light that shone on the motorcycle-racing stage for five short years. Tragically, his untimely death from cancer robbed the world of his unbelievable talent, leaving the unanswered question of what might have been. In an arena of factory-supported race teams, this tenacious privateer and his bikes embossed a remarkable signature on the rich fabric of our racing history. Leaving such a unique and undeniably beautiful motorcycle behind as the legacy of his dreams has also written John Britten into one of the greatest chapters of this history.

Working from his home garage in the early ’90s, John Britten went where no privateer had been before, and set out to build a motorcycle. From his own drawings, Britten sand-casted the engine cases in a kiln and painstakingly built a 1000cc, 60-degree V-twin. In this form, this four-valve engine was said to produce around 155 horsepower at 12,000 rpm and was known as the precursor engine. The bodywork was fashioned in carbon fiber and, as with the majority of the 3,000 components on the bike, was all handmade in the small Christchurch garage. John Britten shipped two bikes to the Daytona International Speedway in 1991 and amazed the racing community by taking second and third place in the Battle of the Twins.

Back in New Zealand, development continued. A second-generation engine was fitted along with girder forks of Britten’s own design. One year later in 1992, the Britten returned to the high banks of Daytona. On race day, the V1000 ran up front for 16 laps before fate dealt John a cruel blow—a mechanical problem forced the bike’s early retirement. The rectifier had been wired the wrong way, which caused the battery to die. In all fairness to the team that worked all night to repair a cracked cylinder, the problem would never have occurred had it not been for a long delay due to rain. But that’s racing.

Undeterred, John Britten took the bike back to New Zealand, where he soon began winning races and breaking FIM World Speed Records. In 1995, he returned to Daytona. This time the gods smiled, and his bike took the elusive victory out on the famous circuit. The applause rained in from around the world for the homemade machine from Christchurch that had challenged the world and won.

Touted as the world’s most advanced motorcycle, it bristled with unique design features from the mind of its creator. The radiator was housed under the seat and, due to the channeling of cool air, was able to be half the size of a conventional unit. Britten had looked to the world of Formula One racing for his thoughts on airflow, and his unique carbon fiber bodywork was deliberately shaped to force air under the machine to help hold it to the ground.

Aiding the bike’s aerodynamic profile by not presenting the radiator as a flat object to the oncoming air, was one of the reasons the bike was able to easily top 185 mph.

A journey around the bike reveals many more unique design elements, from the ultra-light carbon fiber frame to the girder-style front forks which were fully adjustable for not only rake and trail but dive—something a conventional fork couldn’t offer. Rolling on carbon fiber wheels, the fuel-injected, computer-controlled, featherweight machine stopped people in their tracks every time it was brought out of the pit garage. Thundering around the racetrack, with its distinctive and patriotic colors blazing, there was no denying the presence of the Britten V1000.

Sadly, within a few months of his epic Daytona victory, John Britten passed away and the task of completing the 10 bikes he had envisioned was left to his Britten Motorcycle Factory. Today, these bikes live in museums or private collections around the world.

Britten number seven is on display at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Alabama, and for a time was ridden by museum employee Chuck Honeycut on various racetracks around the country. Standing in splendid isolation amongst some of the world’s finest machines, museum director Jeff Ray said of the bike, if you walked in with a bag of money, you wouldn’t be taking it home —true testament to the desirability these machines have among zealous collectors.

How one man left such a giant footprint in the sands of motorcycle time is as much a part of John Britten’s myth as the motorcycle he produced. Romantic in his endeavor and steadfast to his dream, the legend of John Britten and his amazing motorcycles from New Zealand will never die. As possibly the last time in our foreseeable future that one man will so conclusively take on the establishment and win, he leaves our lives richer, and our dreams more tangible.