Friday, 1 March 2013

John Britten; The Man who Couldn't Say No

Where most of us just moan about something not being right, John Britten actually did something about it 

Readers of this blog should be no strangers to John Britten and the bike he created, the Britten V1000. Thing is, however, it is a story that you just can’t ever get tired of and it only seems all the more amazing with the re-telling.

From his backyard in Christchurch, John Britten - design genius, engineer, artist, thinker, entrepreneur, inventor, architect, builder, glider pilot and sculptor - combined design and engineering to stand the world of motorcycle racing on its head. His motorcycle has been variously described as state-of-the-art, novel, avant-garde, revolutionary, exotic, innovative, unique and an organic thing of beauty. The fact that it was the work of one man and a few friends is just the icing on the cake.

Born in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1950, he immediately displayed a passion for mechanical things. Together with a friend, he built go-karts out of disused packing cases and by the age of 12 he had fitted a petrol motor to one, after stripping and rebuilding it to see how it worked.

The first incarnation of the Britten
By the time he was thirteen, he and his friend had unearthed and restored an Indian Scout. By the age of 26 and with a mechanical engineering qualification under his belt, along with jobs in New Zealand and the UK, he packed it all in, built himself a couple of glass kilns and went into business as a fine artist, designing and hand-making glass lighting.

At the same time he restored an old stable block into a home for him and his wife using material reclaimed from old buildings. Not being able to find light fittings or door handles that satisfied him, he designed and made his own.

His passion for motorcycling never left him and, in 1986, he started to modify his Ducati bevel-drive race bike by creating his own bodywork. But the rest of the bike was hopelessly unreliable. He then set to work and made his own frame into which he slotted a New Zealand made Denco engine. Yet again the engine was not up to the job so there was really only one option open to a man like Britten.

He would build a bike from scratch; not just the frame; not just the bodywork, but the whole thing; engine, chassis, wheels, the lot, buying in components such as brakes and suspension units.  And, typical to his philosophy, it would all be done on a shoestring budget, making it up as he went along.

Being an individual without any constraints whatsoever, he could begin from first principles. Shaun Craill, writing in Pro-Design magazine, said; ‘He didn’t understand he was being unconventional because he hadn’t been taught what conventional design was…’

As Britten stated in a 1993 interview: “I guess I'm simply free of any constraints. I can take a fresh look at things, unlike a designer working for, say, the Jaguar company, who is obliged to continue the Jaguar look.”
Britten and his small band of helpers conceived, designed and built a 60-degree V-twin engine, casting and machining every component themselves. There was no frame as such, the engine acting as a stressed member with a backbone unit across the top to hold the suspension at the front and the seat at the back. The front suspension was an update of the old girder forks and the rear Ohlins suspension unit sat vertically at the front of the engine. Forks, backbone, wheels and bodywork were constructed from carbon fibre in their workshop. The shape of the bodywork was arrived at by using No.8 fencing wire and a glue gun to create a male mould.

‘It’s the world’s most advanced motorcycle, and it’s not from Japan, Germany, Italy or America,’ shouted the cover of American magazine Cycle World. And it was developed into a winner too.

At the 1990 Battle of the Twins at Daytona in the USA, the bike finished third. The next year they went one better and stood on the second step of the podium.

By 1992, Britten realised the bike needed a complete redesign and at that year’s Battle of the Twins race New Zealand rider Andrew Stroud burst to the front at the start and toyed with rival Pascal Picotte on a Ducati for the whole race, clearly having the legs of the Italian. Heartbreakingly, an electrical fault put the bike out on the penultimate lap (Britten later said; ‘serves me right for using a Ducati part’), but the ride had garnered the attention of the motorcycling world.

In 1993, the Britten V1000 won the New Zealand Formula One title. In 1994 it won the British, European and American (BEARS) race at Bathurst in Australia and set four FIM World Speed Records in the 1000cc and under category; the flying mile (302.705 km/h), the standing mile (134.617 km/h), the standing start mile (213.512 km/h), and the standing start kilometre (186.245 km/h), proving itself as the fastest thing on two wheels in its class.

In 1995 the Britten bike, ridden by Andrew Stroud, stormed the international circuit, taking 1st place in the BEARS World Championship (an Italian owned Britten taking 2nd) and devastating the field at the Daytona World Twins, finishing 43 seconds ahead of the two Harley super-bikes and the latest model Bimota and Ducati V-twins. Earlier the Britten team had claimed the New Zealand Superbike Championship and the New Zealand Grand Prix as well as the New Zealand Battle of the Streets.

When the Guggenheim Museum staged an exhibition called The Art of the Motorcycle, the Britten V1000 was one of the exhibits, curator Ultan Guilfoyle saying; “All this engineering wizardry might have ended up looking like a techno-geek's nightmare, but Britten's genius was […] about turning his dream into an organic thing of beauty, as compact and powerful as a coiled spring…”

Patrick Bodden, describing Britten's designs as the “privateer's last stand” in an age of generic factory-born superbikes, wrote in The Interactive Motorcycle:

“It takes someone like John Britten to remind us that individual thought and passion can still challenge and on occasion, beat the very best teams of engineers and the orthodoxy in which they have embedded current motorcycle design. Evolution alone won't sustain such an effort—nothing short of revolution will do! In designing and building the motorcycle that bears his name, John pushed his reference materials to the edges of his work area and began with a blank sheet, an open mind, and a fertile imagination. His stunningly beautiful and effective creation affirmed for the entire motorcycling community the intrinsic value of working to build a better bike and the potential of an individual to make it happen.”

Britten was much more modest about his achievements, describing himself as a ‘former racer who was never much good; a bit like a violinist who's no maestro but makes his own Stradivarius.”

John’s death from cancer at the age of 45 robbed the world of an engineer who could have changed the motorcycle for ever. As it was, he came close.

The Genius himself and his creation

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