The Britten motorcycle story really is like a fairytale. It’s the story of a motorcycle built by one man that goes out and beats the best racing bikes made by the biggest manufacturers, and wins admiration and respect from the motorcycling community worldwide.
The Britten V1000 was built in John Britten’s backyard, using only basic tools, very limited resources, the help of a few committed enthusiasts, and JB’s own vast talent. That the bike looked as good as it did, and even ran at all, was amazing. That it beat the best racing bikes from Italy and Japan is a feat, an accomplishment, and a miracle that’s beyond comprehension, beyond belief.
The man responsible for designing and building the V1000 – John Britten – was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, in the year 1950. By the time he was 12 years old, John was already working with engines, building his first powered go-kart and restoring old, vintage motorcycles. No big surprise then that he went on to get a degree in mechanical engineering.
Though he was always interested in motorcycles and had been working on a motorcycle design of his own since 1988, till as late as 1990, John Britten’s full-time employment was actually in property development and management. But like he said, ‘I still had an interest in engineering, but I wanted to choose the item of engineering myself. You’re more likely to succeed if you can choose what you want to design.’ So in 1992, he finally went ahead and set up the Britten Motorcycle Company, which he initially ran from a small-ish garage in his backyard.
John Britten wanted to go superbike racing and so, of course, he started working on building his own racebike. And by ‘building his own racebike,’ we really do mean building it himself – every little bit was conceptualized, designed, machined and put together in the Britten backyard. Along with a small bunch of friends who pitched in to help, Britten put together the radical V1000 without ever giving in to conventional thought. And despite endless troubles, he just never gave up.
Can a bike built in one man's backyard race against works exotica from major manufacturers, and win? The Britten V1000 proved that it can indeed be done!
If it were to be unveiled by a major Japanese, German or Italian manufacturer today, the Britten V1000 – with its pink and blue paintjob and unconventional lines – would still look as radical as it did back in the early-1990s. As Britten once said in an interview, ‘I guess I’m simply free of any constraints. I can take a fresh look at things, unlike a designer working for, say, Jaguar, who is obliged to continue the Jaguar look.’
From its carbonfibre monocoque chassis, carbonfibre wheels, and fully adjustable girder-type front suspension, to its minimalist bodywork and 8-valve, 60-degree, fuel-injected, 1000cc v-twin that made 165bhp@12,000rpm, the Britten oozed innovation and ingenuity from every pore. And yes, it was fast – the 138-kilo machine could hit a top speed of 300km/h. In BoTT races in the 1990s, the Britten V1000 would thunder past Ducati 851s as if the Italian bikes were standing still. Indeed, the word ‘awesome’ doesn’t begin to describe the V1000’s (and the even more powerful V1100 version’s) sheer performance…
After he first rode the Britten V1000, noted motorcycle journalist Alan Cathcart said, ‘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 that means standing it on the back wheel, rear wheel steering it around turns. You’ve got to accept the fact that you have to slide the back wheel, you’ve got to get it to turn on the brakes. You’re trying very hard to turn it quickly from side to side, get the power on early, use the power to break the rear end out of a turn, and to maximize acceleration,’ said Cathcart.
‘You can’t ride it like you would ride a Ducati superbike. 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. There are so many things about the Britten that make it unique, and these come from John Britten’s capacity for original thought. It’s incredibly ironic that instead of Europe or Japan, the most sophisticated and technically advanced motorcycle in the world comes from New Zealand,’ concluded an obviously impressed Alan.
Just as his machines had begun to make a mark on the world motorcycling and motorcycle racing scene, the Britten story was cut short. In a cruel twist of fate, John Britten passed away because of cancer in mid-1995.
Only 10 Britten V1000 bikes were ever built, and all of those are now with wealthy collectors or in museums. ‘I don’t really expect it will rival the Japanese bikes for production numbers. It will probably always be a hand-built motorcycle. Quality is what I’m all about, not necessarily quantity. I have no aspirations to get into mass production as such,’ said Britten in an interview once. And that is how it would remain. And the Britten V1000 will, forever, be the greatest motorcycle ever built anywhere in the world.
For Britten fans, a must-watch film is One Man's Dream - The Britten Bike Story. Buy the DVD here, or download the movie here. You can also watch the five-part film, Britten: Backyard Visionary, online here
Discovery Channel included the Britten V1000 in their list of the greatest bikes ever built