Phil McCallen: 'The Britten was a dark horse'

Nick Jefferies was the fastest man around the TT course on a Britten in 1994

How did you come to race the Britten at the TT in 1994?
I’d won the Formula One race in 1993 on the Honda RC30 and I knew there was a new bike coming, the RC45 but I also knew numbers were only small.

The Honda team was going to be Philip McCallen and Steve Hislop and obviously Joey got a bike too, which left me looking at alternatives.

I’d raced at Macau and spoke to Andrew Stroud (multi NZ champion who was a Britten rider) who spoke about the Britten and said it was fast and a good bike, and it had done well at Daytona. I got the call from John Britten early in 1994, we worked out a deal, and it went from there.

When did you first ride the bike?
I met John along with the bike at a crappy Mallory Park in March ’94. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen the bike as a single Britten had been at the TT in ’93 with Shaun Harris.

We didn’t really get to test the bike properly as the weather was a bit crap and I don’t really like Mallory, but it showed potential at the North West.

How did it perform at the TT?
To be honest it was light and had so much power it would wheelie everywhere, which was great fun. You could just lift the front and put it where you wanted! It was a brilliant wheelie bike for showing off on.

Instead of loading the front over the bumps you could just wheelie it over the really bumpy bits. I’m from a trials background, so I could ride it on the back wheel all over the place.

Was it scary riding an unproven bike?
In many ways it was the scariest bike I’ve ever ridden as it was so new, powerful and using all this modern technology. After Mark’s death, everyone was worried about my safety. (Mark Farmer crashed at Black Dub on Thursday night’s practice in a racing incident.) Dunlop had the huge crash when his wheel collapsed, and we were running lightweight homemade carbon wheels and homemade parts. 

We had really poor reliability, it would over heat or something would break. People in the paddock would beg me not to ride the Britten as they thought it would snap in half or something.

But I’m a paid professional rider and I was there to do a job. When the bike went well it was good.

The Britten ending wasn’t a happy one…
No, John passed away the year after the TT, and he sent me a letter before his death, which I’ve kept. He was such a nice chap. He still felt bad about Mark.

He made a plaque for Mark in the same workshop the Britten came out of which I took to the TT in ’95. John was such a gifted man, a true genius.

Can you imagine what type of bike we would be riding around on today if he were still alive? He was so far ahead of his time, a brilliant man.

Philip McCallen, works Honda rider on the new RC45 when the Britten first appeared

“I knew about the Britten, I’d read about the bike and heard it was fast, it was clocked at 190mph at Daytona or something like that. I can remember following it at the North West before the TT and thought it looked quick.

“In 1994 we had the new RC45 from Honda, one for me, one for Hizzy (Steve Hislop) and one for Joey (Dunlop) they were my main rivals in the factory team and I was so desperate to beat Hizzy.

"The Britten was the dark horse - the one we kept an eye on. I can remember giving it a look over at the time as I’m an engineer and thought it looked a bit agricultural at first. But once you start to look closer it was a lovely piece of engineering.

"During the first week of practice I was always looking at it out the corner of my eye, it certainly stood out.

“Sadly Mark Farmer was killed on the Thursday practice at Black Dub. He was a good guy and a fast rider. I was the next bike through the wreckage after the crash. It’s an easy place to high side - I nearly crashed badly there in 97 on the power, huge slide on the factory Honda, still unsure how I saved that today.

"After the crash, the spotlight on the Britten dimmed a little, nobody wanted to shout about how great a bike was with a rider who had been killed on it. It wasn’t a great year for crashes as Farmer lost his life early on, and Robert (Dunlop) had the wheel break which was a real bad accident too.

"It’s a shame nothing really came of the Britten as John passed away the year after. The potential was there, the bike was quick, and it was an outstanding piece of engineering and design”.

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Adam Child

By Adam Child

Former MCN Road Tester with 15 years road testing experience on all kinds of bikes