‘Outstanding’, ‘amazing’, and ‘work of art’ are all labels liberally applied to the exotic race bikes built by John Britten, but in reality the Britten deserves a unique accolade to celebrate its existence. In many peoples’ minds it’s simply the greatest bike ever made.
For me it transcends everything, it’s a dream bike, it was the poster bike I had on my bedroom wall when I was growing up. Ever since I first saw pictures of it in the early 1990s, I’ve been fascinated by this hand-built race bike.
Unbelievably it was produced by a small team in the South Island of New Zealand using just one man’s creative genius. That man was John Britten, and he took on the massively well-funded factory teams - and won. It was an unthinkable achievement in the early ’90s.
If you’ve never heard of the Britten, and you’re a motorcyclist, you should be made to run around the field in your pants, like when you forgot your kit at school. This is one of the greatest bike stories ever, Hollywood couldn’t even script this true tale.
A blank sheet
I’m not going to dwell on the astounding technical innovations of achievements, you could easily write a book about the Britten, nor will I try to get too emotionally involved.
John Britten was a bike racer, but also a gifted engineer, designer, and a bit of a maverick.
He designed and built his own house from mainly recycled material as he couldn’t find what he was looking for.
He raced successfully in NZ, but was always experimenting with chassis design and engines in the late ’80s, you could never describe him as an ‘off-the-shelf’ racer.
ohn’s dilemma was that he knew what he wanted - but nobody produced the bike, or parts, he wanted.
He didn’t want a big four-cylinder bike and he didn’t want a Harley hewn from granite.
So he stuck two fingers up to the establishment, and decided to produce his own bike from scratch.
Can you imagine that happening today? Just one man and a few gifted friends getting together in a garage on the relatively remote South Island of NZ, building a unique bike, and then turning up at international meetings such as Daytona, America and the Isle of Man TT with a bike which didn’t share any components with any other bike.
There was no ready-made donor engine, everything was bespoke, and pushed the boundaries of conventional race bike engineering.
Then, not only does the bike run and handle, but - almost unbelievably - it’s competitive, too. It was contesting for race wins against full factory bikes.
Weighing in at around 145kg, it was considerably lighter than the competition at the time from the big factory teams.
It lead at Daytona on its first outing, but only a few laps from the end the rectifier gave up. Ironically it was one of the only parts John didn’t design himself.
The V1000 also recorded the fastest speed at the Isle of Man on its debut in 1993, at 165mph.
Only nine Britten V1000s exist world-wide, and most are museum pieces. Or as Kevin Grant, the proud owner of this Britten, put it: “All the others are cock teasers, this one is this one that actually runs and you can ride.”
It’s a shockingly unconventional beast – more than just a triumph of existing technology, Britten applied his incredible engineering knowledge to creating something boasting a myriad bespoke solutions to problems the factory teams thought they’d already solved.
The front fork, and rear shock are entirely unconventional, as is the underseat cooling, and the unique 1000cc V-Twin engine.
Everything from the casing to the pistons was designed and made by Britten - even the fuel injection system was entirely bespoke, and this was when fuel injection was virtually unheard of on a bike.
They were even making and programming their own homemade ECUs back in the early ’90s!
Just think about that for a moment, designing and building your own engine at home. John and the team had to work out the sizes of the valves, cam timings, pistons sizes, crank rotation, cooling, oil flow etc, all those calculations had to be done with pure engineering nous, and a lot of sketches.
Then he had to work out how to build it, producing his own casings in his garage, making a crank, working out the strengths of the components. It’s unimaginable what the team achieved.
In total they had to design and make around 6000 different parts. It takes me three hours to put up a shelf, how the hell did he do it? It’s unthinkable.
Pushing the boundaries
The freethinking innovation didn’t stop at the engine, either. The chassis design was all John’s idea or should I say the lack of it, as the engine is the chassis, just like Ducati’s new Panigale and GP bike. But this was twenty years ago. The front suspension bolts to the front of the motor, the swingarm to the rear.
There’s no conventional front fork; but a solid piece of carbon fibre handmade by John, connected to the motor via a series of linkages with a single Ohlins multi adjustable shock. Everything is easily adjustable, and you only need an Allen key to alter the rake and trail.
The rear shock is also at the front, near the front wheel, well away from any heat from the engine or exhaust, and is connected by a rod to the rear carbon fibre swingarm under the bike.
The bodywork was all clay moulded by John and the team, then formed in carbon fibre. This was when carbon fibre was common in F1 only, it was all new and exciting. Even the wheels are carbon fibre, made and designed by John’s team.
It wasn’t just a breath-taking demonstration of one mans’ thinking, it worked well. Back in NZ the Britten took national titles, then led at Daytona followed by a World BEARS (British European American Racing Series) Title in 1995, just three weeks before Britten tragically passed away.
My love affair with the Britten started at the Isle of Man TT back in 1994 listening to my older brother and father, both engineers, discussing the Britten until the early hours. They were mesmerised by it, as everyone was. It was almost alien, using technology and design solutions unheard of at the time.
And now my dream has come true. I’ve travelled to the other side of the world, Manfield NZ, to actually ride the Britten. This makes me one of a very select group of individuals, and has taken nearly a year of organising, begging and pleading. This is my moment.
Kevin Grant, the owner, is a real character. He shakes my hand firmly and proudly, and prked next to his early ’90s race truck, under a makeshift awning, is the Britten in all its glory. My heart is trying to break out of my chest. “You’re a lucky bugger you know boy, there’s a list as long as my arm of people who want to ride the Britten” says Kevin.
We instantly click, and talk about the old days of racing and TT stories. He has a huge collection of bikes, some priceless, and has travelled the world to build his collection, but he’s a down to earth guy, and it’s a pleasure to be in his company. “Right me boy make yourself look smart, and I’ll fire up my baby for yer,” he says.
As I struggle into my race leathers in the scorching NZ heat, the excitement is really building. It started when I got off the plane two days ago, and now my heartbeat is racing, and I’m about to ride the Britten.
The pressure is huge, not least because it’s worth around a million NZ dollars! I walk over to the Britten and am greeted by Kevin saying “Bloody hell, you’ve got some fancy leathers, almost looks like yer know what yer doing!” He seems remarkably relaxed considering he’s about to let an unknown Yorkshireman ride his pride and joy.
The remote engine starter slowly starts to turn the huge rear Pirelli slick, there is a slight misfire, and then she barks into life, puffing out a small cloud of blue smoke. What a bark. Stand behind the Britten and the pulse of air from the twin pipes nearly blows you over.
Sweat is pouring down my back as I stand patiently next to the angry Britten. Kevin gives me the nod, and I take the throttle and blip the twist grip, gently bringing the old racer up to temperature. It’s like Kevin has passed me the Holy Grail, I’m honoured just to stand here warming this legendary race bike.
The big v-Twin doesn’t run a fly wheel so the revs rise and fall dramatically, tiny movements of the throttle getting the rev counter dancing around with alarming ease.
The rev counter only starts at 3,000rpm and I’ve been warned that it’ll stall below that.
Time to ride
I gently lever my leg over the tall tail unit, making sure I don’t scratch it, and ease myself into position.
The aggressive throttle is making the rev counter dance quicker than most modern bikes, the heat from under-seat radiator combined with the exhaust routing is slowly cooking my left testicle, but I don’t mind - I’ll sacrifice a ball to ride the Britten.
We get the nod that the track is clear and it’s time to head out onto the historic Manfield circuit.
The pit wall and garages are full of envious NZ racers who’ve taken an early lunch from race practice to allow me to ride the Britten. I’ve got the circuit to myself. I’m so nervous. Crashing the Britten in front of a few hundred dedicated fans would be a fate worse than death.
I pull in the heavy clutch, snick first on the smooth race-pattern shift, build the revs to 5-6000 - please don’t stall - and we’re away. Pit lane is a burble of noise as the twin exiting exhausts growl away beneath me, the sound waves bouncing back from the garages as I pass.
I slowly leave pit lane into turn one, which is relatively slow and first gear, slipping the clutch slightly to help it cope with the pedestrian pace.
I give it a dab of throttle on the exit, and there’s instant response from the big V-Twin, sharp and snatchy, it wants to run. I’m up to third gear on the little straight, short-shifting as I get acclimatised to this alien creation.
I slowly negotiate a tight series of corners in second gear and up to the first left hand hairpin opposite the paddock, which leads onto a long straight.
I know the straight is coming up, I know the race Pirelli slicks are up to temperature, and having travelled half way around the world for this moment, I tuck in and give it some.
I sit the Britten upright on the exit, feel the rear Pirelli dig in and wind on the vicious power. The front goes light as the power kicks in, she’s less than 150kg wet and with a short wheelbase (the same as an Aprilia RSV4, and shorter than a Ducati Panigale) she wants to perform for the admiring crowd.
Tap third and the front goes light again, grab fourth and still the old girl is pulling strong, I even just managed to grab fifth and I’m not flat out, no way near.
Then it’s time to jump on the Brembo stoppers, dance back through the ‘box and into second gear - and it’s a strange feeling. There’s around 5mm of dive, but that’s it, as the Brembo stoppers take hold of the 320mm front discs.
Considering the age of the bike the stoppers are really impressive, but what’s more impressive is the feel even with the lack of dive. That feel means you can squeeze the brake lever harder, making the rear go light just as the slipper clutch takes over.
It turns in with incredible ease, the large bodywork allowing you to hang off the inside of the bike, knee just brushing the warm Tarmac. On the back straight it’s once again time to feel the power and let her loose as the exhaust noise echoes around the track.
Onboard you can also hear the lovely induction noise from the huge carbon fibre bellmouths, too. This is heaven, simply heaven.
Out of the final turn you’re automatically thrown wide towards the pit wall, which is lined with race fans craning to see the Britten in full flow, which is a rare sight even in its native country. I sit her up on the fat part of the Pirelli and dial in the power once more, letting her drift wide.
I skim along the pit wall as I throw in gear after gear, knowing I’ve got those amazing stoppers to rely on at the end of the straight. As the speed increased so did my confidence in the Britten.
It hates to run slowly, doesn’t like the revs to drop below 4,000 and is a little vicious off the bottom end, but it’s not a commuter, this is a thoroughbred race bike.
Being in the sweet spot of the power curve is a formidable place, the bike laughing at my feeble speeds, I’m almost embarrassed as I’m getting nowhere near the historic race bike’s potential, but I have to remind myself of its value - financial and historical.
All too soon the chequered flag comes out, and my time is over. Only on the cool down lap do I notice the heat from the hand crafted exhaust (which took 60hours to make) and the radiator running under the seat. As I slowly make my way up pit lane towards Kevin, he greets me with a smile.
The mechanics take the Britten from me and he reaches over and wipes the petrol tank near my crutch, “You haven’t made a mess have you boy, I told you she wasn’t a cock tease, you can ride this one. You did a few more laps than you said you would too, you cheeky little git!”
My hands are shaking, my leathers are soaked in sweat, and I’m beat physically and emotionally. But I could have died right there and then and been the happiest man on the planet.
What might have been
It’s a real tragedy that John Britten passed away in 1995, aged just 45. What bikes would we be riding now if his creative genius could have continued?
As I said at the start it’s a Hollywood story, one man and his team creating the ultimate V-Twin race bike in their own garage, taking on the factory teams and winning, while these Herculean successes were marred by the sad loss of Mark Farmer at the TT, and then the loss of John Britten a year later as he succumbed to cancer.
I feel so very privileged to have ridden the Britten, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do and dreamed about for the last twenty years. The bike is a huge piece of biking history. I’ve been professionally testing bikes for over ten years now, ridden MotoGP bikes old and new, winning WSB and BSB bikes and other racing icons, but for me, riding the Britten on its home soil is ‘the one’.
Now when people ask what’s the best bike I’ve ever ridden, I can answer without hesitation – it’s the Britten.