OBITUARY: John Britten

John Britten emerged in recent years as the most original thinker in motorcycle engineering.

His talent went unrecognised in its formative years, since New Zealand was seen as a source of fine riders, TT winners among them, but not of motorcycles. But Britten changed all that. Frustrated that available machines would not perform reliably to his high racing standards, he drew up his own design in the late Eighties and set about building and developing it. It was a personal campaign to prove that the small man could do better than the established industry giants through single-minded devotion; in the same way, he cast the door handles he wanted for his house.

Britten's garage, in Christchurch, once a stable, became the workshop where he developed a world-beating machine, the 1,000cc Britten V-1000. With its engine's two cylinders set in a vee, it took on and beat the established masters of the two-cylinder form, the Italian manufacturer Ducati and the American Harley-Davidson.

Britten developed the whole of the bike himself and his engine used the latest technological concepts from Formula One cars to produce a top speed of over 170mph. Ignition and fuel flow were programmed through Britten's own control system, with a facility to alter the engine's power characteristics to suit the day using a plugged-in laptop computer.

Perhaps most remarkable was Britten's use of the engine itself as the main part of the motorcycle's structure, in the manner of up-to-the-minute racing car practice. When the Britten team arrived for the Isle of Man TT in 1993, every other racing motorcycle was using a chassis construction that could be directly related to the bicycle in its crudest form. With an inexperienced rider, the Britten was still the fastest machine through the official speed trap on the daunting drop down Bray Hill. It retired near the end of the race, but its performance on this most testing of race circuits had impressed all who saw it.

At the international Daytona race meeting in the United States, the Britten V-1000 was second in the popular Battle of the Twins race on its debut in 1993, and won the next year. The emergence of the BEARS (British, European and American Race Series) events saw the title flexed enough to accommodate the word "Antipodean"; and Britten won that race at Daytona in March this year. Ducati, the present World Superbike champions, and Harley-Davidson, with their big-budget VR1000 racer - expected to perform well in front of their partisan home crowd - were behind.

As Britten's ability was advertised by his race results, so commercial interest grew. He was retained as engineering consultant by the re-emerging Indian motorcycle company, a US legend now owned by an Australian entrepreneur, and was working for them on a road machine development of his original concept.

Britten had also recently been planning the development of a single-cylinder engine with all the principal castings replaced by carbon-fibre mouldings produced in his factory in Christchurch. It would have been another step beyond the known boundaries of motorcycle technology for this single-minded and talented man.

John Britten, motorcycle designer: born 1950; died 5 September 1995.

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