Twenty years ago, the motorcycling world lost one of its great innovators: New Zealander John Britten. In February, the Ruapuna track near Christchurch will celebrate his carbon-fibre creation, the Britten V1000, a motorcycle that transcends the boundaries of engineering and art. It developed from a series of prototypes into what was described in 1992 as “the world’s most advanced motorcycle”.
To determine its relevance today you need look no further than Ducati’s 1199 Superleggera, the current pinnacle of emotional engineering. Developed by a dedicated factory team that has used Ducati DNA going all the way back to the groundbreaking 916 Superbike of 1994, the Superleggera V-twin defines Italy’s place in motorcycle history.
Everyone, from motorcycle writers to art critics, has had something to say about its design execution. But does it look as avant garde as New Zealand’s Britten V1100-V1000?
Built by a small group of enthusiasts in just a few months in 1991-92, the Britten V1100 predates the 916 Ducati by 18 months. A year later it evolved into the smaller-engined V1000 which won a world championship and set land-speed records on a closed public road.
More than two decades on, the Britten V1000 still looks futuristic and is always included in reviews of motorcycling’s most significant designs.
The BEARS Sound of Thunder meeting, renamed for 2015 as The John Britten Tribute, will highlight his achievements, with an interactive pit display and spirited track demonstrations of various versions of his design.
WHERE IT STARTED
In the late 1970s, Britten, the son of one of New Zealand’s most wealthy property developers, had embraced the alternative lifestyle, living in a converted tramways stable in Christchurch and making stained glass products for a living. He and a few friends were also mucking around with old Triumph motorcycles.
They became the core of the original BEARS racing scene, which launched the annual Sound of Thunder meeting at Ruapuna in 1983. This form of racing encouraged innovation and development of British, European and American motorcycles.
The affordable hot bike of the day was Ducati’s ageing bevel-drive 860cc V-twin. Soon Britten and his good mate, Mike Brosnan, were kicking around ideas to make it more contemporary. The result was the first Britten, nicknamed Aero-D-Zero, in 1985.
Brosnan designed and built a tubular steel space frame around the V-twin, which featured a steep steering head angle of 24 degrees. Britten made the swingarm, which was a miniature version of the sturdy design that all Brittens would have.
The under-slung rear shock was a Koni sourced from the open-wheeler car racing world. Front forks were conventional Cerianis. Brakes were a mix of Brembo master cylinders with AP Lockheed front calipers and a Fontana rear.
Britten’s bodywork was an all-enveloping carbon fibre-kevlar shell that ended in a beak over the front wheel. Interestingly, Ducati would bring out its radically styled Paso with enclosed bodywork a year later.
Perhaps the design war between the Kiwi backyarders and the Italian factory had already begun. Certainly, various Ducati V-twins would be the Britten motorcycle’s main opposition over the next 15 years.
Originally intended as a roadbike with faired-in lights and indicators, Aero-D-Zero soon became a dedicated racer. Brosnan gained a reputation as a hard charger, especially into corners, so the bike’s dynamics were obviously spot on.
Despite not being designed in a wind tunnel, the aerodynamic bodywork helped propel Brosnan to impressive speeds in the BEARS speed trials, held on a closed road outside Christchurch.
In 1987 he hit 234.02km/h. Brosnan went on to win the 1988 and 1990 events at 242.72km/h and 247.80km/h.
The bike was retired in 1990 but Brosnan has restored it in recent years and it is running.
John Britten forged on with plans for his next creation. Using a similar shell to Aero-D-Zero, he opted for a monocoque-type frame that incorporated the petrol tank.
Grand Prix-spec White Power suspension, AP Lockheed brakes and Marvic magnesium wheels complete this space-age-looking concoction. The large “B” cast into the front beak is both Britten’s signature and the shape of a Kiwi.
Originally there were plans to run a Ducati engine with a home-made eight-valve conversion. Then Britten realised a local company, Denco Engineering, was developing a fire-breathing, eight-valve, four-cam, 60-degree V-twin for speedway sidecars.
It was a huge, patriotic leap of faith to consider that a methanol-burning speedway engine, designed to run at full revs for only seconds, could be adapted to tarmac racing. But, on the plus side, was its extreme torque coupled with Britten’s 12kg chassis.
Using locally available parts resulted in a five-speed Yamaha gearbox sourced from an XJ650 and a magneto ignition originally designed for a chainsaw! All this was in a bike weighing 130kg and pumping out 90kW (120bhp).
Certainly the bike had potential but it quickly became a source of frustration. By 1987 Britten had a team of enthusiasts helping him. Among them were Yamaha Grand Prix technician Mike Sinclair and World Superbike Championship rider Gary Goodfellow. Goodfellow had some impressive results but Aero-D-One never reached its full potential. It was retired in 1988 after the Denco engine sheared a gudgeon pin. By then Britten had started to think beyond New Zealand and saw the popular Battle of the Twins/Pro Twins race at Daytona as his next stop. For that he would need an entirely new motorcycle.
The Britten project was taking wings, with a core group of half a dozen expert volunteers intimately involved. They covered all areas of automotive design and technology and gave their time freely.
Meanwhile Britten was entering a new part of his life, joining his father’s hugely successful property development business. Living two lives meant Britten worked around the clock but his charisma dragged everyone along for a sometimes wild ride.
The Precursor was a clean-sheet design. Its engine resembled the architecture of the Denco, so it had belt-driven quad cams and a 60-degree angle between the cylinders, but it was liquid cooled and achieved new levels of design strength and sophistication.
That this engine was conceived and built by a bunch of enthusiasts in their spare time but still proved to be one of the world’s most powerful V-twins is remarkable. It sums up the self-reliance of a country on the opposite side of the world from the motorcycle manufacturing mainstream.
The Precursor’s bodywork was a variation of the Aero-D-One but the beak had gone and it was wider to accommodate the radiators.
The engine was a stressed member, with all the major components hanging off it. Again they included GP-quality suspension, brakes and wheels.
In what would be a typical Britten modus operandi, the new bike was fired up just in time for the annual BEARS Sound of Thunder meeting in 1989.
At Daytona that year, Goodfellow led the pack into the first corner, out accelerating factory-supported Ducatis. Then the bike’s ignition cut out. Back in New Zealand, John established Britten Motorcycles and the team built a second Precursor.
The two bikes went to the 1990 Daytona meeting with Goodfellow and fellow Kiwi Robert Holden finishing in the top 10.
After a year of development, Steve Crevier and Paul Lewis rode the bikes at Daytona in 1991 with Lewis coming second to Ducati ace Doug Polen. The full potential of this Britten was still being unleashed when its creator moved to the ultimate Britten design.
THE BRITTEN V1000
With worldwide interest in his engine from such companies as Bimota, Britten pondered his options. Rather than take the safe path of perfecting the Precursor and putting it into limited production, he started again from scratch.
This time the entire project was built in house. From the carbon-fibre wheels and wishbone girder front forks to the programmable electronic engine-management system, no stone was left unturned in the search for innovation.
The result is a timeless piece of kinetic art that stunned the motorcycling world on its debut in 1992. A core design element of the Britten V1000 is the way it harnesses the air it travels through.