The Kiwi Dreamer: John Britten's Motorcycle Saga
The team that made Yosh look factory MotoGP
by Dean Adams
Tuesday, September 19, 2023
Dean F. Adams
John Britten's creation at Daytona in the early 1990s. The Britten set the world ablaze with the technology John sketched out and then built in his own mid-industrial revolution shop in New Zealand.
Though he passed away nearly three decades ago, John Britten has achieved legendary status in the world of motorcycles. The bespoke motorcycles crafted by him and his team have become prized possessions among exceptionally affluent collectors
I didn't know John very well, but here are my memories of John and his motorcycles:John is the only non-rider I have seen at Daytona who, at the end of each day, had a line of fans, press and other engineers waiting to talk to him. There was a line. No cutting. At one time I had one of his business cards; I lost it.
The Britten remains the best-sounding V-twin I've ever heard. Better than the XR750, better than the RC51 or any Ducati, the Britten truly sounded like a V-twin Top Fuel dragster.
Brian J Nelson
Ducati's use of the engine as a stressed member in their GP bike reminds us that John Britten used that technique (and more) long ago in a race bike. Here Mike Barnes rides a Britten at Daytona in the early 1990s.
John loved to party. The few times I have detected the tell-tale scent of marijuana being used—at the racetrack—were in the general area of John.
The nights at AMI in Daytona. The priceless Britten splayed apart in one bay. Next bay over, some guy doing the top-end on a clapped-out FZ750 road-oiler. Next three bays: hideous Sportsters needing their 1972 tires replaced.
The Britten engines and parts being loaded into the trunk of a rental car at the track so a "while we watch TV and eat dinner" repair could be made. Oil dry on the carpet.
John's faxes: usually sent to the wrong person by John, so a network of people would forward his fax for him, because trying to find John to tell him he'd sent it to the wrong person was nearly impossible.
The complete hairball level of repairs made to the bike because there were no spares and behind the scenes John was, like most great artists, an organizational and management disaster. Was the plan, truly, to solder up a second wiring harness on the plane over from Auckland? The Britten team made the pre-Mladin Yoshimura squad appear like a MotoGP factory team in contrast.
Brian J Nelson
This: the Britten that Kiwi Andrew Stroud rode in a BEARS race at Daytona in the early 1990s. One of the more amazing details from Tim Hannah's bio on JB is that John and co. mocked up the body for the Britten out of wire and glue 'in a couple of hours'.
Enthusiastic fans eagerly gathered near the Britten garage in Daytona, hoping to catch any spare parts the crew discarded due to crashes or technical issues. They stood guard at the garbage can outside the garage.
Until the final chapter when Britten was funded by the Indian Motorcycle Company in California, John funded nearly the entire operation himself.
The complete hairball level of repairs made to the bike because there were no spares and behind the scenes John was, like most great artists, an organizational and management disaster. Was the plan, truly, to solder up a second wiring harness on the plane over from Auckland?
The story that John and Alan Cathcart requested meetings with the top level of executives at Honda and Yamaha--in Japan. Meetings were granted and scheduled. John brought beautiful spare Britten parts as examples of what he could do for the Japanese either in race or production departments. The Japanese took the parts back to their lab for "inspection" then returned them with quiet thanks. Britten asked for quid pro quo, but the Japanese refused to let him look at their race or R&D labs because they were afraid he'd see something and steal their ideas. True story.
Later, recognizing the symptoms of exhaustion when my son returned from Marine boot camp because that's how the Britten crew—minus John—looked at Daytona. His mechanics were mentally and physically exhausted when they arrived at Daytona. They were gaunt and pale; most were just volunteers. I remember their grubby shoes which told a tale of endless shop hours, using the welder, grinder or lathe.
The first time that the Britten ran for more than a couple laps and how it yarded every bike in the pack when exiting the chicane at Daytona. On the back wheel.
After John passed away in 1995 numerous "there was almost a Britten ..." stories were revealed.
There was almost a Team Roberts Britten.
There was almost a Britten with carbon fiber connecting rods.
There was almost a Britten Supermono.
There was almost a Britten/Indian cruiser.
The list is almost endless because John seemed to have an endless supply of ideas. Cars! Bicycles! Homes! Music studios! He was an idea dynamo.
The "home" forge, the heat-treating parts with cast off garden buckets of water, hand-laying carbon without a mask and a million other "Britten practices" seemed cool and romantic at the time. Hey—if Britten can do it, who is to say we can't? John's battle with cancer ended swiftly, catching many by surprise as news of his illness barely had time to spread. This tragic event prompted a shift in focus among those involved in racing, emphasizing the importance of proper ventilation over practices like cleaning hands with contact cleaner before meals or removing brake dust while exposed to the wind.
Mike Sinclair, former racer and the crew chief for Team Roberts, played a pivotal role in resolving numerous challenges faced by the Britten team. He was undeniably the go-to problem solver for countless issues the Britten team encountered. Fuel injection problems. Electrical gremlins. Dyno trouble; Sinclair nearly always had the answer. All the while, Sinclair juggled Britten problem solving responsibilities while working with Wayne Rainey and achieving the remarkable feat of securing three world championships.
Waiting, as a photographer, for an entire weekend for a Britten to both start and run so as to get a shot for publication. For three days and three nights it refused. Meanwhile, 150 production based motorcycles streamed past in the pit lane every day. Irony.
Lastly, I suspect that there are more Brittens in existence today than anyone is aware.
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