The Battling Britten: How One Man’s Vision Became One Of The World’s Most Innovative Motorcycles

The late John Britten with his paradigm-shifting creation, the V1000.

With long-time motorcycle road racer Michael Barnes currently competing in the MotoAmerica Twins Cup Championship aboard the #111 Quarterley Racing Ducati Monster 797, a feeling of déjà vu passes over me whenever I see Barnes aboard that minimalist, half-fairing-equipped, V-twin motorcycle. “Where have I seen Barney riding a minimalist V-twin with a half-fairing in the past??

At Road America, it finally occurred to me. In 1997, Michael Barnes rode the #34 Mansson/10-K Racing Britten V1000 to victory in Daytona’s Sound of Thunder class.

Do you remember the incredible Britten V1000? Of all the trick motorcycles raced in twins-specific competition, arguably, the greatest of them all was the Britten.

Current MotoAmerica Twins Cup rider Michael Barnes aboard the Britten V1000 in 1997 at Daytona.

John Britten was a backyard visionary who created one of the world’s most innovative motorcycles, the Britten V1000, on a shoestring budget in his garage in Christchurch, New Zealand. The motorcycle broke four world speed records and attained legendary status for its revolutionary ‘frameless’ design.

Britten and his team of hardworking volunteers made just 10 pink and blue V1000 motorcycles at the Britten Motorcycle Company between 1991 and 1998. All of them are still in existence today, with three in New Zealand and the rest scattered around the world in Europe, the United States, and South Africa.

The bike evolved from three designs that Britten and his team had been working on since 1985. Built from scratch with a water-cooled 1000cc engine and a carbon-fiber body bearing Britten’s own stylized signature, the V1000 represented hundreds of hours of rushed work by Britten and his team to get it ready for the March 1989 Daytona Pro Twins race. Britten admitted later that the Daytona trip was premature. Among other difficulties, the bike had no muffler, so one of the team members went out and bought a can of baked beans, emptied it, poked a series of holes in one end and wired it over the exhaust. Luckily, the American officials took pity on the team and let the bike through.

Upon his return from Daytona in 1989, Britten went back to the drawing board. He wanted to build not one but two bikes for his next appearance there. He believed this would double his chances of success. He was partly right: the distinctive deep-throated thunderous growl of the two bikes wowed the 1990 Daytona crowd, but problems with the on-board computers that controlled the fuel and ignition on both machines hampered them, although they still finished a respectable fifth- and eighth-place.

In the 1991 Battle of the Twins race at Daytona, one of the two Britten bikes retired with a broken clutch but the other bike led the race until it mysteriously lost power and was passed by Doug Polen aboard the Fast by Ferracci Ducati, who ultimately won the race over the Britten.

Second place wasn’t good enough for John Britten. He realized that, to reach the top speeds required to win a race at Daytona, he’d have to radically change the bike’s aerodynamics and also extract more power from the engine.

The stunning Britten V1000 was “built like a torpedo atop a knife blade.”

John set up a workshop with second-hand lathes and milling machines in a cheap, rented building, and it was there that a new, more powerful engine was made. Meanwhile, the more aerodynamic bodywork was made in John’s garage at his home.

With the new Britten V1000, he wanted it to be lighter, more streamlined, and faster than any Britten bike before it. He was successfully able to improve the suspension system, the induction (the drawing of a mix of air and fuel from the carburetor to the cylinder by the piston), and the wheels.

“Any engineer would be happy to succeed in just one of these developments,” wrote Kevin Cameron in the June 1992 issue of Cycle World magazine. “John Britten decided to tackle them all: two new cylinder-head designs, fresh aerodynamics, the forks, and wheels. They all worked.”

Mark Forsyth also wrote in Cycle World, “How to make a motorcycle: Build an engine and hang suspension and everything else from that engine. Oh, and one other thing: while you’re at it, break new ground with every component and system. John Britten did.”

Cycle World also acknowledged that the Britten had more innovation between its two wheels than most NASA rockets carried on board. “If I were head honcho at a motorcycle company in Japan, Germany, Italy, or America, I’d march right down the hallway…and ask how it is that one man working in a shed in Christchurch could have out-teched my entire engineering department.” As the cover of Cycle Worldproclaimed, the Britten V1000 was “the world’s most advanced motorcycle.”

“Built like a torpedo atop a knife blade”, the torpedo was the windscreen, front fairing, and rider’s body, while the blade was the front and rear tires and the narrow engine. To keep the bike slim, the radiator was mounted horizontally under the seat and cooled by air from ducts in the front fairing that was then ducted out the back of the motorcycle to fill the wake and increase speed. The rear shock absorber filled the space where the radiator would ordinarily be, which kept the weight forward, and the slim, 60-degree V-twin engine was also mounted forward for better weight distribution.

Apart from one or two components, the engine was made from scratch by the Britten team, the cylinder heads and ports (the apertures through which the fuel–air mixture enters and the exhaust exits the cylinders) being the most innovative parts. The front-cylinder head lugs held the rear-shock mount, while the rear-cylinder lugs supported the radiator and seat. The distinctive blue-painted exhaust system, which featured separate pipes attached to each of the four valve ports and was tucked in close to the chassis, was one of the bike’s most distinctive features.

The crankcase, made from sand-cast aluminum alloy, was heavy, but in a fully stressed engine, strength is a necessity. The engine castings were poured in a local foundry, and then brought to Britten’s home where he heat-treated them in his wife Kirsteen’s pottery kiln.

All engine functions were recorded by an on-board computer, which ran an engine-management system. Every few hundredths of a second, it sampled and processed temperatures, mixtures, speed, throttle position and exhaust, giving the rider a precise picture of what was going on.

The wishbone suspension at the front was another innovation. Traditionally, bikes have telescopic suspension systems that utilize sliding bushings to allow vertical wheel movement. But this newly designed system, built from carbon fiber with roller bearings inside aluminum wishbone forks, could handle a lot more load while remaining free-moving, thereby absorbing bumps more effectively and giving the tires more grip so the bike could corner faster, brake harder, and accelerate more quickly without loss of control.

Barney raced the Britten V1000 to victory in the 1997 Sound of Thunder race at Daytona.

The chassis was minimalist. It was basically “two wheels hanging off an engine,” and it was made almost entirely out of carbon fiber, including the wheels. And keep in mind that this was long before carbon fiber was widely used in motorcycles.

The bike’s most eye-catching innovation was its brightly colored bodywork. Initially, it had four layers of carbon-fiber cloth, with some Kevlar cloth added for extra strength where needed, but this was refined in later models to just two layers.

The iridescent blue-violet paint color was copied from a piece of hand-blown glass that Britten had found on his overseas travels, however the hot pink took time for people to get used to. Paint specialist Bob Brookland covered both the pink and the blue with a clear violet pearl so they gave off the same colored sheen.

The Britten V1000 possessed a rare combination of unbridled power and breathtaking beauty. Such was the unbridled power that the bike became known for its wheelies, often during races. The raised front wheel was a constant crowd-pleaser.

John Britten passed away from cancer on September 5, 1995, at just 45 years of age. In acknowledgement of his amazing Britten V1000 motorcycle, as well as several of his other designs and inventions, the Design Institute of New Zealand created the John Britten Award soon after his death “to accommodate the many ways in which someone can lead the way: by example, by inspiring others, by pioneering the infrastructure, by being at the top of their field, and by leading an outstanding team.”

Many consider John Britten a genius. If genius is a mixture of creativity, practicality, tenacity, untiring hard work, leadership, the knack of motivating a team, and the ability to overcome obstacles, then he was, indeed, a genius. And the Britten V1000 was, too.