A poster on my wall has enjoyed pride of place for 20 years. It shows the most beautiful motorcycle in the world (and one of the most expensive). The Britten 1000 Super Twin was designed by one of New Zealand’s most gifted mechanical engineers, John Britten of Christchurch. Only 10 bikes were ever made. Here’s the poster, faded as it is:
The signature is in danger too – ballpoint on laminated poster is not so durable!
The bike has been getting a lot of publicity in recent days, partly because we’ve reached the 20th anniversary of his untimely death. Nelson has been particularly excited because Britten’s most famous #1 bike, the 1100 cc model that first competed at Daytona, has moved to Nelson for a while. This million dollar bike is bound to become a major tourist attraction (but more on in later episodes).
When I saw the bike again last week. It was quite an emotional experience. That’s because in 1994/5 I had a tiny part in the John Britten story. The events back then and his death a few months later had a big impact on me. I’ll explain, but first some shots of the bike:
My interest began when I watched the documentary “John Britten: Backyard Visionary” screened in 1993. It was a great story: the little guy from tiny New Zealand taking on the best in the world and winning. The following year, I was lucky enough to be in Christchurch when John gave a lecture at Canterbury University. (Even luckier to get there early so I got a seat, there were dozens and dozens of people standing.) Talking to his peers, John was relaxed and confident. He came across as a truly innovative thinker, questioning everything and willing to try anything. Along with his practical skills, it was a magic combination! His presentation was an inspiration.
That year the Canterbury branch of IPENZ (The Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand) argued strongly for professional recognition of this outstanding mechanical design engineer. John was only the 8th person to be made an Honorary Fellow of IPENZ , its highest award for someone who was not a member, recognising outstanding individual engineering achievement. The impressive list of recipients includes Bill Pickering, head of the Jet Propulsion Lab for 22 years; Sir Angus Tait, founder of Tait Electronics; Tom Schnackenberg, head of the design team for our successful Americas Cup challenge in 1995; to name just a few.
I was the IPENZ president that year so I got to make the presentation during our 1995 Annual Conference held at Massey University. I remember I waffled a bit, trying to create some suspense. “Before I tell you his name” I said, “perhaps you would like to see one of his creations?” When that #1 bike was wheeled out in front of the 350 earnest, serious professional engineers in the Massey University lecture room, they jumped to their feet, clapping and cheering like kids.
I could see John was a bit overwhelmed by the reception. But he relaxed as they started piling in with technical questions. I think it was during that session John said something which really stuck with me: “it’s not really a motorbike” he said, pointing at the beautiful machine. “It’s a moving billboard for our design team.” That statement seem to sum up John’s vision at the time: to found one of the best design houses in the world, working on anything and everything.
When I heard of his illness and death I was devastated. But thank heavens our IPENZ decision making process had been rapid: if we’ve left it for another few months the award would never have been made.
That’s probably enough for this episode. John Shand, the manager at New Zealand Classic Motorcycles and long time supporter of John Britten, kindly gave me permission to photograph the bike. He also suggested I might include shots with the tank and seat removed, exposing the engineering. Those shots will come in the next chapter (and the amazing NZCM museum may fill several more posts, once I’ve managed the photography!)
Thank you so much for the time and opportunity, John Shand, Dave and the staff at NZCM!
a recent addition to this list:
A gathering in 2017 of 9 of the Brittens at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum
NZ Classic Motorcycles Collection (now moved from Nelson to Transport World in Invercargill)
and then the classic, full-length documentary:
“John Britten: Backyard Visionary” at nzonscreen