The Britten V1000
By Neale Bayly
Years produced: 1991-1998
Total production: 10
Claimed power: 166hp @ 11,800rpm
Top speed: 303kmh (188mph)
Engine type: 999cc quad cam, water-cooled 60-degree V-twin
Weight: 138kg (303.6lb)
Price then: $100,000
Price now: $250,000
As one of the brightest jewels in the Barber Museum’s dazzling crown, the Britten V1000 number seven exudes a semi-mystical presence in the rarified air of this 80,000 square foot motorcycle shrine. There, amongst hundreds of significant motorcycles and thousands of incredible stories, the Britten stands alone as probably the most evocative embodiment of one man’s dream.
Following a path created in his mind to build a world-beating race bike, John Britten took his thoughts, and with every ounce of courage, determination and skill he possessed, turned them into reality with his own hands. Shocking the motorcycle world with his futuristic creation, humbling factory race teams on the track with its performance, while giving race fans a modern day David to champion against the corporate Goliaths, the Britten V1000 could possibly be the last true privateer-built race bike we will ever see.
Sadly, only 10 of these incredible machines exist, as John Britten lost his life to cancer in September of 1995, just months after a Britten won one of the most epic victories on the high banks of the Daytona International Speedway during Bike Week. John Britten had achieved his dream of beating the world with his “handmade” motorcycle, and his heroic struggle for victory was permanently consigned to the record books. Thankfully, George Barber realized the significant part John Britten played in the history of motorcycle racing and Britten number seven now shines brightly in his world of motorcycle brilliance.
Writing on the wall
Born in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1950 to Bruce and Margaret Britten, John was a twin to his sister Marguerite, and younger brother to his sister Dorenda. Starting his life of building and tuning early with go-karts, by the age of 12 he had figured out how to power them with small engines. A year later he found an old Indian motorcycle, and he and his pal Bruce Garrick proceeded to restore it. The writing was on the wall.
A four-year degree in mechanical engineering led him into a career as a cadet draftsman, where John would be exposed to a variety of processes including mechanical engineering and mold design. This was followed by a stint in Europe before he settled back in New Zealand working as a design engineer. By 1982 he owned his own business designing and producing handmade glass lighting, and was married to his lovely wife, Kersteen. Later, he went to work for her family’s property management and development company, which saw him enjoy much success with a prestigious apartment building project that came to fruition in 1990.
Off to the races
By this time, Britten was already hard at work developing motorcycle designs, building his first race bike. This was powered by a Ducati Darmah bevel-drive engine and was raced in 1985 by his friend Mike Brosnan. Britten also built a second bike that he raced himself, and this first style of race bike became known as Aero-D-Zero. Aero-D-One followed, fitted with a Ducati engine featuring Denco four-valve cylinder heads, and it hit the track in 1987. For this project, Britten built a composite monocoque chassis with an aluminum swing arm mounted directly to the engine. Featuring an under-slung White Power shock, White Power forks, AP Lockheed brakes and Marvic wheels, the bike had a heavy Moto GP influence thanks to fellow Christchurch resident and top GP technician Mike Sinclair.
This race bike had more than its share of problems though, with access to the unreliable Denco/Ducati power plant being tediously slow due to the monocoque design of the frame. Finally, Britten decided to start fresh and build his own bikes from the ground up, including his own engine. These bikes would evolve into the Britten pictured here, and would become the machines that have so firmly etched John Britten into the pages of motorcycle history.
Beginnings of the Britten V1000
Starting with a wire-framed model, Britten borrowed technology learned in Formula One racing, sculpting his handmade carbon fiber bodywork with air ducts to force air under the bike. This created a down force to push the bike into the racetrack. Always shunning convention, he located a small radiator under the seat to take advantage of this airflow, while improving the aerodynamics: The bike now had a much smaller frontal area without a large conventional radiator in front of the engine. Another byproduct of the carbon fiber bodywork was its much lighter weight, which allowed the bike to take further advantage of the horsepower available. This amount varies depending on who you are talking to, but it was somewhere in the region of 160hp, and was produced between 12,000-12,500rpm.
This healthy dose of power was provided by Britten’s own V-twin engine, casting the first casings in his wife’s kiln. The engine used in the Barber machine displaces 1,000cc, uses four valves per cylinder and is exquisite in its design and manufacture. With no counter balancers, gear-driven primary drive and a dry clutch it is a loud and violent animal even at idle, and also something of a fragile one. Due to incredibly high piston speeds, the engines need to be stripped after 5 hours of continuous running for inspection and possible refurbishment.
Dismantling and rebuilding this engine is a very expensive business, and Barber’s Brian Slark told me they found this out the hard way when they raced the bike at Talladega in 1996. A valve seat dropped and destroyed the engine, which necessitated a very extensive and wallet-lightening rebuild. “Every time you fire it up, the meter’s running,” Slark says.
Ahead of his time
Talking with Slark about the bike and absorbing his comments about the bike’s near timeless design, even though it is more than a decade old, just makes Britten’s vision and achievements even more incredible. Going head to head with factory race bikes at Daytona in 1995, the Britten V1000 astonished the world by winning the Bears World Championship race, as well as finishing second and third in the Battle of the Twins race. These podium-topping finishes more than proved the validity of his engineering and design, and the bike went on to win four more races in Europe that year.
Incredibly sophisticated in many aspects, Britten used a fuel injection system that can be adjusted by laptop computer. This was a first in the motorcycle world, and just one more example of his progressive thinking. His suspension was not only adjustable for rake and trail, but also for dive, and was basically a redesign of the Hossack girder/wishbone parallelogram system; a system that was itself an update of the original Vincent front suspension. The unique girder forks, the lack of frame and the wild colors turned heads whenever the Britten flew the Southern Cross on the racetrack. And there in the pits working around the clock was the enigmatic John Britten, flying in the face of conventionality as he lived his dream to the full.
Before his passing, Britten had a wish that a total of 10 Brittens would be produced, and back in New Zealand his dedicated team completed this task after his death. With this handful of rare gems now spread around the world, mostly in private collections, it is just fantastic that a trip to the Barber Museum in Alabama affords the pleasure of viewing one of these machines in person. Standing proud in a sea of exotic and storied motorcycles, it is possible to spend as much time as you like letting your eyes wander over the smooth, sumptuous lines, while marveling at some of the 6,000 handmade pieces that form this masterpiece of mechanically functional art — a piece of art born in the mind of one man, formed by his own hands and raced to success on the world’s racetracks.
John Britten’s legacy lives on, a reminder that we must never stop dreaming, never stop believing we can make a difference. It’s also a reminder that good guys do occasionally finish first, and, in John Britten’s case, some of them get to kick a little ass along the way.
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