John Britten was born in Christchurch to parents Bruce and Margaret (Ruvae) Britten on 1 August 1950. He has a twin sister Margueritte and an older sister Dorenda.
As a child John Britten built go-karts out of old packing cases and at the age of twelve had saved enough money to buy a petrol motor and build his first motor powered go-kart. When John was thirteen he and a mate, Bruce Garrick restored an old Indian Scout motorcycle which they had found in a ditch.
After leaving St Andrews College in 1968, John completed a four year mechanical engineering course at night school. He started his career as a cadet draughtsman at ICI. The ICI group at this time were owned by Crown Crystal Glass. This opened a wide range of work experience to John including mould design, pattern design, metal spinning and other mechanical engineering designs.
In 1976, John built some glass kilns and went into business on his own account as a fine artist designing and making hand made glass lighting. For several years he enjoyed working in the capacity of a small business employing three staff.
At the age of 32 John married Kirsteen Price, sold his glass business, joined the family property management and development company, Brittco Management Ltd and took on a property development project that he had conceptualised. This project was a prestigious twelve storey apartment building overlooking Hagley Park called “Heatherlea” which was completed in 1990 and was a financial success.
John had already been working on a motorcycle design for approximately two years and continued developing new methods using composite materials and performance engine designs. In 1992 he set up the Britten Motorcycle Company which initially operated from his garage/workshop at his home and was later relocated to its present premises at 31 Carlyle Street. They continued to develop the bike, despite some heartbreaking failures on the race circuit caused by faulty componetry, and finally achieved the result that in 1994 came into the public eye with a television documentary called “Backyard Visionary”.
At the stage of his life when he was furthering his property development business and was building up the size and strength of the Britten Motorcycle Company, whose bikes were finally winning races on the international circuits and breaking speed records on the national front, John passed away at the age of 45 after a short illness as a result of a malignant melanoma on 5th September 1995. He is survived by is wife Kirsteen and three children, Sam, Isabelle and Jessica.
How Did it All Start?
In 1986 John Britten decided to redesign his bevel drive Ducati race bike by creating all his own body work, but the motor and chassis proved hopelessly unreliable. John then turned to a New Zealand made Denco motor in a home built frame. This motor also proved to be a weak link. So after much fiddling and rebuilding he decided to wipe the slate clean and start again creating a new race bike, motor and all.
John pictured his finished result first with a hot glue gun and a roll of number eight wire. All the body work was to be made out of carbon fibre. This string-like substance is lightweight but very strong. It is used in the making of yachts, ski-boots etc. The carbon fibre used was in two kinds, plain – used mainly on flat surfaces and twill which is more flexible used on corners etc.The woven carbon fibre is wetted out with resin and is then moulded and heat cured.
The motor was to be made by casting steel. John did all his own drawings, made his own patterns and designed his own engine. He designed two engines of differing cc ratings because some race events allow a higher cc rating – the Britten V1000 and the Britten V1100 racer versions in 4 and 5 valves per cylinder, with power varying between 155 and 170 bhp. The 1100cc engine is in the Cardinal bike.
The Brittens have had a very good race history. Back in 1991 they came 2nd and 3rd in the Battle of the Twins in Daytona USA. This version of the Britten had a full fairing and was quite different to the Brittens as we know them today. The Daytona version was painted blue and red with the stars from the NZ flag painted on the side. One of these two bikes has recently been restored at the factory as a precursor to the existing Britten. To this day the Britten has been placed in nearly every event that it has raced in.
The Britten has been so successful because what started out as a hobby in a garage at home, became a world class motorcycle recognised for its brilliance in engineering all over the world. Unlike established companies who invest huge amounts of money in the development work and are obligated to show a result for that money, John Britten perservered on a trial and error basis until he was successful.
Media coverage has helped to attract sponsors for racing by bringing the bike to the public eye. This has also attracted people to purchase Britten merchandise which supports the race programme, from all over the world.
The innovative use of carbon fibre gave the bike extra speed on the race track as it was so much lighter than conventional materials. The aerodynamics of the design also have given the bike extra speed. For his work on the bike John Britten was made an Honorary Fellow of the NZ Engineers Institute and posthumously they awarded him an Entrepenurial Engineer Award.
Since John’s death the Britten Motorcycle Factory has scaled down the operation but continued to complete the 10 bikes that John had intended to build. To ensure the company’s future the company have been actively seeking a joint venture partner to invest in a future project.