Monday, 23 November 2015

Brittens at Barber - Meeting the Icons

Britten V1000 Reunion


I, like any other red-blooded motorcyclist, have cultivated a long-held fascination for the work of the late John Britten.

I don't recall the first time I heard about or saw a picture of a V1000. I do remember that I experienced the same reaction most people have when they first encounter a Britten: "what in the almighty hell is that?"

This amazement was followed by an intense curiosity spurred on by the extreme styling, the gaudy colours, the elemental design. After the shock of the whole subsides, the strange little details suddenly pop into your periphery. The machine becomes more and more fascinating the closer you look. Just what is this strange, organic machine painted in bright blue and pink livery?

Then, inevitably, you learn how the Britten came to be: the condensed and mythologized story of a man in a shed in New Zealand building a world-beating race bike, one that had the performance to dance with multi-million dollar factory efforts - and beat them fair and square on the track. You watch the documentaries; you read the articles detailing John's project and the astounding innovation on offer. You learn of his tragic death in 1995, and the myriad "what ifs" that followed his untimely passing. What if he had lived to continue building bikes? What would have been the next step? How could he have topped himself, after he had built one of the most astounding motorcycles of all time?

It's a powerful story, an engaging tale of the everyman beating the world and exposing the weaknesses of a large, lumbering industry mired in tradition in the process. A man with a vision and grim determination takes on the establishment with a home-built special, and does well enough to scare the shit out of the factory efforts - all the while inspiring the notoriously fickle motorcycle market to appreciate an alternative, first-principle design. It is the classic David versus Goliath story arc with a tragic end, one that fits into the Kiwi tradition of self-reliance and DIY ingenuity.

It's a good story, but it is one that is simplified to the point of fiction. The truth is that the story of John Britten and his machines is far more interesting and nuanced than the "man in a shed" myth would lead you to believe, and the motorcycles that Britten and his team produced from the late-1980s through to the mid-1990s are even more amazing than you thought they were.



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I'm sitting on the plane, scribbling notes and thoughts into my scratchpad. I'm flying to Alabama for the 11th annual Barber Vintage Festival, the third year in a row that I've attended the event. The Barber museum and the associated track are the stuff of dreams for motorcycle enthusiasts, the best motorcycle museum in the world and one that absolutely needs to be on every rider's pilgrimage list. Visiting the site during the Vintage Festival is an even more intense experience, with AHRMA racing going on all weekend at the track, vendors, manufacturers, and custom shops setting up stands across the grounds of the state-of-the-art facility, and tens of thousands of like-minded folks showing up aboard their bikes to enjoy the spectacle. You'll see just as many cool machines parked around the museum as you will inside it, and meet a countless number of interesting people who have come from all corners of the world to participate.

Britten V1000 Reunion

This year, however, is different. I was tipped off several months prior that this year's BVF would see the largest reunion of Britten motorcycles in North America, an event that I would be incredibly stupid to pass up on.

And pass it up I almost did. I had been planning my second USA Tour for the past two years and had drained my meagre funds completing a 5000 mile ride along the West coast. The ultimate goal of visiting Bonneville ended up being a bust, with the Motorcycle Speed Week I was aiming to document being cancelled right before I departed. Meanwhile I was getting word that quite a few Brittens were going to be at Barber, with several of them being run on the track. I started panicking and kicking myself for not planning a visit, for not putting aside enough money to make the journey to Birmingham to witness history and see the bikes that have become my icons.

The Britten has long been on my endless to-do list, one of the foremost examples of my obsession with strange motorcycles and alternative design. I've been quietly gathering material and contacts to write an in-depth profile of John's work, a task that became more and more daunting as each level of research revealed more and more detail to the story. It rapidly became clear that writing about the Britten could be my magnum opus article, a piece that would blow away any previous profiles I had done. It would also be a delicate subject, one that required the utmost care and attention to get right - no one would be impressed with a derivative, abbreviated summary of such an important machine that has inspired so many people.

It was a project I had on the back burner for some time, but one that was renewed when I met Bob Robbins at the Barber Vintage Festival in 2014. I had actually met Bob in 2013 while scouring the paddocks for a replacement coolant temperature sensor for my 916 after it broke down rolling through the gates, after I had ridden all the way from Montreal. In my panic to find a new sensor I had asked countless Ducati riders in the paddocks for help, including Bob. When I spied his Moto Guzzi MGS-01 in his tent during my 2014 visit, I had to stop to say hello and get some photos. I was surprised to learn that Bob had remembered me from my misadventure in 2013; I was embarrassed to admit I hadn't remembered him.

During the course of conversation, Bob let slip that he was in the process of rebuilding a Britten.

I was dumbstruck. It turned out that Bob had purchased Britten P001, the first "production" V1000 that was originally sold to Roberto Crepaldi of Café Racers & Superbikes, along with Jon White's "White Lightning" V1000-powered streamliner. The bike had not been run in 16 years and Bob had enlisted the help of factory-trained mechanic Dave Koban to return the machine to rideable condition.

I stayed in touch with Bob over the course of the year, selling him some parts for his MGS and keeping abreast of his work on P001. He turns out to be a kind, passionate enthusiast who has a deep respect for the importance of the bike. He was rebuilding it to run it, to make sure that as many people as possible could see and hear it running. Soon he had it finished and promptly shipped it off to New Zealand in February 2015 for a tribute to John's memory at Ruapuna Park raceway, which proved to be the largest reunion of Britten motorcycles up to that point. Following that he enlisted Stephen Briggs as a rider for the machine; Briggs had taken second place in the 1995 BEARS World Championship aboard this very bike, second only to Andrew Stroud aboard the factory-run F002. Briggs rode P001 for some parade laps at New Jersey Motorsports Park during an AHRMA event in July, and would ride the machine at Barber as well.

I mentioned to Bob that I was trying to work out a way to get to Alabama on a tight budget, and he kindly offered me a place to stay in one of his trailers. If it hadn't been for the opportunity he had offered me, and the free accommodations for the weekend, I wouldn't be sitting here on this plane, scribbling my convoluted thoughts onto paper.

It would turn out that Bob's offer was worth far, far more than just a bed to crash on, and would make this weekend one of the highlights of my career as a quasi-journalist.

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I arrive in Birmingham on Wednesday afternoon and, because I'm lacking the requisite AHRMA certification to enter the site before the weekend, Bob finds a way to sneak me into the paddocks.  I arrive to find he is trying to keep a considerable operation under control. A massive tent is being erected by a crew of hired labourers, trailers are being unloaded of equipment and bikes, and friends and guests are milling around trying to make themselves useful. It's a scene of controlled chaos, with Bob at the centre calmly orchestrating the madness. It turns out that he has been instrumental in organizing the reunion of V1000s here this weekend, coordinating with the owners, the Britten family, the riders, and the team members who will be visiting.

Paddock Tent

Word slips that nine of the ten V1000s built will be here this weekend.

I'm stunned. I expected five or six machines, and there was virtually no fanfare about the reunion ahead of time aside from the Vintage Festival poster illustrating a pair of V1000s and the promise of a gala fundraiser evening with the Britten family. My contact in the Barber museum had kept mum when I prodded him about what was going. As far as I knew there might be a couple of bikes present, with maybe two or three running parade laps, and I would have been more than happy to witness that. I didn't think I would see almost every V1000 built in a single place, at one time, particularly on North American soil.

Britten V1000 P001

P001, commonly referred to as Black Beauty, is present and taking centre stage among Bob's race lineup, which includes his freshly-rebuilt MGS-01, a heavily reworked Ducati SS he has had for decades, and two race-prepped Ducati SportClassics he is loaning to Briggs and Stroud to use in the AHRMA races this weekend.

Britten V1000 P001

His Britten is one of the most raced machines produced by the company, the first "production" bike sold to Roberto Crepaldi of Café Racers & Superbikes and campaigned extensively in Europe. P001 is also infamous as being the bike that Mark Farmer was killed aboard during a practice session at the 1994 Isle of Man TT, an incident that thrust John Britten into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons when allegations of a mechanical failure surfaced - rumours circulated that either the engine had seized or the girder front suspension had failed, and there were no eyewitnesses to confirm the circumstances of the crash.

The myth of the home-built race bike became a liability following Farmer's death, when John was singled out by at least one journalist for putting a rider into the TT aboard something people thought he had slapped together in his wood shed.

Britten V1000 P001

The truth is that Brittens are not crude machines, in spite of what the images of John quenching crankcases in a bucket of water would suggest.

Seeing one in person is all you need to confirm how beautifully constructed a Britten really is. While they have a few rough edges and some minor inconsistencies, you'll be surprised by how advanced and well-put together they really are, particularly when you recall you are looking at a bike that was designed in the early 1990s. Examining a Britten in detail will inspire even more respect for what was accomplished by John and his small team, because they are even more amazing than you imagined they were. The more you dig into them and the more you learn, the more you'll be impressed. It is one of the few cases where meeting on of your heroes will exceed your expectations.

Britten V1000 P001

The entourage begins to trickle in. Aside from Bob's friends there are several people who were involved in the Britten project who will be visiting. I meet Craig Gee, who aided in the construction of Jon White's streamliner. Stephen Briggs and Andrew Stroud will be arriving shortly, as will Roberto Crepaldi. Kirsteen Britten and her children, as well as two of John's grandchildren, will be here. So will Craig Roberts, who helped on the original build team and is one of the few technical experts on the V1000. Bob Brookland, who painted all the bikes, is visiting as well. That's not mentioning all the owners who are showing up with their bikes. Bob's tent is being setup as one of the main Britten displays, with a dining area and catering for the guests and a vendor area selling Britten merchandise. A few bikes will be displayed here, with the rest setup at the museum on the other side of the track.

Britten V1000 P001

It's utterly overwhelming. I expected to arrive and have the chance to talk to a few of the people involved, maybe get some testimonies on paper. Instead I'm thrown into the fray and I hardly know where to begin. I do my best to just introduce myself to everyone and not get in the way, but it quickly becomes apparent that the task before me is far more daunting than I imagined. This story is epic and documenting it over the course of one frantic weekend will be impossible. Nobody here knows who I am, and treat me with a degree of guarded reservation. No one knows what to make of my intentions. Presenting myself as a "journalist" doesn't help; thrusting a camera or a notepad into someone's face is a quick way to get them to clam up.

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The following day P001 is being prepared for Stephen to ride on some parade laps during the lunch break. Bob removes the bodywork to pull the plugs out of the intakes, giving me my first glimpse under the skin of a Britten. It's a rare opportunity, and I have my camera ready. Bob shows me the ducting moulded into the bodywork to direct air into the intake and the underseat radiator, presenting the parts with a smile as I stare, mesmerized. The carbon fibre is roughly hewn, all laid by hand. Each bike's bodywork is unique and is not interchangeable without some fiddling.

Britten V1000 Ducting

I snap endless photos of the details and the layout of the front suspension while the bodywork is off, poring over each component and mapping the functions in my mind. Each pivot is adjustable with eccentric inserts and multiple mounting points. Even the axles and swingarm pivot have eccentric adjusters. Every element of the geometry can be tailored to suit the track and the preferences of the rider. Despite the apparent complexity, everything is remarkably clean and simple. Every element is distilled down to the essentials, with no extraneous wiring or components getting in the way. It's a form of purity you'll only find on the best-prepared race bikes.

Britten V1000 Bodywork

But don't think for a moment that the Britten lacks sophistication. The fuel injection system was developed from Steward Electronics hardware, which was chosen as a cheaper, NZ-made alternative to the expensive EFI systems then available, but it proved unreliable on the precursor V1000s - so the hardware and software was reworked by team member Mark Franklin, to the point where Britten was manufacturing their modified systems under license from Steward. It is adjustable on the fly by the rider, via a trim knob on the left switchgear. Turning the knob will add or subtract 5% mixture across the map to fine tune the running during a race; while the technology isn't unique (Ducati has had a similar trimmer on their ECUs since the late 80s) the idea of making it adjustable on the fly by the rider is. A red button on the left switch allows the rider to set a mark point in the data, a way to trace running issues - if you have a problem, tap the button to set a point in the printout so that the mechanic can examine the parameters at that moment.

Britten V1000 ECU Controls

The Britten teams were famous in the paddocks of the 1990s for plugging a Cambridge Z88 laptop into their machines to check parameters and make adjustments, sometimes faxing their datalogs back to New Zealand for analysis and corrections. It was the sort of space-age technology that virtually no one had seen in motorcycle racing to that point.

Part of the evidence used to exonerate P001 following Mark Farmer's death was that datalogging system. A ten-minute log is recorded in the ECU that can be downloaded and analysed, and the data preceding the crash showed a sudden RPM spike - evidence of a probable highside at the Black Dub, a complex corner that has become infamous for catching seasoned riders off guard. Farmer's tire selection (a hard compound rear) increased the risk, and word was he had been riding hard chasing Steve Hislop's Honda RC45 (which was shod in softer tires) into the Black Dub.

Britten V1000 Airbox

The bike is reassembled and fuelled up, and Bob wheels it onto starter rollers. Everyone in the vicinity stops what they are doing. Phones are pulled out and cameras start rolling. The dry slipper clutch is locked with a spring-loaded pin on the pressure plate that engages with the rear of the basket to allow for bump starting. A few coughs and some some oil smoke billows out, a common issue due to the lack of valve guide seals on these engines.

Then it fires.



It's the first time I've heard a Britten running. P001 is currently fitted with a 999cc engine; F001 is an 1100, others are 985cc. The exhaust note is distinctive from the 60 degree twin, a raspy, staccato noise with the dry clutch rattling away in the background. The boombox exhaust fitted to the production bikes is relatively quiet, approximately the volume of a street bike with an unbaffled slip on. Bob notes that the boombox, which doubles as a chain guard and a mounting bracket for the footpegs, weighs 14 pounds, which he suspects is for ballast more than anything given that everything else on the bike is built to be extremely light. F001, the Cardinal Britten that is now owned by the Britten family, was notoriously loud with its open megaphone - too loud to pass inspection at most tracks, which led to dodgy fixes like jamming steel wool scrub pads into the pipe to quiet it down enough to get through tech.

Stephen Briggs Britten V1000

Stephen takes the bike out for a few laps during lunch on Thursday, doing a few gentle parade laps for the crowd. The Barber Vintage Festival doesn't start until Friday so most of the attention is coming from within the paddocks, with racers popping out from their tents and trailers to get a look at the machine as it circulates the track.

Stephen Briggs Britten V1000

I try to make myself useful in the paddocks, just so I'm not a useless tit getting in the way. In the process I become a de facto part of the pit crew. It's mostly just Bob's friends along for the ride, so I'm in good company. It turns out that this is far more entertaining and engaging than most of the events happening on the weekend, and I enjoy being around the Britten entourage. I can tell my imaginary grandkids that my contribution to history was scrubbing bugs off Brittens.

Scrubbing bugs off the Britten

Just seeing one running and circulating the track is miraculous. An engine overhaul is spec'd for every 10 hours, but the word is that 5 hours is a safer bet. Stephen has noted that performance degraded noticeably after 60-odd laps, which would be less than half that. Bob Brookland shares that he calculated an average cost of running a Britten in a race at around 5000$ an hour. These are not production based machines hopped up for racing, they are purpose built race machines built to exacting tolerances. Tolerances that go out of whack real quick, provided you manage to avoid cold seizing or hydro locking the valve tappets, recuring problems when they were run in anger.

Britten V1000 Crankcases

With that in mind, you realize why it is incredibly important that Bob Robbins has dug up sources for a number of engine parts and started the process for getting new runs of spares made to keep Brittens running. The main hurdles are the crankcases, head castings, and crankshafts, of which only a few spares exist. Con rods remain unobtanium, being titanium items plucked from a late-80s Indy motor made by a long since defunct company. But given enough time and investment, even those unique items could be replicated if needed.

Most of the moulds, castings, pictures and documents were moved into storage at the Brittco office after the Britten factory was closed in 2006. This turned out to be an unfortunate move, as the building was severely damaged and flooded during the Christchurch earthquakes in 2011, leading to the loss of many of these invaluable original parts and documents.

The rest of the mechanical bits are surprisingly pedestrian. The five-speed gearbox is out of a Suzuki GS, which causes issues with gear ratios, as the first two gears of the street bike transmission are far too short for race duty. The water pump is a Suzuki item as well. The dry clutch is a mix of Kawasaki and Suzuki parts, and will accept Kawasaki ZX-RR plates with some fiddling. The finned rotor poking out of the left side of the engine will be familiar to anyone who has worked on an early-90s Ducati, the donor of the charging system. The oft-repeated story is that the team only failed to win at Daytona in 1992 because of a Ducati rectifier; the truth is that the wiring was messed up and the bike had been running as a total-loss system off the battery for the whole race. Word is that John himself may have crossed those wires in a late-night rush to reassemble the bike after brazing a cracked cylinder liner.  

Britten V1000 P002 and P001

Jim Hunter arrives Thursday evening and wheels his bike into the tent to display alongside P001. Jim's bike is P002, the second production machine which he bought from John, and was famous for winning the Sound of Thunder and Battle of the Twins races at Daytona in 1997. It was also the Britten showcased in the Guggenheim's Art of the Motorcycle exhibitions. Painted in traditional Britten blue and pink livery, it attracts a new crowd of curious onlookers.

Britten V1000 P001 and P002

I'm fortunate to meet Dave Koban, who served as Hunter's mechanic while he was campaigning P002 in the United States. A factory-trained Britten mechanic, Dave is a quiet fellow who proves to be a wealth of information. I'm able to quiz him on a few details and confirm/deny some of the "facts" I'd gathered, and he immediately provides concise and clear answers, correcting some misinformation in the process. I desperately wish I had a few hours to spend alongside him with a bike in front of us so we could go over the design, construction, and adjustment of the entire machine. In the meantime I content myself with shadowing him when he is making adjustments so I can get a small glimpse into the inner workings.

Britten V1000 Cambridge Z88 Laptop

Friday morning Roberto Crepaldi arrives. Roberto was a key player in the Britten story and the first person to purchase a bike from John, the very bike that Bob now cares for. Chuck, one of Bob's friends, reveals that he and Bob had visited Daytona in the 1990s, and Bob had wandered off on his own into the paddocks. He came across Roberto and his team, and sheepishly asked if he could sit on the bike. Roberto kindly obliged and took a photo.

Bob still has the photograph. He likely never imagined that 20 years later he would have bought that bike, though he probably did dream about it.

Roberto Crepaldi and Stephen Briggs with Britten P001

At lunchtime on Friday, the first day of the Barber Vintage Festival proper, four Brittens are sent out for parade laps. Kirsteen Britten waves the green flag to send them off. Moto journalist Nick Ianetsch takes out P002, Stephen Briggs is on P001, Andrew Stroud on F002 (the second factory machine built, currently owned by Kevin Grant), and Chuck Huneycutt is on Barber's P004. Ianetsch proceeds to hoon it up around the track, pulling wheelies and showing off for the crowd - and making most of us nervous. He does have some history aboard a V1000 but not nearly as much as Stroud, who everyone normally forgives for his antics. The idea of some self-assured loon borrowing an irreplaceable, million-dollar piece of history and immediately goofing off like it is a GSXR doesn't sit well with me, even though I'm happy to see these bikes out on the track and being ridden in something resembling anger.

Nick Ianetsch Britten V1000

Thankfully the bikes return unscathed, and the collection in the paddock grows once again with F002 being placed on display alongside P001 and P002. Now the crowd is beginning to grow, with curious spectators coming out of the woodwork following the parade laps. I get asked a lot of questions and do my best to answer them without talking out of my ass, usually trying to deflect inquiries to the more knowledgeable people who are around. I know a bit about the bikes and the story behind them, but I'm by no means an expert. The desire for people to learn more about these machines is palpable, but I'm not yet prepared to be a curator of their history. I still have a lot of learning left to do.

There is an odd problem that exists, something I was warned about early on in my research, of people who were not directly involved in the Britten project to claim they were. They try to steal some of the glory by pretending to have been a part of the story.

With that in mind I am cautious not to overstep my position as an observer. I have zero tolerance for bullshitters and certainly don't want to be seen as one myself.

Britten V1000 F002, P001 and P002

There is a surprising amount of ignorance too, far more than I would have expected. I take it for granted that everyone should know what a Britten is, but the constant stream of people reveals that they aren't familiar to the average visitor. That doesn't mean that the curiosity isn't there. These machines still stop people in their tracks more than 20 years after they were introduced, prompting furrowed brows and strained expressions as people try to deduce what they are looking at. It's just a shame more people aren't aware of what they are, or why they are significant.

Reading through many of the summaries of the Vintage Festival upon my return home, I note a distinct lack of coverage on the Britten reunion - it's just a footnote in a huge event, and the significance of this number of V1000s being in one place at one time is lost on a lot of observers. Sam Britten, John's son, recalled that before this weekend the most V1000s in one place was some point in the 1990s when there were 7 machines at the factory, some being assembled and some brought in for servicing.

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Friday evening is the gala dinner, an annual part of the BVF that helps fundraise for the Barber museum while bringing together an interesting mix of industry personalities. Normally there is a guest of honour, who is interviewed after dinner in candid manner - last year Alan Cathcart interviewed Erik Buell, the year before he quizzed Miguel Galuzzi and Pierre Terblanche.

Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum at night

But not this year. The dinner is billed as an evening with the Brittens, but in reality it's more of a quiet tribute to John's memory. Kirsteen Britten takes the podium to make a short presentation in memory of John, making a point to thank the owners present who supported his dream. There are no interviews this year. When I ask about this, the consensus is that nobody wanted to put Kirsteen on the spot and risk upsetting her. Regardless, she and the children are here surrounded by the people involved and thousands of fans, and all weekend she is approached by people sharing stories and photographs of their encounters with Brittens over the years. She notes that her children didn't fully grasp the impact of John's work and the significance of these bikes until they saw the memories and tributes being shared here. There is a lot more to the story that needs to be revealed, and that people desire to learn, but a lot of people seem to be walking on eggshells around Kirsteen.  

Britten F001

It brings to light the central problem you'll encounter when trying to tell the Britten story: few dare to tread on John's legacy as a lone, quirky genius. The contributions of his team members and suppliers, and even a lot of the technical details of the bikes, are overshadowed by the hero worship that has arisen since his untimely death of melanoma in 1995. Any event involving Brittens is inevitably presented as a memorial or tribute to John's memory. As far as the average person knows, John built the bikes himself with the help of a few friends. The "official" biographies and documentaries downplay the roles of the team members who took John's ideas from conception to reality. Disputes that arose within the group over money and patents have been swept under the rug in favour of a simplified history that paints John as a brilliant innovator who conquered the world more or less alone. The details of how he achieved this and how he produced one of the greatest motorcycles of all time are glossed over in favour of worshipping the legend and maintaining a positive light on his achievements.

Britten F002

The truth is far more nuanced and far more interesting than the made-for-TV story that is usually promoted. John was indeed a brilliant designer and artist, and skilled at inspiring his associates and friends to help with his projects to a degree that would drive most people to insanity - John was notorious for working long nights and surviving on minimal sleep, and his teammates were along for the ride. He was stubborn and often unwilling to compromise on his ideas. One of his greatest skills (aside from his vision, creativity, determination, spatial awareness, and ability to learn) was his ability to hold a disparate group of people together and set them upon an impossible objective. He would seek out the best minds and talents he could secure, and keep everyone working insane hours on impossible deadlines - and somehow, with his direction, they'd make it, often by the skin of their teeth, and not without many failures along the way. He had the charisma and determination to inspire people to do the impossible, a self-effacing bravado that made him seem simultaneously timid and unstoppable.

Britten P001 and White Lightning Streamliner

John himself promoted a lot of the myths about the construction and performance of the V1000.People still believe that Brittens never had mechanical failures or handling problems. They were very good, but they weren't flawless.

Britten P002

It's not to say John was some aloof director, a manager who hired on a crew to do his dirty work while he spouted off unachievable goals and bullshit claims. He was there alongside his team, working harder than any of them and pushing them to try and keep up, all while maintaining his professional and family life. His hand was very much in the first factory machines. His ideas are the core of the whole project, for good or ill - many improvements were rejected by John in favour of doing things his way, which sometimes resulted in setbacks. His penchant for flying by the seat of his pants, for last-minute experiments and hacking up perfectly good parts to test harebrained ideas, was notorious. He was a curious tinkerer and his meddling sometimes sabotaged the race efforts - a venue where consistency and reliability, not experimentation, are paramount.  

Britten P003

John was a great motivator and visionary, but there was one secret ingredient that allowed him to succeed where most innovators would fail: wealth. He was the heir to a successful real estate development company (Brittco Management) who was able to fund his dream by spending tremendous amounts of his own money without any regard for profitability, while being in a position to secure further investments along the way through his business network. He was able to beat the factory efforts by disregarding the compromises of mass production; his machines were built to win races, pure and simple. The V1000 was a cost-no-object exercise driven by John's desire to win, and to seek alternative solutions to common problems.

Britten P004

Attempts to adapt Britten technology to production machines for third parties fell flat when the sheer cost and effort of making them suitable for reliable, road legal applications appeared insurmountable. His designs were simply not viable for the compromises of mass production. That is why his machines were so incredible and so advanced: there wasn't a bean counter or engineer in the way to tell John he couldn't do something, and he was free to start from a fresh slate to solve problems in his own way.

Britten P005

After his death, work stalled and profitability outside of T-shirt sales seemed impossible. John had been the driving force holding the team together and driving innovation, and without him his namesake company was without direction in terms of both design and business; shareholders didn't like the idea of haemorrhaging money to win races. The company withdrew from further development of the V1000 and quietly shelved John's next project, a single with a six-valve head that was dyno tested but never installed into the lightweight supermono chassis John had envisioned.

Britten six-valve single

The result of John's complete disregard for profitability is a 320 pound, 160 horsepower icon of motorcycling, each one of which is worth something in the region of a million dollars. It's a figure that isn't questioned by anyone present; they are simply priceless icons, form, function, and artistry built free of compromises by passionate people.

Britten P006

The million-dollar figure was thrown around a lot throughout the weekend, and I myself have wondered if a Britten could be the world's most valuable motorcycle. None have been offered publicly, save for a listing in Robb Report Motorcycling about ten years ago - I recall the asking price at the time was 450,000$, but damned if I can find a scan to confirm and I can't recall exactly which machine was on offer (maybe P005?). Aside from that they've only ever changed hands privately, and a few of the machines are still in the custody of their original owners. If a V1000 were to hit the auction block there is a good chance it would shatter records, humiliating creaky old Broughs and Vincents and making the so-called Captain America chopper sale look like the fraud that it was.  

Britten P007
   
After meeting some of the owners, it becomes clear that a Britten will probably never will go to public auction. They are all passionate custodians of these artefacts, preferring to be referred to as "caretakers" rather than owners. I don't think a single one of them would dare sell their machine, let alone offer it on the open market where it could fall prey to a pragmatic speculator looking for a blue chip investment to mothball in a warehouse. And for that we should all be thankful.

Britten Reunion

Nine V1000s are on display here tonight, including F001, the prototype built by John and his team in 1991, which is now owned by the Britten family. Each bike is placed on a work stand in the restoration department in the basement of the museum, a pink rose laid on the tank in memoriam to John on the 20th anniversary of his death.

After the first course of dinner I excuse myself from the table and take the opportunity to photograph each bike in detail while everyone else is engrossed in their meals and the conversations around them. I zone out and snap an endless stream of pictures, noting the distinct details of each machine. It proves to be the only moment I have to appreciate each Britten free of distractions and throngs of people, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be among my icons more or less alone. I don't regret my anti-social move for one second.

Jon White White Lightning Britten streamliner

The six-valve single cylinder prototype engine is present, along with the White Lightning streamliner (sadly lacking an engine, as the powerplant was only rented to Jon by the factory for his record attempts). The only machine missing is F003, owned by the government of New Zealand and on display in the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum. It very nearly did make it, but the laundry list of strict conditions and insurance policies that needed to be met for its transport to the United States were impossible to meet in the timeframe of the event. It's hardly a disappointment considering the scope of the turnout, but it would have been nice to have the entire production run on hand.

Britten Reunion

After the dinner and auction, each owner is given a custom Vanson jacket bearing their bike's serial number, the bikes are lined up in a row, and everyone takes a moment to pose with their machine. It's a surreal moment, punctuated by an endless flurry of flashes. There is a certain amount of frustration that comes with photographing something being instantly shared across the internet in real time by dozens of people, but it doesn't lessen the impact of what is happening.

Britten Owners Reunion

Some murmurs pass through the crowd. Everyone has the same thought, a base desire to round out the evening's events with a bang. A starting motor is produced from the workshop and the doors are opened. Stephen Briggs hops aboard P001. The basement is filled with the staccato rumble of a V1000 firing into life. Stephen takes his time, gently blipping the throttle and watching the temperature display, waiting for the cold warning light on the dash to extinguish. The revs build, higher and higher as the temperature climbs. The smiles grow as people jostle to film the proceedings. The murmurs of the crowd are drowned out by the sound of thunder reverberating through the building.

A quick series of runs to redline and the bike is shut down, the deafening silence immediately interrupted by a triumphant cheer.



---

Saturday is another whirlwind day of activity in the paddocks as AHRMA racing goes on and more people stream through the tent to gawk at the Brittens. Stephen and Andrew continue racing aboard Bob's machines. All is running quite smoothly. Bob's meticulous eye for detail appears to pay off in his racing machines, all of which are prepared and maintained perfectly and don't suffer a single major issue all weekend. It's an interesting contrast to the scruffy, battered vintage rides you'll encounter in the paddocks. That's not to say those bikes are any less impressive, given their battle scars and the mark of the people who built and rode them visible at a glance. They are just another side to the sport, the grassroots foil to Bob's perfection.

MGS-01, SS and Sportclassics

The lunchtime parade laps see five Brittens on the track, yet another amazing moment that seems impossible to trump.

Britten V1000 Reunion Barber Motorsports Park

Little do any of us know that Bob has had an idea, and he's convinced Stephen, Andrew and Jim Hunter to join in.

I spend some time wandering around the event and checking out the sights. When I return to camp the entourage is buzzing, wry smiles all around.

I had been tipped off to what might happen, but I didn't really believe it would come to pass.

Racing Britten V1000s

Stephen and Andrew suit up and P001 and P002 are wheeled out and fired up. Once warmed up they are put onto stands and tire warmers are thrown on. Dave Koban gives the bikes a final once over, making last minute adjustments.

The combined Sound of Thunder and Sound of Singles race is coming up. There will be no more parade laps today.

On the other side of the fence, the racers line up on the grid. The tire warmers are pulled off, the Brittens are started, and Stephen and Andrew hop into their respective saddles. They roll out onto the track along pit row. The flag drops and they take off after the group from behind, picking their way through the ranks as the singles drop behind the twins into their respective battles.

Stephen Briggs and Andrew Stroud Britten V1000s

Everyone is stunned. No one anticipated this. We are witnessing history. A pair of Brittens are being raced in anger for the first time in over 15 years. The significance of the moment might have been lost on a lot of people, but for those of us in the paddocks we could hardly contain our joy. It was euphoric, and nerve wracking, knowing that million-dollar machines were dicing through the ranks of battered vintage racers, none of whom were warned that they were going to be going toe-to-toe with a pair of V1000s. Every lap is tense as we wait for the two machines to cross the line intact. But lap after lap they do, picking their way further and further up in the standings, finishing mid-pack in the Sound of Thunder group.

Britten V1000 P002 and P001

The boys return to the paddocks, unscathed, and a crowd forms. Riders from the race start streaming in, their leathers still hanging around their waists. They babble about being passed by a Britten, their faces animated and lit up with childlike glee at having been beaten by one of their icons. If anyone is upset, it's only because they didn't know in advance and complained about not having their GoPros turned on to film the action as they got cut up by a pair of V1000s.

---

Over and over again over the course of the weekend I hear people express a desire to learn more about Britten and how these machines came to be; a desire to learn "the truth", an unabridged and honest account. People are aware that they only know a myth and they crave something better.

Britten V1000 F002

Tim Hanna wrote a biography of John Britten, but it has been labelled unauthorized by Kirsteen and circulation is limited. It's not perfect but it is a very thorough and interesting account of John's life, personality, and work, and a very good account of the contributions made by the team members who helped build the bikes. The only officially endorsed Britten biography is a coffee table book written by Kirsteen's cousin, Katie Price. There is, of course, a story behind that outcome, but it is not one that I feel needs to be revisited here.

1914 Harley-Davidson and 1994 Britten V1000

Bob has a filmmaker working on an account that gives a voice to the people who worked with John. On Saturday evening, at the same time that One Man's Dream was being screened in downtown Birmingham by the Britten family, Eric, the filmmaker, holds a preview showing in the pit tent of some of his work. He had spent the previous two days locked in his trailer, headphones on, furiously editing together a coherent narrative. It reveals the beginning of a beautiful story, of heartfelt accounts from the people who were a part of the dream. It doesn't take anything away from John's legacy. If anything it will be a brilliant tribute to his work, an account of how he was able to drive a team to achieve the impossible.

I'm happy to learn that I'm not the only person who is on this path, who desires to tell the story with all its nuance and complexity. Bob and Eric are playing this one close to their chest, but I hope that I can offer my humble assistance in the future and glean some insight from their research.

Britten V1000 Sunset

The pieces begin to fall in place in my mind. I begin to see how I can tell the story. The task ahead of me is daunting and the deadline seems to be stretching farther and farther ahead of me, but the process is beginning to sort itself out.

The night goes on with drinks and food. Everyone is relaxed and the atmosphere is warm. It's a perfect contrast to the slight stuffiness of Friday's gala, which had a far more serious tone. Jokes and stories are shared, candid moments and memories coming to light as the coolers get emptied and the crowd gets comfortable.

I am still in shock that I am here. The weekend has been a blur of surreal, once in a lifetime moments blending together into a spectacular whole that is far more incredible than I even imagined it could have been.

---

The following morning I attend the Naked Britten seminar at the museum, where Kirsteen, Craig Roberts, and Bob Brookland make a tantalizingly brief presentation by stripping the bodywork off F001 and showing the hidden details to a small crowd in the museum auditorium. It's a rare opportunity to see the inner workings of the prototype. The roughness of the components shows the hands of those who built it, the quick solutions to last minute problems evident in the construction. All Brittens have a slightly rough-hewn quality to them, but none more so than F001.

Britten F001 Naked

This is probably the most famous Britten of all, the one built by John and his small team at his home in 1991 over the course of single year - starting after Daytona 1991, where they had campaigned the more conventional fully-faired "precursor" V1000, and finishing with the debut of F001 at Daytona in 1992. It is the bike showcased in One Man's Dream. It exhibits a number of distinct details in its construction compared to the later bikes, including an 1100cc engine, a single cam belt versus the twin belts of later bikes, and differences in the shape of bodywork that are immediately noticeable when compared to the other machines.

Britten F001 Naked

Bob Brookland gives an overview of his paintwork on the machine, confirming the story that John came to him with a blue glass starfish purchased while on vacation. Bob painted each Britten and spent a lot of time thinking about how to integrate the disparate pink and blue colours together in way that wouldn't look jarring. The bodywork is not a solid colour, instead having artificial shadow and overlays to accentuate the forms. The pink panels are sprayed with translucent violet to harmonize them with the vibrant blue of the main bodywork. The bikes that followed were painted a more subdued blue with white numberplates, giving F001 a distinctly dark, rich appearance.

Britten F001 Naked

Craig Roberts offers some insights into the design and build process that speaks volumes. Components were built, then pared down until they failed, then taken back a step to produce a reliable but light part. John was notorious for his experiments, like a failed attempt to build carbon-fibre con rods - not all innovation made it past the testing stage. Craig shares tidbits like how they tested the crankcase castings for porosity by connecting a garden hose to the cooling circuit. He also shares the time John snuck out for a ride at Daytona while wearing Andrew Stroud's leathers, a ruse that was almost forgotten until someone found a picture of two Andrews, one aboard the bike and the other standing in the paddocks.

Britten F001 Naked

John was a pioneer in the use of carbon-fibre wheels, but if you have the opportunity to handle one you'll realize they were overbuilt to the point of being as heavy, if not heavier, than a conventional light alloy wheel - but they were extremely strong. Dave Koban noted that he accidentally flung a Britten wheel off a bead breaker, six feet into the air, and watched it land on the rim. It didn't even mark it.

---

Back at the paddocks, racing continues. While the Vintage Festival is a world-class mecca of motorcycle delights, with fascinating things to discover at every venue, I'm having more fun hanging out with the crew and doing my little part to help run the fleet. The Britten entourage is a group of genuine, interesting and kind people. John Britten clearly had a knack for finding good people and inspiring them to do great things. There is a lot of sombre reflection going on, even two decades after John's passing - it's the result of a deep respect for his genius and his memory, which makes this event a bittersweet reunion for a lot of the people present.

Jim Hunter and Andrew Stroud Britten P002

Once again Jim Hunter agrees to have Andrew Stroud go out on his bike for this afternoon's races. Jim's Britten is running quite a bit stronger than Bob's, with more compression (which is quite noticeable on startup) and a higher rev limit set in the ECU. Bob had P001 rebuilt to slightly more conservative specs for longevity. It's not slow, but to legitimately contest a race against highly developed "vintage" racers with modern parts and tuning Andrew is going to need all the power he can get.

Dave Koban working on Britten P002

A fresh slick is installed on the rear (I wish I could have seen the look on the tire guy's face when they handed him a Britten wheel) and Dave Koban makes some last minute tweaks, renewing safety wire and checking the belts. The carbon-fibre bellypan built for P001 to serve as an oil catch, something that wasn't needed in the 1990s but is now required to pass tech inspection, is transferred over to P002 with some fiddling. No two bikes are the same, and swapping parts from one to another takes some finessing to make them fit. Aside from that and filling the tank with C12, not much else is needed. A few days ago this bike was a priceless artefact on display in Jim's office; with some fuel and tires it's now ready to go kick ass on the track.

Dave Koban working on Britten P002

Andrew makes a few requests for adjustment of the suspension and controls to suit him, and complains about sliding around on the vestigial seat. I wish I had a roll of hockey tape handy to add some grip strips to the edge of the bodywork. It may be the most stereotypically Canadian solution I could have come up with but I'm pretty sure it would have worked. Maybe Bob will have a roll in his spares bin next time we meet.
         
The bike passes tech inspection and is sent out in the Sound of Thunder race. Andrew is riding conservatively, taking it easy through the corners then slingshotting ahead on the straights. He places mid-pack after sniping his way up through the field, gradually picking up the pace as the race progressed.

The next race is New Age Superbike, and there are murmurs that Andrew could take this one. He will be running against period-correct competitors, early 1990s superbikes, including a few highly-tweaked Ducatis.

Once again Andrew is sent out. After a clean start the race settles into its usual rhythm, with small groups forming and spreading out across the track. Chris Boy, aboard a very quick 888 Corsa, is in the lead. Andrew works his way up behind Chris, and now the race is on. Conservatism has gone out the window. A V1000 and a 888 are having a legitimate battle for first on the track, swapping positions repeatedly through the turns. The rest of the field disappears behind them as they push each other harder and harder.

The atmosphere in the paddocks is electric, the tension and excitement building to a crescendo. We are watching a recreation of a classic rivalry, a Britten dicing with a factory-spec Ducati. Andrew might be racing for fun, and won't receive any points for his finish (as it turned out he wouldn't even be noted in the AHRMA results), but he isn't holding back much if anything.

Bob Robbins and Andrew Stroud

The Britten crosses the line ahead of the Ducati, making this race the first victory for a V1000 in the United States since 1998. The crew is ecstatic as Andrew rolls back into the pits, sharing a moment of jubilation after a historic moment. A flurry of photos and videos are taken, and Chris Boy comes over to congratulate Andrew on his victory - Chris will be first on the result sheet, but everyone is more than happy to admit defeat to an icon, even if it isn't official.

Andrew Stroud and the Hunter Family

What follows can only be a slow, painful return to reality. The equipment is packed, the bikes are strapped into their trailers, the guests disappear to their respective hotels and flights. I've been a part of something extraordinary this weekend, and I dread returning to the misery of my retail servitude where no one will really understand what I was a part of - nor will they really care.

I try to thank Bob for his generosity, but he has a disarming, soft-spoken personality that makes you feel silly for even saying so.

He is the reason I'm here this weekend, and his generosity is what allowed me to be a part of a once in a lifetime reunion that exceeded my expectations at every opportunity. This weekend reaffirmed my passion and reignited my desire to write, after suffering through a severe case of writer's block brought on by months of mindless bullshit at my day job that left my mind muddled and my spirit broken.

Jason Cormier and Bob Robbins Britten P001

My perspective on the Britten endeavour and the people involved has been forever altered by this experience, and this weekend has strengthened my resolve to tell the Britten story in a fair and accurate way that gives a voice to those involved while showcasing the brilliance of John's work. I have an even greater respect for what was accomplished and for the people who were involved after witnessing these bikes being run in anger and meeting the folks who helped make John's dream a reality.

This is only the beginning. I have a huge task ahead of me as I sort out the details, the anecdotes, the myths and the legends. I have a lot to do to write a profile that is fair to John's legacy, to the team members, to the riders, to the owners, and to everyone else who was involved in creating what I believe is, without exaggeration, the greatest motorcycle of all time. My task is daunting and my deadline stretches out far beyond the horizon, but I relish the opportunity to tell this story. John Britten and his bikes deserve nothing less.

Britten Logo

24 comments:

  1. Great writing, sir!
    Look forward to your work on the story of these great bikes, and the geniuses who built them.

    One of the nice things about modern tech today is it is getting easier and cheaper to make one off things for stuff. As Jay Leno points out from time to time, more old rare cars and bikes are getting restored now because stuff unavailable can now be made quickly and cheaper than it used to ... for relative terms of "cheap" but a running "only one of" is far cooler than a neat body with no motor. But they still need the genius to think of them to make the greatness in the first place.

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  2. Jason, this is what you need to spend your life doing. This was the best of many fine stories I've enjoyed of yours.

    Envy does not begin to describe what I felt reading this. To be in the presence of those bikes and those people in such an intimate setting would be more than I could take.

    Depending on you to finish the job with a book. Really.

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  3. Jason, wow, wonderful article. I'm so pleased for you, and thanks. Acme Racing forever!

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  4. Great article , great Adventure
    Thank You .

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  5. Outstanding journalism Jason!

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  6. Now, more than any time else, do I truly understand why you and why this blog. I think this is one of the best articles on Odd Bike, and a great way for me to continue learning the story of something that captured my imagination as a child even though I could barely understand why back then.

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  7. Yep...that's what we do in NZ...hehe

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  8. Riveting, JC, nicely done.

    - neal steik

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  9. Amazing experience, thanks for sharing
    /NiklasK

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  10. Thanks Jason! Keep writing this story and others. And keep the Duc going as well. It'll be grand in the end :)

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  11. Well written! I always wondered about "who paid for it" when I saw the original documentary. The real estate riches now makes sense.

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  12. I saw the Britten at the nj vintage festival this year. I had no idea what it was at first. They had it on the rollers starting it and maybe 10 people standing around. The sound it made when bumped over was terrifying. That exhaust note sounded less like any motorcycle I have ever heard and more like a war party at full sprint. I took some pics, went home, did the research and realized what an asshole I was for shrugging off such a great opportunity. I did get to stare at it for a while though and just thought to myself, "only a madman could have created that." My questions for you in your research would be to find out why no one has taken the bike further and tried to refine it or mass produce it. Great article as always. Cheers.

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  13. Thank you, Jason!

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  14. Absolutely brilliant

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  15. Jason, I refuse to finish reading this article (im about halfway through) until you post the rest of your crowd-sourced southern sojourn story. You owe that to your readers. Capiche?


    Patrick

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    1. Terrific and inspiring read Jason !. There needs to be a movie to tell the story. Worlds Fastest Indian comes to mind; just as a fine example. I see it now, John and his all nighters, the team, casting aluminium engines in Kirsteen's kiln. Such a great story. But if we thought Invercargill was the center of the universe; our calculations were off by a few hundred miles only. It seems it was Christchurch after-all.Bring on the movie, I say !

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  16. Great journalism. I learned a lot. (I never even heard of a Britten before this article. *wince*.) Thank you for that. As always, I look forward to more great and enlightening articles.

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  17. I once saw a Britten bike being ridden at the Sandia race track in New Mexico. It was 2007 or 2008 at the vintage races. what a sight and pleasure. This article brings back fond memories of that time.

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  18. I was a freelance photographer back in the '90s, credentialed through American Road Racing Magazine to shoot a few of the AMA races a year, including Daytona.
    As such, I was fortunate enough to have witnessed the Britten racing and winning in its class and can honestly say I never saw a more amazing motorcycle on a stand or in motion, nor have I ever heard a sweeter exhaust note.
    Music, man. Music.
    A well-written and well executed article, very informative, honest and respectful. I had never been to this site before, came to it in a roundabout fashion and have bookmarked t for the future. I look forward to more.

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  19. that's real journalism apllied by sincere passion for the real motorcycle world, that's a true love letter to the Britten bikes and to what John did.
    Well done, Jason
    Daniele Sabatini

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  20. This would have been an amazing event to attend. I raced at the 2015(?) Sound of Thunder when Bob had his first ever ride on his Britten, alone on the Brittens 'home' track. He was supposed to do a couple of laps- Bob enjoyed it so much he stayed out till it ran out of gas. That was an emotional weekend for any red blooded Kiwi racer. I can remember spectating at numerous races in the 90's when the two factory bikes dominated the New Zealand racing scene- it may be a 'Rose coloured' memory, but I distinctly remember feeling the ground vibrating beneath my feet each time they came past!

    A beautifully written article that bought a tear to my eye. I look foward to the book (already have the other two) ;)

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  21. I'll buy that book, when it is published.

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