Facts about John Britten: a Kiwi visionary

23rd June 2021

Classic Motorcycle Mecca is privileged to showcase not one, but four, ground-breaking motorbikes created by one of the most celebrated designer and engineers New Zealand has ever seen. Keep reading to learn more facts about John Britten.

John Britten always looked at life a little bit differently. Conventional schooling wasn’t his thing – but that did not prevent him from shaping a legacy as one of the most innovative design minds ever seen in New Zealand. With his mixture of creativity, tenacity, and practicality, John Britten was a true visionary.

Classic Motorcycle Mecca is humbled to be able to showcase an incredible display of the revolutionary motorcycles created by the world-renowned designer.

Click here to learn more about our John Britten collection at Classic Motorcycle Mecca

Visitors to Classic Motorcycle Mecca will appreciate not just the bikes but the stories behind them – but before your next visit to see them for yourself, here are some facts about John Britten to whet your appetite.

 

John Britten’s design journey took many forms

He’s world-renowned for his ground-breaking motorcycles, but John Britten’s flair for design came in all shapes and sizes. In his teens, he crafted lightweight ski boots and a sculptured reclining chair.

After leaving school, John Britten took night classes at Christchurch Polytechnic, where he studied towards a New Zealand Certificate in Engineering. His day job at the time saw him making concrete mixers and glass kilns. In his spare time, he continued restoring vehicles – including one he turned into a house truck, which he used to travel around New Zealand’s coast studying the aerodynamics of birds in flight.

What does this have to do with design, you wonder? John Britten wanted to make an ornithopter, a machine that flew by replicating a bird’s wing action. John Britten never made that ornithopter, but he did make a glider.

John Britten’s love and knack for design also saw him dabble as a glass craftsman, furniture maker, clothing designer (he even held a fashion show at one point), and he spent more than a decade turning some derelict stables into an incredible home using discarded building materials from demolition sites. It was in his late twenties that John Britten became interested in racing bikes – and so the seeds of something revolutionary were sown.

 

John Britten’s heroes

It’s no surprise maverick designer and engineer John Britten made his mark in the world of motorsport. With his childhood heroes counting pioneer aviator Richard Pearse, father of the jet boat Bill Hamilton, champion driver Bruce McLaren and ‘Invercargill’s Fastest Indian’ Burt Munro, John Britten’s triumphant career as a revolutionary motorbike designer and engineer seems almost inevitable.

 

The world-famous Britten V1000 Cardinal

Only 10 John Britten V1000 bikes were ever produced – and yes, one of them is on display at Classic Motorcycle Mecca. Only two Britten V1000 bikes can be found on permanent public display here in New Zealand; the other is housed at Te Papa in Wellington, where it is viewed by more than a million people a year. The bike was also included in a display at New York’s famed Guggenheim Museum, as part of its Art of the Motorcycle exhibition – one of the most visited exhibitions in museum history.

The world-famous Britten V1000 evolved from three earlier designs dating back to 1985.

From 1991 and 1998, Britten and his team built 10 V1000 bikes. Their defining principles? The Britten V1000 motorcycles were designed to be streamlined, lightweight and faster than any bike ever before.

Boasting an iconic blend of sheer power and beauty, this model instantly impressed. Initially mocked-up from a frame of aluminium welding wire, its shape fashioned courtesy of hot glue which was then translated into a foam plug mould, the V1000 originally came complete with four layers of carbon-fibre cloth (with extra Kevlar added for strength), though later models were built with just two layers.

Its paint job was just as revolutionary. Inspired by a piece of hand-blown glass John Britten had discovered on his international travels, the Britten V1000’s iridescent blue-violet shade was complemented with lashings of hot pink. Paint specialist Bob Brookland then covered both pink and blue with a clear violet pearl for extra texture. The paintwork also features the Southern Cross constellation, leaving no doubt as to the origins of this incredible machine.

The Britten V1000’s international debut at the USA Battle of Twins in Daytona, Florida, in 1990 saw it finish in third place. In 1993, the #2 bike set four world speed records for motorcycles of 1000cc and under, reaching a staggering 302.705 kmph.

The Design Institute of New Zealand initiated its John Britten Award in recognition of industry-leading innovation soon after his death at the age of just 45, saying ‘John Britten developed the ‘Kiwi ingenuity’ aspect of our culture to a level of genius’.

 

Restoring a classic 1927 Indian Scout motorcycle

John Kenton Britten was born in Christchurch on 1 August 1950, to parents Bruce and Margaret. He had two sisters – the elder Dorenda, herself an industrial designer and educator, and his twin sister Marguerite. (Fun fact about John Britten: he was born just before midnight; his twin, shortly afterwards – meaning the pair celebrated their birthdays on different days.)

From an early age, John Britten was fascinated by engineering, design, and motorsport. One of his significant early brushes with motorbikes came in the form of restoring a 1927 Indian Scout motorcycle – and as proud Southlanders, we’re pleased to say there’s a connection with the deep south.

John Britten loved mucking around with engines with his mate Bruce Garrick – and it was on a visit to a farm in Gore, just 45 minutes away from Classic Motorcycle Mecca in Invercargill, at the age of thirteen that the pair discovered the bike. They spotted a heap of metal discarded in a ditch and, after carting the dilapidated bits and pieces back to Christchurch, the duo set about restoring a classic Indian Scout motorcycle. 

 

An enduring legacy

Tragically, John Britten passed away at a time when his unbridled creativity and visionary thinking was just beginning to make its mark on the world stage. John Britten died at the age of just 45, in September 1995, shortly after being diagnosed with melanomic cancer. He was survived by wife Kirsteen, a fashion model who had worked with greats such as Patrick Demarchalier and whose face had appeared on tomes including Vogue, and their three children: Sam, Isabelle, and Jessica.

John Britten was farewelled at a service at Christchurch Cathedral attended by more than 1000 people. His death was marked not just by fellow Kiwis but mourned around the world.

In Britain, The Independent called John Britten “the most original thinker in motorcycle engineering in recent years”, while the Guggenheim catalogue entry wondered at what else John Britten might have gone on to achieve.

“These achievements within a few years were astounding; had he the opportunity for a full ca5reer, he might have gone on to produce more winning machines. The V1000 remains a legacy to Britten’s extraordinary talent as a motorcycle designer.”

The world will never know what accomplishments John Britten would have gone on to achieve – but one thing is for certain. In his short lifetime, John Britten certainly made his mark.