What John Britten can teach us today

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There’s not one bike out there that’s inspired so many of us, so much as the Britten V1000. For me, there aren’t many days where I don’t think about a detail or general principle of that outstanding piece of Kiwi engineering. As a bike builder, I’ve seen the movies and read the books about how one garage guy from New Zealand went out and kicked the established road racing world in its ass with his genius low budget construction. But would you believe that, until now, I’d never seen a Britten in person?

Photos: Birgitta Krüper

I met John Shand a couple of year’s ago at the Karlskoga track in Sweden when I was competing with a twin-carburetor Buell called “Thor’s Hammer.” He had a Britten cap on his head and talked in a strange slang, so he kept my attention. We ended up talking and out it came that he was originally from New Zealand and had worked for the FIM and been involved with the Britten project before moving to Scandinavia.

So, when I heard that Roberto Crepaldi’s bike, Britten number three, would be on display in Stockholm at the MC Collection and that Shand would be doing a presentation, there was no question that I’d miss it. Finally, I got the chance to have a close look at one of only 10 Brittens ever made.

Last Saturday I saw it for the first time and was instantly fascinated. There is nothing on the Britten that is not needed. Just puer bone and muscle. Form absolutely follows function. What needed to be finished is finished. Where the casting could stay raw, it’s raw. It doesn’t come out in the pictures, but the lean packaging is incredibly impressive.

Shand had good stories to tell. One was that John Britten started the development of the bike with a rubber intake port representing the ideal location and shape. A perfectly-shaped intake is the key to making good power, so the rest of the bike was then designed around it. To focus the design around the point of power requires no compromises. Mass centralization and multi-purpose components were then added, helping keep weight down to just 145kg and boost power to 175bhp.

Shand told the audience a lot about the New Zealand garage culture that was based on the fact you needed to wait three months to receive a part from Europe or the US. They arrived by ship. Surely this is one thing that kept innovation sharp, in addition to having a limited budget and the creativity to dream up unconventional solutions.

Today, we engineer bikes using CAE, lay an edgy CAD over that and then proof the whole thing in CFD. Feed all that data into a rapid prototyping machine and we have parts in our hands four hours later. What progress of John Britten’s wire frame technology. But, the question is: what gets you more? $20 in wire or $100,000 in engineering? The answer’s not so clear when what you need is creativity.

Computer work is the result of bits and bytes that are then shaken down by the same computer programs. Most of today’s construction and design processes are based on similar programs designed to accommodate the needs of modern production. Nothing wrong if your goal is mass production, but so often the results being produced by these identical computer programs are identical too. Today’s BMW is interchangeable for today’s Honda and vice versa. The Britten, in contrast, was absolutely different from anything that came before. It answered the question many of us carry inside: what would the perfect race bike, built without any compromises, look like?

So, John Britten started from zero on a total blank piece of paper and never accepted any technical limitations. What wasn’t available, he and his friends invented. What skills they didn’t have, they learned. Trial and error instead of computer simulations. Garage culture versus think thank.

When you see the bike in the flesh, it is shockingly simple. If you don’t want the rear shock’s damping to alter as it heats up, you place it in fresh airflow. If you place the shock in front of the engine, you need to operate it through a pushrod underneath the engine. If you want the swingarm’s weight down low, you make it an upside-down triangle, which coincidentally leaves room for the exhaust. Why clog up the front of the bike with radiators when the seat unit is empty?

Shand told and amazing story about a crew member whose job it was to hold a Husqvarna leaf blower in the intakes to cool the bike as it waited on racing grids.

Today’s bikes use the engine as a stressed member, meaning that it’s part of a group of components that makes up the frame. John Britten simply made the engine the frame, then bolted on a carbon steering head and monocoque rear subframe. That’s it. He even made the engine case the swingarm pivot. No frame, no weight. Even looking at these cast parts today, the quality is amazing.

So with a radically reduced sprung weight, how do you reduce unsprung? If you’re John Britten, you invent the carbon fiber wheel, that’s how. By bike number three, Britten’s ideas were going even further. Have a look at where the brake disc is mounted to the front wheel. The carbon girder forks were controversial with riders, but they won races on them. When you win, you prove that you were right.

This number three bike on display in Stockholm is owned by Roberto Crepaldi, who also participated in the Britten success story. It was him who organized (and I guess, paid for) the European races, including the TT. This bike is painted in the colors of his team, Caferacers and Superbikes. CRS has its own motorcycles, the single-cylinder VUN and X-wedge DUU.

This particular bike is the most raced Britten of all, entering over 50 races in Europe between 1994 and 1997. It finished the TT and won the New Zealand Grand Prix. It’s also called the first Britten production bike because it’s the first that was sold. It started life as an 1,100cc five-valve, then converted to 985cc belt drive and finally had the 999cc, double belt motor installed. In 1994, at the Isle of Man TT, Mark Farmer died when he crashed this bike. Steven Briggs, Shaun Harris and Andrew Stroud also raced it. Stroud took it to Daytona and placed 2nd.

There’s many other stories surrounding Britten. Like the time the engine was given to a large American motor company in the hopes that it’d prompt an engine supplier deal or an out-and-out purchase of Britten Motorcycles. The agreement was that the sealed engine could not be opened, but when it came back a month later, all the seals were broken.

So what can this bike teach us in 2011? A lot. For me, I’ve learned that CNC machining is not everything. John Britten’s secondary chain adjusters are just some plates and a piece of material welded together. Light, simple, cheap, brilliant, easy to make in your garage.

I see today a tendency to overdo things that are less important, simply to follow mainstream convention. That’s eating up our resources and preventing real innovation. Pushing the limit means doing your own thing. I am more than ever impressed with Britten’s innovation and thank him for his inspiration.

Britten number three will be on display at the MC Collection until October 30, 2011. It’s absolutely worth the trip to see it.

Jens is the manager of Pegasus Race Team and operates Buell-Parts.com.

  • http://www.brammofan.com Brammofan

    Need to fix the . . . nevermind. Feel free to delete this comment. This is not the comment you’re looking for.

    • Sean Smith

      No comment with a Star Wars reference will ever be deleted.

  • Thom

    The Britten is by far the most brilliant , as well as still one of the most advanced M/C’s ever made .

    Why some independent like Buell , or some one else hasn’t taken Britten’s ideas to heart and implemented them into production M/C’s is beyond me ( you listening there Victory ? Hint Hint )

    John was a genius , who in my opinion , still hasn’t gotten his due .

    Sad as well we had to lose him at such a young age and at the point his skills were just beginning to peak

    God knows what he’d of done by now had he lived .

    Thanks for this Wes !!!

    • je

      [quote]Why some independent like Buell hasn’t taken Britten’s ideas to heart and implemented them into production[/quote]

      When it comes to innovation to the production M/C world I think Erik is doing an amazing job.. Fuel in frame, ZTL brake, underbelly exhaust.. building a decent sport bike out of a harley motor, actually getting harley to go outside its walls to build a quality engine… Then lets look at the patients for his swing arm with integrated exhaust.. Im sure he has plenty of other things up his sleeve as well.

      I dig the britten but dont try and bring down buell.
      /rant off

      [qoute]what would the perfect race bike, built without any compromises, look like?[/quote]

      Minus the side exhaust can the fan boy in me says the 1190RS is going to give a go at the title in today terms.

  • Mike Brooklyn

    The next logical question is what can Jason Britton teach us using this bike…

  • zipp4

    Is there more to the large American motor company story? I am intrigued…

    • Rick

      Supposedly it was a possible link-up with Indian Motorcycles.

      Ironically, the fully operational streamliner replica you see in “World’s Fastest Indian” was made at the Britten factory in NZed.

      • Philip

        That’s a very cool little known (I think) fact!

  • Grive

    Amazing writeup. However, the CAD/CAE/CAM comments leave me completely baffled.

    I simply cannot understand what your point is. Unless you’re using extremely dumbed-down programs designed to give you quick solutions instead of a full CAD/CAE suite, you’re completely wrong. Most outfits end up with similar results because everyone ask the same things from it, not because the magical bits are limited to working that way.

    There’s nothing inherent in computer simulations that will lead you to making a specific bike. Creativity is as important in CAD as in wirebending. You could have made this motorcycle in CAD, and you could have ended up with a cookie-cutter Honda in a garage.

    The only factors here are the objectives and creativity of the team.

    • Myles

      -Jens Kruper

    • Marlon

      No reason to hate on CAD/CAE. Imagine if Britten had access to it today?

    • Jens

      Looks like I got misunderstanded as a CAD/CAE hater. Maybe that comes from the translation. We use all that by ourself and know the benefits.

      What I try to point out is that many people today think that only what is computeraided constructed counts and if a part is not out of 75… fly to the moon-chopped aircraft Aluminium, underwater CNC milled by Ukraineborn virgins, it is worth next to nothing. So everybody go for that. As a result the net is full of nice CAD sketchbikes, but nobody roll up the sleeve and make them.

      My point was the Garageculture of the makers versus the computerculture of the dreamers.

      • Andy Keech

        exactly, it’s not that the tools aren’t really terrific, and productivity enhancing, but that ordinary people aren’t able (at least, not enabled) to come up with revolutionary design ideas because there is such a momentum toward streamlined, easy processes and incremental changes in the details. it’s the normalized assumption of rationalized conclusion, where the way things are done must be the best because they’ve been done that way for so long, and are now so easy to continue doing.

        this bike is almost as revolutionary as the Vincent.

      • Grive

        Alright, then.

        Problem is that in the article it looks like the point is “using CAD will force you into doing vanilla parts, true innovation cannot come out of CAD/CAE”.

        The other extreme is just as bad, sure thing. There is something to be said for rolling your sleeves and working with your hands.

        Roll up your sleeves, design and make a mess at the garage until you find an idea you like. Then go to CAD and start refining. Or that crazy idea you came up with, try modelling it and see what happens. If your CAD starting point is a it’s-so-crazy-it-might-work idea, then you’ll end up with a crazy yet functional design.

        That’s why as a designer (not in the automotive field at all), I always keep a computer loaded with pretty CAD/CAE software, a sketchpad and a bunch of parts that teeter very close to being considered scrap metal in my office. One never knows which path will ease the development of an idea.

        • Jens

          Maybe it is a question of the level we are talking about. For automotive engineering a professionell job without computertools is not possible. Because you go into big numbers and a lot of people need to communicate with a platform everybody understands, to let fit the pieces one into the other. These means big teams,long innovationcircles and loads of money. Included that technics and methods are choosen who are proofed to work. Usually coststructures and timeframe pevent the developer in the project from saying, lets try something really new, if it is not part of the programm.

          Of course if you bring a group of engineers with all their skillss and that great stuff in analyzing, construction, tooling and production together for an innovatorjob, like designing a superlight oat straw reinforced potato starch wheel. It would take a year from the first meeting and the endresult will be better than what the garageguy ever will get.

          The garageguy inventor with the veggiewheel idea, build a 50$ mould and get out the first wheel within a week.

          I agree with you that the unbeatable combination is when somebody have both skills and know how to use it. Rare breed today.

  • HammSammich

    Man, I need to learn more about these bikes. Truly amazing…

  • Myles

    There should be a no-holds-barred motorcycle series. Spec wheels and tires, everything else is fair game. Turbo diesel? Electric? Standard gasoline? All game. Crazy NASA unobtanium brake pads? Why not. I want to see how fast smart fucking people can make a two-wheeled machine. I’m talkin crazy hot-wheels stuff here.

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

      There’s one of those being pitched around right now. The problem is, of course, who’s going to foot the massive bill to organize and promote said series?

      • Myles

        Marlboro? Let them have real advertising instead of the barcode.

        Red Bull? They promote boring air racing and flutag.

        Do you think the big manus like Honda and BMW would be willing to take the risks in the series? I want to see bikes break 250mph on a race track. I think the record for motogp is around 220mph. Soooo slow.

      • Ryan

        Google could.

        The series could make all of the bikes automated or remote controlled, which would be fun while they dial in the software, and eliminate the bottle of human endurance.

        Plus Google could collect information on the fans and spam… I mean, produce target advertisements for them.

    • http://rider49er.blogspot.com Mark D

      Would be awesome, but who’s going to clean up all the liquified riders off the track after ever lap?

    • Gene

      Well there’s 2 problems. First, unobtanium is EXPENSIVE and hard to work with. Second, there’s a tension in racing between the tried-n-true that’s won before, and wacky stuff that might kick ass but might also leave you standing by the side of the track halfway through the race.

      Plus the warp-9 250mph stuff is not what I’m there for. I’m there for the turn-n-burn stuff watching Rossi sneak under someone in the middle of some hairpin turn. Drag races down the front straight just tell you who’s got the biggest engine.

    • Paul

      That sort of thought has been crawling in my head for a few weeks now, but I’ve come to the lazy conclusion that such a series would end up following the same trend as any other series in the past one hundred years; safety/liability concerns paired with forseeable involvement and pressure from large manufacturers gradually restricting the class into what racing is today.

    • Jens

      I would be in.

      • Thomas

        ..but who’s paying the bill at the end of the day? there must be some business paying fpr such dremas ;-)

    • http://www.brammofan.com Brammofan

      This should be a piece of cake. I mean, look at the warm reception of TTXGP by FIM and the Isle of Man. I’m sure Azhar would give this a go with all of his free time and the hefty profits he’s made from his electric motorcycle series.

  • http://www.muthalovin.com the_doctor

    I had the good fortune to see one of the Britten’s at Barber Museum a few years ago. I didn’t know the backstory, but my dad told me all about it. It is truly impressive.

  • Gene

    I’ll never ever forget hearing it race at Daytona. BWWOORRRRRrrrrrrr….. Made a Ducati sound like a 125 two-stroke. I think this particular bike was also in “Art of the Motorcycle” because I remember it being the same bike that raced at Daytona and being glad to see it again.

    I don’t understand why his wife & heirs didn’t license it for production. I also can’t figure out why at least some of the suspension ideas haven’t been copied, if nothing else.

    • Andreas

      The Duolever front of the BMW k-series is much of the same…

      • BMW11GS

        umm itsa bit different. more of a hossack derived design. this is a bit different

  • Rick

    Mr. Virgil Elings owns the tenth and final Britten V1000 produced, and it’s usually on display at his Moto Solvang museum in, yes, Solvang California.

    Another V1000 was (still is?) owned by Mike Canepa in NorCal, back in ’02-03 it was on long-term display at Moto Italiano’s Santa Cruz dealership while Mike was rebuilding his garage.

    By all means see one for yourself if you get an opportunity. If ever a motorcycle truly deserved the superlatives and hyperbole it’s received it is this one.

  • rohorn

    Tim Hanna’s book on this subject is worth finding, buying, reading, and keeping. No, my copy is not for sale.

    • Jens

      Yes! If you are interested in John Britten and the story of these bikes, Tim Hanna´s book is what you need to red. 0,9 Kilo pure Motorcyle enthusiasm.

  • Miles Prower

    I’ve read various articles about Britten that have appeared in the motorbike rags over the years, but this writeup and collection of photos was the most direct-to-the-point.

    Thanks Jens and HFL!

  • http://www.postpixel.com.au mugget

    Awesome. I love to read any of the Britten stuff. Just recently picked up a few back issues of Moto Tech journal and read an article about one of the earlier Britten bikes. Very cool stuff, amazing.

  • Your_Mom

    It is not a girder front end. It is a Hossack. They are similar but the Hossack has much less steered inertia as the suspension links do not turn with the uprights….