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The Motorcycle Legend That Was John Britten and His V1000 Superbike

Photo by Harry Ruffell

The Britten V1000 was, and odds are you’ve never heard of it or the man who built it, the Genesis of the superbike .

At the time in grease-mad New Zealand, John Britten became a household name and a legend.

His V1000 has been called, by various motor sports insiders,  the greatest motorcycle ever built.

Designed and fabricated in 1991, the V1000 was a piece of startling innovation. The iconic machine featured a carbon-fiber chassis and wheels, double-wishbone front suspension and electronics designed to boost performance and tuning by logging data from the engine. It’s 999-cc, eight-valve V-twin generated 160 horsepower and made the bike capable of reaching 188 mph.

As a child, Britten looked up to famous fellow countrymen Richard Pearse, Bill Hamilton, Bruce McLaren and the legendary Burt Munro. Taking inspiration from these speed-obsessed masters of the outer envelope, Britten set to work building a motorcycle which would eclipse the bikes of the day.

After completing a degree mechanical engineering at night school, Britten then took on a variety of jobs to get the necessary work experience – mold design, pattern design, metal spinning and mechanical engineering – to prepare him to accomplish his dream. He traveled  to England and worked with Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners on the design for a highway which linked the M1 to the M4, then headed back to New Zealand to become a design engineer for Rowe Engineering. He worked for Rowe designing, in an ironic twist, very large, very weighty, and very slow off-road equipment and heavy machinery. His quest for knowledge extended to stints building glass kilns and as a fine artist designing and making hand-made glass lighting. Britten even, at least for a time, joined the family property management and development concern.

But it was his dream of building the best motorcycle the world had ever seen which stuck in his imagination.

Throughout the years spent on his various vocations, Britten worked on the design of his dream motorcycle. As a result, he managed to develop innovative uses for composite materials. In 1992, he formalized his pursuit with the Britten Motorcycle Company which made use of powerful engines he built himself, and those powerplants went on to become world-famous. As his motorcycles began to win races and set speed records, his fame grew, but it wasn’t until Britten stunned the motorcycle world in 1991 when Britten bikes took second and third (against factory race teams) during the  Battle of the Twins at Daytona, that his legend was cemented in the public consciousness.

But just a few short years later in 1995, at the height of his genius and powers, Britten died at the age of 45 after a short battle with skin cancer.

The John Britten Story