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Alan Cathcart reveals his very personal and captivating memories of the genius that was John Britten

The words genius and tragedy are often overstated, but it is beyond question that New Zealander John Britten was an engineering genius, and that his death exactly 25 years ago from skin cancer, aged 45, was a tragedy of significant proportions for the world of motorcycling.

Though a crowded existence meant he had to combine family life with two full-time careers as a commercial property developer, as well as a hands-on two-wheeled visionary, John Britten’s achievements have received justifiable acclaim the world over. By their technological excellence and avant-garde engineering, the motorcycles John developed would have been sufficient by their very creation to ensure his name was remembered. The fact that they also won races around the world by defeating the products of established manufacturers with far greater resources only adds to the calibre of his achievement.

The fact that the initially weird, but later wonderful, Britten motorcycles were created in Christchurch, New Zealand – the most remote outpost on planet Earth from the mainstream of motorcycle evolution – only added to the mystique of John’s creations. But the extra dose of self-reliance that Kiwis get by being so remote added to John’s own spark of dedicated enthusiasm and innovative thought, and resulted in a series of machines that probably could never have been constructed anywhere else.

Britten certainly achieved a great deal in his short life, more than most do in one twice as long, but he had so much more yet to accomplish, so many exciting projects his fertile mind was itching to complete. His loss meant that several projects he’d intended to bring to life would never happen, most notably the Britten Supermono, a radical liquid-cooled six-valve single with head and cylinder cast as one, attached to a carbon fibre crankcase to produce an ultra-light, fuel-injected Supermono racer weighing less than 90kg ready to race. It employed the same carbon forks as the V-twin, but an even more radical chassis design. John intended the same engine, from which he was aiming to extract 100hp in 650cc form, should also be used for open motocross racing in a less peaky guise, and with just a three-speed gearbox fitted, as well as forming the basis of a family of four-stroke singles with various applications.

But at least before he left us, John Britten had the satisfaction of knowing that the bikes bearing his name – conceived, designed, constructed, developed and raced all by himself with the aid of a handful of friends – had succeeded in defeating the products of bigger, more established manufacturers from all over the world. Those fortunate enough to have known him will remember John Britten’s boyish smile, his shy stammer, his intense appreciation of the different, and the unusual.

His memory will linger on wherever there’s an avantgarde two-wheeled design done right.

Get the full story in the latest issue of Australian Motorcycle News on sale now

Words Alan Cathcart  Photography AC & AMCN archives