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Great Britten down under

2011-08-19 13:52

COMPLEX: Britten's exhaust system took 70 hours to build.

I’ll be the first to admit every motorcycle looks very much the same as any other these days. Expensive fairings and posh levels of trim may well offer advanced levels of streamlining and aesthetic good looks, but the underpinnings remain largely unchanged, I reckon.

I once held the theory that Japanese bike manufacturers resort to using a common frame manufacturer and possibly even a single engine maker. The darn things really are so similar when you start looking closely: the welding/gussets and aluminium box extrusions are near identical in shape and length, while engines — certainly the four-cylinder mills, anyway, undoubtedly have a common outward appearance, albeit with logoed cover plates the only true difference.

Let’s be honest here, walk through a well-stocked motorbike shop and the above similarities mentioned become even more apparent … In fairness, Yamaha most certainly tried to break the mould with their over-complicated GTS in the mid-90s with its hub centre steering, while Honda ploughed trillions of Yen into oval piston technology with their NR models but were still "drilled" in the performance stakes by two-strokers of the era.


No, it took a little known New Zealander called John Britten to in the ’80s really come up with a racing motorcycle design (yet easily converted to a road bike), that was fresh, new and different. A gifted engineer and lateral thinker, he even designed the house he lived in, where the taps and door handles, for instance, were to his own design and manufacture.

Getting back to two wheels, what he and his motorcycle team came up with was a radical vee-twin race bike, the only parts bought in were conrods, pistons, gearbox and a clutch basket, all the other parts, totalling some 6 500 components, were manufactured and designed in-house.

That complicated exhaust system you can see on the bike took 70 hours alone to create. Engine castings were particularly well made because they were a key part of the bike chassis (frame). Carbon fibre was to be found all over the bike to reduce sprung weight; the complicated centre steering worked a treat, apparently, because the eponymous Britten bike won British, European and American major races from 1994 through 1997 in the hands of privateer team Cardinal Britten.


The unique belt-drive twin overhead cams and four-valve technology all added to the eventual ticket price (R650 000 apiece). Ten bikes* were produced in all — all Britten had to do was produce 200 for homologation purposes and he could officially call himself a motorcycle manufacturer and enter the exciting world of WSB (World Superbike) racing — with the added bonus of selling-on the bikes to an eager public.

Alas, at the age of 45 Britten succumbed to skin cancer and died much too early. Though the company he founded had collapsed, his aspirational designs and ideas live on to this day — take a look at the VR1000 Harley-Davidson bike, a case in point.

Monkey see, monkey do — methinks!

*Potted history of seven of the 10 bikes (all surviving)
Bike 1: Had interchangeable engine capability (one litre/1100 cc)
Bike 2: Resides in Te Papa, New Zealand and holds four landspeed sprint records
Bike 3: Competed successfully at the Isle of Man races
Bike 4: Accomplished winner at Daytona
Bikes 5 and 6: Competed on the Isle of Man
Bike 7: Stored in a American museum

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