The making of John Britten

John had an abiding passion for speed, although during a hippie-and-yoga phase in the 1970s, on at least one occasion a donkey's ears substituted for bike handlebars. John had an abiding passion for speed, although during a hippie-and-yoga phase in the 1970s, on at least one occasion a donkey's ears substituted for bike handlebars.
Christchurch designer John Britten created an innovative motorbike that stormed the racing circuit.

Christchurch cathedral was overflowing for John Britten’s funeral on September 9, 1995. A thousand people from all over New Zealand and some from the other side of the world filled the church and spilled into Cathedral Square, where they listened to the service on loudspeakers in the cold spring afternoon. John had died four days earlier from inoperable cancer.

The service was led by family friend and Anglican minister Louise Deans, who said: “John told me he wanted a miracle to save him from death. I forgot to tell him he was the miracle.”

Andrew Stroud, who had ridden the Britten V1000 past the chequered flag many times, read from I Corinthians, and Mayor Vicki Buck, who had presented John with a special civic award just two weeks before, concluded her heartfelt eulogy with the thought that when John arrived at the Pearly Gates, he would suggest to St Peter that he redesign them. John’s penchant for redesigning almost anything mechanical he touched was reflected in the funeral cortège as it wound its way through the city to the cemetery. At the head of the procession was the famous pink and blue Cardinal Britten motorbike, ridden by Andrew Stroud.

Immediately behind the hearse carrying John’s casket came a 1946 Triumph Gloria, a car he’d begun restoring when he was 26. Behind that, a gypsy house-truck he’d painstakingly rebuilt and furnished in his twenties, transported all the way from the Queenstown Motor Museum for the occasion. And behind that, a classic 1968 Mercedes convertible he’d also restored.

As the cortège drove round Hagley Park, within view of the 12-storey Heatherlea apartment complex John had designed and built a few years earlier, hundreds of motorbikes joined the procession. Such was John’s mana, his death was felt throughout the community. Excerpts from his funeral were broadcast that night on television news bulletins, and Holmes ran a special tribute. The nation mourned the loss of a visionary, artist, engineer, motivator, innovator and genius—but one who was also shy, unassuming and thoroughly likeable. Ten years on, people still hold a place in their heart for him, for what he achieved and what he stood for.

Like many New Zealanders who have attained international status, John overcame considerable odds, including reading and writing difficulties, under-capitalisation and constant time pressures. But these problems were also the catalyst for his innovation. He was the sort of person who never took no for an answer, who would never accept that his magnificent obsession—the Britten V1000—couldn’t be the fastest bike in its class in the world.

New Zealanders’ response to the bike’s success, especially given the fact that it was essentially produced in a small workshop in Christchurch, regarded in motorcycle-manufacturing circles as the ends of the earth, epitomises the way they feel about themselves. Even though most Kiwis know nothing about motorcycle racing, they’re proud that John and his unusual hot-pink and luminous-blue bike belong to them.

When Te Papa opened in 1998, the Britten V1000 was put on display, and since then it has become an iconic attraction, viewed by over a million people a year. The bike was also included in New York’s famous Guggenheim Museum’s Art of the Motorcycle exhibition. Years later, this is still touring the world, making it the most visited exhibition in museum history. Currently it’s in a Memphis museum and next year it will be in Orlando.

John and his team of hard-working volunteers made just 10 pink and blue bikes at the Britten Motorcycle Company between 1991 and 1998. All are still in existence today, three in New Zealand and the rest scattered around the world in Europe, the United States and South Africa. One, which has never been raced, resided in a glass case in its owner’s lounge in Las Vegas until last year, when it was sold. It is now displayed in a California motor museum. The others, including the original Cardinal Britten, have been raced often, though increasingly rarely in the last few years.

Additional Info

  • Author: Felicity Price
  • Start page: 102