Terry Stevenson takes a look at the story and the legacy of one of the most interesting motorcycle concepts of all time, and why it’s endured with such a unique sector of racing reverence amongst racing fans.
A total of 10 Britten motorcycles were produced out of a small workshop in Christchurch, New Zealand, not forgetting the earlier Ducati-powered Aero-d-zero, the Denco Aero-d-one, or the two Britten-engined Precursors. To race a Britten was an honour, but the end game was to cross the line first – to win on race day and stand on the top step of the podium. Here many lucky riders share their best memories of racing the iconic Britten.
Andrew Stroud – the battles
Andrew Stroud would have won on debut at Daytona in 1992, but for a battery failure just before the flag. Stroud recalls: “My first ride was in February 1992. I did about 15 laps. I went to Ruapuna and the first time I saw the bike was when Chris Haldane rode it and the front-end had snapped off it. When the wishbone broke and Chris broke his collarbone, John asked me to ride it.” Stroud notched up five Daytona visits on the Britten. “The first one, when the documentary was on it, the battery went flat and stopped with two laps to go! Pascale Picotte and I were out in front, the Britten was faster than the Ducati and I felt like I had him covered because the slipstream was such a big factor at Daytona. I thought I had him well sorted out so I could pass him before crossing the finish line. “I didn’t go in 1993, but in 1994 it set the fastest top speed of any motorcycle that had ever been to Daytona. It went through the radar gun fastest at 189mph, faster than the factory Superbikes. “I won both races there, the Battle of the Twins and BEARS. I won it again in 1995, 1996 and 1997. The first one I rode at Daytona was an 1100 – that was the fastest out of all of them.” Stroud enjoyed an epic duel with the Ducatimounted Robert Holden at Ruapuna, Christchurch in early 1996, where both riders repeatedly passed each other. “In the 1995/96 summer series Robert Holden brought the Ducati back from England and that was a very good bike. We had some great battles and I had to push the Britten a lot harder than I wanted to. I remember at Ruapuna I’d done hundreds, maybe thousands of laps, and on the Britten the best I’d ever done at Ruapuna was a low 1min 33sec. “In the second race, when Robert fell off and hurt his leg, on the first lap around I saw a 33.4 lap and I thought that’s not bad for a first lap and then I saw a 33.1. I looked back and Robert was a bit closer then, so I really put my head down. Then the next lap around I saw a 32.6 and Robert was a bit closer again – he’d just done a 32.4 – which was the lap record! Then I really pulled it all out, I just chucked it on its side super-hard and really pushed it way harder than I thought I’d get away with. Then I came around with a 32.0 lap and I looked back and Robert was gone – he’d lost it through the esses. There was no mucking around, it was serious racing – we had it all on the line!”
Stephen Briggs – magical
Stephen Briggs raced the Roberto Crepaldi-owned CR&S Britten (Number Three) in Europe spanning 1995 to early 1996, and then for a season in New Zealand the following summer. Briggs got the call-up but had never raced a V-twin before, nor had he tested the 1000cc Britten and, incredibly, he qualified on pole in Britain! “I didn’t even get to ride it first – I was thrown straight into the Battle of the Twins race at Thruxton,” Briggs explained. “That was the first European race, in 1995. I’d never ridden it before, so I jumped on it and I just rode it! Funnily enough, I ended up with pole position on the Britten! Andrew (Stroud) was right next door to me on the grid on the blue and pink factory Britten. “It was just magical. I was running around in Europe driving from meeting to meeting with the team with that Britten and everywhere it went it had a massive following. Myself and Andrew did the World Superbikes at Brands Hatch on it, it was another round of the world BEARS and Battle of the Twins. There were something like 65,000 to 70,000 people packed into that place and all the engineers from all the factory teams all came up and wanted to look at the Britten! It couldn’t have been better. It was so far ahead of its time and it’s not really until you look at bikes now with even the simple things like fuel injection and carbon fibre, and the way he adjusted the trail and steering head angle and the swingarm pivot. Everything about it was a step in front of everything else at the time.” Briggs finished second in the 1995 world BEARS championship, behind Stroud, to make a Britten one-two. Unfortunately, in New Zealand Briggs didn’t achieve the results he was expecting on the CR&S machine. “I think every practice and qualifying I was like fastest, I felt on top of the bike, I felt really good with it, but come race time – the first race, the gearbox cracked itself. Then it poured down with rain and because the bike had no gearbox we grabbed the pink and blue bike (Number Six), which was on display at the time!” Stephen says laughing. “We had to quickly grab it, throw some wets on and then did a race on it!”
Gary Goodfellow – early days
Gary Goodfellow raced the Aero-d-one and then the Precursor. Goodfellow takes up the story: “John invited me down to test his bike, so I went down and hung out at John’s place and tested the bikes – I probably stayed there for like three months. But when I got there the bike hadn’t been built! It was in like a thousand pieces, you wouldn’t believe it. ‘But no, it’s going to be going in three days’, you know – like old John.” John retired the Denco-powered Aero-d-one in 1988 as he had a bigger thing in mind “which was the Precursor, so he built that, I did the development riding, and then I raced it. I raced the Precursor in Japan, Canada, the US, New Zealand, Europe, all around the world really.” Conquering Daytona became a huge challenge for John Britten, beginning in 1989, when Goodfellow found the Precursor could out-accelerate the factory Ducatis. It performed well in the race until ignition failure put it out of action. A year later Goodfellow and his fellow Kiwi Robert Holden placed third and fifth respectively in the Daytona Battle of the Twins race. Goodfellow continues: “The next year I rode Daytona with the ‘Angry Ant’, Paul Lewis. In between those two years I kept the bike in Canada.” Living in Vancouver, Canada, Goodfellow raced at tracks along the US west coast and Daytona. “Most of the time it stopped on (out-braked) everything pretty well. I raced the Britten and I also had my own Suzuki Superbike. I was sponsoring guys, so Wes Cooley came up to race my Suzuki and Steve Crevier raced it a lot, while I raced the Britten against them. Crevier beat me once!”
Chris Haldane – first time around
Chris Haldane was the first and last rider to race a true Britten, a Precursor being his first ride: “I was the first rider on a complete Britten, chassis and engine,” Haldane says. “We’d be riding the bike pretty much every day. On Tram Road (near Christchurch, New Zealand), with the big long straight, we spent quite a bit of time there. We just wheeled it out, had a bit of a recce run and tried not to hit anything. No one knew what it was then anyway. I was this crazy guy with this crazy dream and it didn’t really have any history at that point. “We did the NZ Superbike Championship on it for the first time and had a few issues, as you’d expect. I think it was 1989.” A one-off test ride in 1992 at Ruapuna ended up very differently than expected after a wheelie broke off the front end of the bike. “Halfway through the NZ Superbike title John invited me to ride the bike between the Ruapuna and Invercargill rounds. That is when the front end broke off and hurt me – it broke my shoulder really badly. Not like a show pony, it was out of the hairpin, just a small wheelie up the straight towards the right-hander and when I put the wheel down, it just folded under. I had nightmares about it for years.” In his new Marlboro Yamaha contract Haldane wasn’t allowed to race anything else. “I said, ‘Look, Andrew (Stroud) has got nothing sorted. We’ll come down, do BEARS together to introduce you and I can help Andrew understand things a bit’ and then Andrew took over from there.”
Nick Jefferies – the issues
When New Zealand-based Englishman Ron Grant heard that Nick Jefferies’ Honda Britain ride was over, he rang John Shand, who got in touch with John Britten. “And the next thing I knew I got a call from John Britten!” Jefferies explains. “The idea was to ride in the North West 200 and the Isle of Man TT. We also did a British Championship race at Donington Park. I don’t think many people know that, in late June 1994.” The ultra-fast North West 200 was Jefferies’ first race picking up an eighth and a seventh on a different Britten to the TT bike. The 1994 Isle of Man Britten team was Jefferies, who won the 1993 Formula One race, Robert Holden, who decided not to race it and Mark Farmer, who was tragically killed during practice. “It was massively underdeveloped, he was amazingly innovative, the rear suspension we broke in practice, the front suspension was underdeveloped, there was a cooling issue that meant the bike overheated, the one long cam drive belt system constantly broke – that was the one of the main problems in practice, we had trouble getting a lap in, which sadly was, I think, the root cause of why Mark died.”
His incredible Isle of Man experience counted for nothing as the bike failed to finish the Formula One or the Senior TT. “The one exciting thing that happened was when the rear suspension arm snapped going down Barregarrow. It was a steep decent taken in top gear at the Isle of Man doing in excess of 160mph. At the bottom is a really bad bump where the bikes still dig in now.” Fortunately, Jefferies slowed as he caught a newcomer before the dip, doing some 120mph. “When I hit the bottom the rear suspension broke. It smashed the back wheel through the mudguard and the seat and I came to a halt with the bike like a hobby horse – with the back wheel up against my backside! Had I been going down there full noise when the suspension collapsed, I wouldn’t be here now!” A rear suspension back-up stop wasn’t fitted. Nick fondly reflects back on his Britten adventure. “I am truly privileged to be associated with the bike, I was very proud that John entrusted me to ride it.”
Shaun Harris – Foggy surprise
Shaun Harris raced Brittens around the Isle of MANTT and in Europe. Harris said before his race crash that injured him at Timaru in 2016: “I debuted it at the Isle of Man in 1993 and started testing at Monza in Italy. We broke down every single practice lap, so it was not the best. Coming up to a pit stop we were up to fifth position in the race, which was brilliant, but then a couple of miles down the track, unfortunately a part broke (oil filter), that caused oil spillage everywhere and we had to stop. Whether we would have finished the race anyway, in hindsight, we don’t know. “We went to Spa in Belgium, raced it at Donington as well, which was bloody interesting because Carl Fogarty was there, it was the year that he started as a privateer on Ducatis in the World Superbikes. Coming onto the back straight at Donington he came in underneath me and we came on to the back straight side by side, I wheel-stood all the way down the straight just because of the motor of the Britten and Carl was looking at me and I was looking at him the whole way down the straight – he could go nowhere on a bike that he was getting top 10s in World Superbikes on! That’s how fast the Britten motor was then compared to everything else.” Harris returned to the Isle of Man in 1995 to race the CR&S Britten. “That was the only time they finished a race (at the Isle of Man), but we finished way down because all sorts of stuff had gone on and we couldn’t get it going in the pits, it just wouldn’t go. We had to push it up and down pit lane three times to get it going!”
Paul Lewis – quick at Daytona
Australian Paul Lewis was an experienced 500cc Grand Prix racer who took a Britten Precursor to second place during the 1991 Daytona US Battle of the Twins race. “John contacted me because there was no one quicker at Daytona than me or probably Marco Lucchinelli,” Lewis says. “That was when Steve Crevier rode one and I was on the other, with John there. We got along like a house on fire! “In practice we had some issues with fuelling and stuff, but it was awesome. We were racing against Doug Poulan on the factory Ducati, and Poulan that year won the World Superbike championship on that bike! Steve and I qualified on the front row, we took off and I took the lead, dicing with Poulan. We gave Doug a bit of a Britten sandwich for a lap or so. “Steve broke down on the first or second lap and it was just me and Doug, and we were flying.” However, the engine started running on one cylinder mid-corner, although the problem disappeared at full throttle! “It was a big battle between Doug and I, and Doug won me over in the end, but I finished second. When we pulled in I could see John at the horseshoe jumping up and down because he was very excited to get his first rostrum. When they pulled the gear off, the rear fuel injection stack had come undone. I think if we had two cylinders I don’t think they would have known which way we went. It was awesome.”
Chris Haldane – drifting
“Tim Stewart had just built Number Nine and they’d made lots of changes and made the bike a lot better in a lot of areas,” Haldane said. “It had been a few years since I’d ridden a Britten, the Girder bike, and it was a lot more powerful and a lot more sorted, you could get your head around it a bit more. So that bike was boxed up that night and air freighted to Japan. “Tsukuba had this really fast back straight with a big sweeper back onto the front straight. The worst thing for the Britten was that exact corner and it had this horrendous patter that I had to ride around. “For the race, on the start it broke the slipper clutch as I fed the power on and let the clutch out and it just went chug, chug, chug, and I got away dead last. I thought ‘Well I’m not going to pull in’ so I just got stuck into it and normally it had a really beautiful slipper clutch and you’d drift the back coming into tighter corners, so I had to get my head around changing without a clutch. I came right through the field, broke the track record, the fastest lap of the race, and finished fourth! “I’ve never signed so many autographs in my life – they sold a record amount of merchandise! “Then we went to Germany. We did a good amount of testing and the bike was embarrassingly fast. There was an ex-german superbike champion riding a Honda-supported SP1 and we cleaned up big time, got the hole shot and in the first lap we had 50m on them. Yet again the times that we did would have put us on the front row of the last round of the World Superbikes there, so it was pretty impressive. That was the last race ever for the factory Britten.” John Kenton Britten, designer, engineer, artist, achiever, passed away from cancer in Christchurch, New Zealand, on September 5, 1995.
Jason Mcewen – wicked
“John asked for a rider and Andrew put my name forward, and that’s how it started. My first ride was in 1992 when the World Superbikes were at Manfeild. It was wicked!” Mcewan said. “The first time on the 1100, it had just come back from Daytona, it was far from nice to ride, and it was pretty grovelly, but it was still good. I think I would have qualified on the second row of the grid in the World Supers at the time, I did a 1min 8sec lap and way back then I think they were doing high sevens. “I quite liked it, in certain areas. It handled awesome, but John chose wisely with riders because it’s definitely not the sort of bike that would suit a lot of people – it’s a beast. It would scare the f…. out of everyone! “John rode the bike at Ruapuna one day. He came back after a couple of laps and was shaking his head. I can’t remember exactly what he said but he was laughing and he said to Stroud and myself: ‘You two are crazy riders’. It was a full-on V-twin! “When we put the slipper clutch in it made a leap forward in front end handling. “My best memories would definitely have to be doing a few laps of the Isle of Man on the bike that Robert (Holden) was riding. He opted not to ride it and I got the nod.” Riding a Britten, Mcewen shared the feature race win with Robert Holden (Ducati 888) at Wanganui’s Cemetery Circuit in 1992, and was the sole outright winner in 1994. Mcewen backed those results up in 1996 with three victories on the day on the Number Six Britten to win the inaugural Robert Holden Memorial trophy.
Left: Andrew Stroud – cruise control with Britten Number Six.
Stephen Briggs, CR&S Britten and Andrew Stroud racing in Europe.
Kevin Grant and Nick Jefferies, Isle of Man, 2005.
Gary Goodfellow, Britten Precursor, 1990 Sound of Thunder.
Above: Sean Harris racing a Britten on the Isle of Man.
Chris Haldane on a Britten V1000, Pukekohe, 2001.
Robert Holden leading Jason Mcewen at the World Superbike event, Manfield, 1992.
Left: Andrew Stroud Britten burnout.