John Britten had a problem with conventional schooling. From childhood, he had a learning disability that made reading very difficult for him. But that didn’t stop him from becoming one of the most versatile and creative designers New Zealand has seen.
He was born in Christchurch in 1950, and lived there nearly all of his life. He learnt by doing. As a teenager, he was already applying himself to practical mechanics. He restored a 1927 Indian Scout motorbike and a derelict truck – he even drove himself to school with them.
After he left school, he studied for a New Zealand Certificate in Engineering through night classes at Christchurch Polytechnic. By day, he worked as an engineer making concrete mixers and glass kilns. In his spare time, he continued restoring vehicles, including one which he turned into a house truck. People noted his resourcefulness in using materials in these projects, as well as his meticulous attention to detail, yet still managing to do them at minimal cost.
He travelled around the local coasts in the house truck, studying birds in flight. This was in pursuit of a dream to fly like a bird – by making an ornithopter, a machine that could fly with a bird’s wing action. The ornithopter was never developed, but he made a glider that could take off in virtually a puff of wind – which is what it did one day during testing, when no one was in it!
The ornithopter project was typical of John’s concentrated approach to design – intense study, observation, experimentation and practical application in the workshop. His skills were not confined to mechanical things. He was a glass craftsman and a furniture maker, selling his own products. He spent over a decade turning some derelict stables into a magnificent home, using building materials from demolition sites. At one point, he designed clothes and put on a fashion show. In his late twenties, he became interested in racing bikes – the seeds of the Britten bike project were sown.
In 1982, he married Kirsteen Price. To earn the money to finish their stables house, Kirsteen and he invested in developing a luxury apartment complex. He went on to develop several other large-scale city buildings. Throughout this time, his ambition to build a perfect racing bike took shape. His garage workshop became a focus for a night and day pursuit to create a New Zealand bike to stun the world.
After several less than spectacular starts, the Britten bike burst into international prominence when it raced at Daytona in 1992. No races were won, but its unique design, looks, and performance startled the motorcycle-manufacturing giants.
Britten set up a company to manufacture limited runs of the Britten bike. He himself switched his attention to other projects – another commercial property, and a design for a bike to relaunch the Indian Scout marque. All this was cut short when he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He died in 1995.
To many, John Britten was the embodiment of kiwi ingenuity – someone with a ‘can do’ attitude, a shoestring budget, and a hands-on approach, who could put together an internationally competitive product in his own backyard. However that might be, John Britten was a world class designer, engineer, and craftsman – a genius of technology.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (1998)
See the documentary Britten: Backyard Visionary at NZ On Screen http://www.nzonscreen.com/title/britten-backyard-visionary-1993