John Kenton Britten was a New Zealand mechanical engineer who designed a world-record-setting motorcycle with innovative features which are still ahead of contemporary design. He set up a company to manufacture limited runs of the Britten bike. His Britten motorcycles won races and set numerous speed records on the international circuits. John Britten was a world class designer, engineer, and craftsman – a genius of technology.
Britten completed a four-year mechanical engineering course at night school before joining ICI as a cadet draughtsman, giving him a wide range of work experience including mould design, pattern design, metal spinning and various mechanical engineering designs.
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.
Britten has 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. 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.