In my mind, the late, great John Kenton Britten (1950-1995) will always be linked with the city where he was born – Christchurch.
In saying that, though – and, in the absence of any similar facility in his home town – I think it is entirely appropriate, that several examples of the unique motorcycles he – pretty much – single-handedly designed, created with the help of a small and dedicated team, then put out there in the world, are currently on public display at Invercargill’s Classic Motorcycle Mecca museum.
John’s legacy goes way beyond the bikes he is arguably best known for, you see. And had he not been so cruelly stricken by cancer in what was his prime – John died aged just 45 in 1995 – Christchurch would indeed have been a very different city to look at and live in, thanks to plans he had been working on, before his death, to breathe new life into the CBD.
And that’s to say nothing of his fascination for flight, born of a youthful dalliance with hang gliders, and with his motorcycle business established, he had already moved on – in his head anyway – to turning various ‘flights of fancy’ into some form of at least prototype reality!
In saying that, motorcycles, and the riding of same as fast – not to mention as loose – as possible, was his main (I suppose you could call it) creative ‘outlet.’ So – it is again entirely appropriate that it is through them that his legacy is both measured and enshrined.
I well remember the day, for instance, when – on early collaborator Mike Brosnan’s prompting – I phoned John for a story I was thinking of putting together for the publication I was editing at the time, New Zealand Motorcycle News, our conversation swinging widely from people we knew in common to the car park he had recently bought to help fund his bike building plans!
In theory I had phoned for an update of news that had filtered through to me at the office that John was building a ‘radical, full-fairing bike with wings like Roger Freeth tried.’
John being John though he neatly tuned the conversation away from the bike (which would become Aero-D-Zero) and onto the fact he had pretty much finished work on the house that had consumed his every waking hour when he finally returned from his OE, and that he was no longer making the beautiful art deco brass and stained glass lamps which I remembered him selling out of a postage stamp size stall in the city’s Shades Arcade when I was doing my post-grad journalism course in the city two or three years before.
He also mentioned, almost in passing as well, that after years of steadfastly avoiding it he now had a ‘proper job’…..having taken over the reins of the property development and shopping centre leasing company his entrepreneurial father had set up in the 1960s.
That explained, as Mike Brosnan, indicated – without, obviously saying as much – how John, who up until that point had been as famous as his (now celebrated) two-wheel predecessor Burt Munro for an aversion for paying for anything he could either make himself, or ‘re-purpose,’ had suddenly started actually buying things he needed…
Like the state-of-the-art suspension, brakes and wheels he added to his ‘shopping list’ when he went to Italy to buy building products for the upmarket (but sadly, since demolished after being irreparably damaged in the ChCh earthquakes) Heatherlea Apartment complex, opposite the leafy Hagley Park, his first ‘project’ as I understood it, in his new role as a property developer.
And I could go on. Because I’ve got several more great ‘John Britten stories’ I could add here, and if pushed I could come up with literally hundreds more if I shoulder-tapped the likes of Britten riders Andrew Stroud, Jason McEwen and Chris Haldane…
This story was supposed to me about Classic Motorcycle Mecca, however, and the fact that it enjoys the distinction of having more of John’s bikes – not to mention some literally unobtainable memorabilia – on display than any other motorcycle museum in the world.
I’m not just talking about the unique, pared back. blue and pink V1000/1100, your average, everyday Kiwi associates with the bloke either.
Tucked away in plain sight on what (I think) is the top floor of this absolute treasure-trove of all things two wheels slap bang in the middle of our southern-most city’s CBD, are John’s original (Triumph) BEARS race bike, plus two of the three V-twin Britten machines he build before THE bike that established him as the ‘Renaissance Man’ of 20th century motorcycle design.
The first is the beaky Denco-engined Aero-D-One, the second the full-bodied, Britten V1000-engined bike known simply as ‘The Precursor.’
Then – of course – though when I was there last it had been moved to the reception area of the museum – there is the Daddy of them all, the gorgeous, iconic, and utterly timeless, ‘Cardinal V1000.’
In case any of you are wondering, ‘BEARS’ stands for ‘British, European and American Racing Series,’ the brainchild of a group of hard-core Christchurch motorcycle racers who wanted to remain loyal to what I suppose you could call the ‘classic motorcycle marques’ of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, in the face of the kicking they were getting on race tracks around the world through the 80s and 90s from the combined might of Japan’s Big Four; Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha and Kawasaki.
Quite where a motorcycle wholly conceived and built in little old Christchurch New Zealand fitted in under BEARS’ strict ‘No Jappas’ canon, I’m not wholly sure. Afterall, it was BEARS with an S rather than BEARZ with a Z…. but at the end of the day it didn’t really matter because the concept quickly found favour elsewhere. .
In fact Britten V1000s finishing 1st & 2nd in the inaugural BEARS World Championship series in 1995 before finally winning the broadly similar but less, er, polarising, Battle of the Twins category title at the Daytona International Speedway’s annual Daytona Bike Week in 1996.
There’s also – of course – a Britten V1000 on permanent display at Te Papa in Wellington. But though I always make a point of ‘paying my respects’ to it when I am in the capital, the very public nature of the place means you can’t really linger over it for any length of time…..
You can at Classic Motorcycle Mecca. There, set up in the sort of no-nonsense, what-you-see-is-what-you-get display on the southern side of the second floor of the Tay Street building, it is literally Britten city, with nothing between these absolutely one-of-a-kind and no-doubt priceless two-wheelers and the interested observer bar the $35 entry fee and the good sense of those who are happy to pay it.
There’s also an example (the only one?) of the ultra-hi-tech (6-valve, one-piece cylinder & head!) single cylinder engine John started work on but died before he had a chance to see and hear it run.
Plus, various bit and pieces of memorabilia.
Because I was – if not there, at least around at the time – I’m aware of most of this (in fact, it was me who commissioned photographer John Cosgrove to head out to ‘Ruapuna Raceway’ to take a photo of John’s first attempt at a self-build, the Mike Brosnan/Ducati-powered colab, ‘Aero-D-Zero.’)
For those who weren’t though – and that goes from kids born since, right through to famous Britten faithful like IoM TT racer-turned TV-pundit Guy Martin (who officially opened the facility at 25 Tay Street when he was in New Zealand for the Burt Munro Motorcycle Challenge in 2016) the Invercargill museum is a kind of ground zero for the towering legacy John left on his death.
Which, if this little corner of the motorcycle world was the only exhibit at Classic Motorcycle Mecca, I would still say was enough to (more than) justify the price of admission.
Obviously, it’s not. Instead, should you decide to make the trip south, you will be greeted (warmly too I might add, which is very much the Southland way) by an absolutely world-class display of over 300 examples of important/significant/interesting two (and yes, sometimes three-wheel) motorcycles from the turn of last century right up until just a year or two ago.
Like Invercargill’s other celebrated museum attraction, the Bill Richardson Transport World one (just 5 or 6 minutes up Tay St at Hawthorndale) Classic Motorcycle Mecca started out as an offshoot of one man’s passion.
For Bill Richardson it was trucks, for expat American Tom Sturgees it was motorcycles. Sturgees came late to motorcycle collecting apparently, however he didn’t let that stop him amassing something like 300 restored classics from around the world for a museum he opening in his adopted home town of Nelson.
There the collection would have stayed, too, had he not been bit with a major health scare, and decided that the museum had to go.
As it turned out the late Bill Richardson’s daughter Jocelyn and her husband, Scott O’Donnell owned a building on Tay Street they were wondering what to do with.
Having seen the overwhelmingly positive response from around the world to the movie about local motorcyclist extraordinaire Burt Munro, not to mention the number of riders that made the trip to the Deep South every year to celebrate his legacy, Jocelyn and Scott rightly surmised that a dedicated ‘motorcycle museum’ would not only complement the ‘Truck’ one down the road, but also help contribute in a positive way to the rebuild of the city’s CBD Scott already had in mind.
The only issue I had with the bikes Tom Sturgees bought and put on display in Nelson – and which were shipped to Invercargill and displayed in Jocelyn and Scott’s building – was that despite the huge legacy of two-wheel action in New Zealand from the turn of the 20th century up until today, there was narry a mention – for instance – of the truly global success enjoyed by the likes of Speedway stars Barry Briggs and Ivan Mauger, let alone the sort of ‘modern classic’ motorcycles a lot of blokes now entering their retirement years held dear; like Honda’s across-the-frame 6-cylinder CBX1000, or indeed Kawasaki’s epoch-making Z1/Z900.
As it turned out I was not the only person who felt the need for some history ‘of our own’ and when the museum received its first ‘revamp’ Jocelyn and Scott unveiled a special ‘celebration of Kiwi 2-wheel greats’ audio-visual and display put together with Motorcycling New Zealand which includes the likes of multiple World Road Race champion Hugh Anderson and World 500cc MX champion Shayne King.
It is adjacent to this cluster that there is a life-size replica of the shed Burt Munro used to live in and work out of, and John Britten’s bikes are displayed.
And, seriously, I can’t think of a better place for them! They are our taonga, after-all, and like all taonga, they deserve to be maintained and displayed in a very special place. Invercargill’s Classic Motorcycle Mecca museum.