What might have been?

It’s a question I’ve often pondered in the years since mechanical engineer and motorcycle designer/builder John Britten’s death from cancer – back in 1995 at the age of just 45.

What would the city of Christchurch look like now had he lived.

I know, the earthquakes which have effectively re-shaped much of the ‘inner-city’ would have had a disastrous effect on his ‘grand plan’  for the CBD. But despite the sheer beauty, not to mention effectiveness, of his signature motorcycle design, the Britten V1000.   John – you see – was more than ‘just’ a motorcycle designer.

His head was chock full of ideas for ‘other’ things he was interested in; things which, at the time of his death included but were not exactly limited to:

A production V-twin ‘road bike’ line which might or might not have ended up carrying the famous Indian, name.

A revolutionary light plane/helicopter/gyrocopter aimed at commuters.

A simple but amazingly effective ‘Lockwood-type’ building system using blocks of Oamaru stone, and the piece de resistance,

A radical re-development of downtown Christchurch based around a sort of mega glass ‘conservatory,’ similar to the one he created at his self-designed and pretty much self-built home in Fendalton. The idea, I think, was to free the core of the CBD from what today’s crop of sensation-seeking journos might describe without a hint of irony, as ‘the tyranny of the capricious Canterbury climate.’ And at the time of his death John, I believe, was well advanced with his plans to the point where he might or might not have bought the old The Press newspaper print room (someone might be able to confirm or deny this) adjacent New Regent St to create a central ‘station’ for the trams which were a key part of his rejuvenation plan for the city he loved.

Cruelly, John Britten was not the only innovative Kiwi to die at that critical point in their careers where first successes in one sphere had established their name and the greater world appeared to be theirs for the conquering.

If only they had lived.

John Britten

Yes, I know it’s a kind of maudlin exercise (not to mention subject). But, as the late, great Bruce McLaren himself said in his eulogy to teammate Timmy Mayer, killed (at the Longford circuit in Tasmania in February 1964) just as he was on the cusp of establishing himself on the international circuit;

“To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. It would be a waste of life to do nothing with one’s ability, for I feel life is measured in achievement, not in years alone.”

OK, when it is an aggressive form of cancer which comes calling there is little you or anyone else for that matter can do about it. And if – like me – you make a point of visiting Te Papa every time you are in Wellington just to stand and stare at the V1000 on permanent display there – you can content yourself with the knowledge that John at least achieved one of his key goals before his death.

Just six years after he had penned his eulogy to Timmy Meyer, however, on June 02 1970 to be exact, Bruce McLaren was killed in an accident testing his latest McLaren Can-Am car at the Goodwood circuit, south-west of London. (For a quick snapshot of his life and the accident that claimed it check out the trailer to the recent documentary below.

Bruce was just 32 years of age at the time of his death, and true to what he said on Timmy Meyer’s death, he had indeed achieved more in the 17 years he had raced cars than many other world renown drivers (let alone the rest of us) achieve in their own careers and/or lifetimes.

Bruce was, of course, the youngest winner (at that time) of an F1 Grand Prix (The USGP at Sebring in 1959), the winner of the inaugural Tasman Series in 1964,  winner with compatriot Chris Amon of the Le Mans 24 Hour race in a Ford GT40 in 1966, one of only a handful of drivers to win an F1 GP (at Spa in 1968) in a car of the same name, and the winner of two Can-Am series in a McLaren car, the first in 1967 and the second in 1969.

Of course, at the time of Bruce’s death the McLaren team was about to kick off what turned to be a successful Indianapolis 500 campaign and – as we all know – has gone on to become one of the ‘winningest’ F1 teams in history.

More recently those who took up the challenge to keep the McLaren name and legacy alive created the F1 road car (very much a homage to Bruce’s original M6 ‘road-going Can-Am racer’) and the current range of McLaren Supercars, which now rival those of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche etc.

Put like that it is difficult to see how Bruce, had he lived, could have topped that. You only have to look at what he had achieved in his first 32 years to realise, however, that like John Britten, he was only really getting started. And that, if you think of the various McLaren entities that exist today are big, imagine how much bigger they would be today had Bruce not lost his life at such a young age.

Kim Newcombe – Konig

Speaking of which, another classic Kiwi all-rounder, Kim Newcombe, died at just 29 years-of-age – albeit, not before claiming his first World 500cc GP class win on his first full year on the ‘Continental Circus’ on a bike he pretty much modified, tuned and rode himself.

Newcombe’s story – which was made into an award-winning documentary, Love, Speed and Loss, by fellow Kiwi Justin Pemberton in 2006 – is all the more amazing considering the fact that the Nelson-born, but Auckland-raised rider did his apprenticeship at Colemans motorcycles shop on K-Rd then headed first to Australia then Germany in the interests of furthering a motocross career.

It was only when he washed up in East Berlin (when the city was still divided) in fact, to take up what he thought was going to be a short-term contract with 2-stroke hydroplane engine specialist, Konig Moterenbau, that the idea of him even racing on the road rather than off it (on a MX bike) entered his head.

Yet little more than a year after he arrived in East Berlin he had not only taken over and got running half right a ‘skunk works’ project to shoehorn one of Konig’s world-renown flat-four 2-stroke engines into a motorcycle frame, Newcombe had won his first National level race in Germany. And the year after that he ended up second in the championship points standings in the premier World 500cc Grand Prix championship class between winner Phil Read and works MV-Agusta teammate, Italian great, Giacomo Agostini.

He was not to live to receive the trophy and kudos that would have come with the placing, however, having succumbed to head injuries received in a crash while leading a non-championship race at Silverstone on August 11 the same year (1973).

Like John Britten and Bruce McLaren, Kim Newcombe had already achieved an incredible amount at the time of his death. What else he might have achieved had he lived, however, provides us with yet another sad, tragic case of ‘what might have been.’

These are only three that I know of as well. No doubt there are others, not just Kiwis either.

If you have a driver, rider, engineer whose achievements you would like to acknowledge and share, add his or her name and a brief idea of what they accomplished before an untimely early death to the Comments section below and share this post on social media.

Ross MacKay

Ross MacKay is an award-winning journalist, author and publicist with first-hand experience of motorsport from a lifetime competing on two and four wheels. He currently combines a day job editing NZ4WD magazine with contract media work, weekend Mountain Bike missions and towing his 1989 Nissan Skyline drifter to grassroots meetings around the North Island.

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