On The Britten
Luke Wood: Can you tell me about the exhibition you’ve got coming up at the Gallery?
Billy Apple: The Great Britten! show. We’re going to treat it like a race – doing all the promotional material as well, like posters and t-shirts. I’ve got the original Britten that won the World Championship in 1995. My friend Kevin Grant owns it, and Andrew Stroud is coming down to ride it.1 We’re going to warm it up outside the Gallery…
LW: Oh really, you’re going to run it?
BA: He’ll ride it inside – do a wheelie! But only for television though. No TV, no wheelie! It’s got to be done that way. The bike will come straight from the Netherlands to Christchurch because the two Brittens that won first and second in that 95 series will be in Assen at the end of May to race. Stroud will be back there, and hopefully Steven Briggs – he rode four out of the six races and got second overall to Stroud.
LW: You know they did a thing here last year at Ruapuna, the Sound of Thunder, and they had a whole line up of Brittens from the very first one, you know the one with the funny beaky looking front?
BA: That’s right, the Aero-D-Zero.
LW: How many were made?
BA: Ten – of the blue and pink Brittens. Recently at the Barber racetrack in Alabama they brought nine together. But the plum is the one we’re bringing to Christchurch, F002–92 – it’s the works bike. There’s only three works bikes. Kirsteen [Britten] owns the very first one in the classic colours, the blue and pink – that’s the bike that Stroud rode at John’s funeral. Kevin has the second one, and there’s one other. Te Papa’s bike would certainly run, but it would need a major going over first. But it’s not the World Championship bike, and not the one that Stroud rode. That bike is the one we’re bringing back from the Netherlands. I said to Kevin last Friday, ‘don’t clean it, I want all the fly shit on the windscreen!’
LW: When did you get interested in motorcycles? Because you were saying earlier that you don’t actually ride.
BA: As a kid I was always fascinated by the 7R AJS and the Manx Norton. I used to go and watch them race at the Mangere circuit, road racing round where the airport is now. The five-mile circuit, riders flat on the tank, guys who had just come back from the Isle of Man TT.
LW: The smell of Castrol R…
BA: And the smell of fresh cut grass in the paddock used for the pits and other things in the air – it was heady stuff you know. It was a big grid, guys on 7Rs, G45s, Manxs and KTT Velocettes, loads of that stuff. The Junior race for 350s, then a Senior race for the 500s. They’d have Clubmans races in those days. If you were good enough on a Clubmans bike you could probably even ride it in the other factory categories, but that very rarely happened.
LW: When did you get your first bike?
BA: I bought my Manx Norton in 84. That was the first Norton that Ken [McIntosh] restored.2
LW: It’s the first McIntosh Norton?
BA: It was a 350 Manx, a Ray Petty bike. Ray was one of the great engine-tuners in England and he made a lot of special modifications, like the big disc on the front wheel, which was not a brake but a cooling ring. Ray was very clever like that. He prepared bikes for Derek Minter (the ‘King of Brands’ [Hatch]). I used to go to London from New York. I’d go to where Ray lived down by Farnborough. There’d always be the smell of coal burning in the air because he had a pot belly stove going in his workshop to keep warm. I’d stay for lunch and I’d walk away with parts for my Manx – a tank or whatever. But in the end we didn’t actually use much because it wasn’t good enough, so Ken turned around and started remaking all the stuff. My 350 Manx was owned by Peter Pawson in 1961, and I got to know Peter very well. He’s a deer farmer in the foothills of the Kaimai Ranges. I asked him to ride the bike for me, but he didn’t want to race it. He was happy to just parade – his racing days were over. Unlike Hugh Anderson, ex-world champion, who still likes a good race!
BA: I think it’s the right time to say that it began as my hobby, but now I use my GP bikes and racing cars in sound works like The Art Circuit at the Auckland Art Gallery last year. It’s no different to Nick Mason, the drummer from Pink Floyd; he has an incredible Grand Prix car collection which he recorded and released on CD, In the Red. I feel the same way – it’s all about culture. I’m a collector. I do not ride or drive, I don’t know how to ride.
LW: You never wanted to jump on and go for a hoon?
BA: No. But I’m very competitive as an owner when we race. I’m not interested in second.
LW: My grandad used to say ‘second is just a fancy name for loser’…
BA: When they had this big international (NZCMRR) meet at Pukekohe Raceway in 2002 Ken cleverly converted the gear change over from right to left and he put Jason McEwan on the bike – a current Superbike rider. I was so enthralled with the meeting and smell of Elf oxygenated fuel in the air. Anyhow, Jason put the bike on pole in the first race of the series and was coming over the hill for the last time, one lap to go, weaving his way through the pack; he went into the S-bend and came out of the back corner first, so I’m thinking they’ll never catch him, and holy fuck, he puts his hand up and he’s missed a gear and blown up my engine!
LW: Yeah, I was going to ask if any of your bikes have been crashed?
BA: Ken has certainly dumped my bike once or twice – not always his fault, like you get someone else who can’t hold his line on a corner. But he dumped the bike once and walked back with the tank in his hands! I wasn’t too upset, I knew very well he could put it all back together like brand new, because he makes it all anyway. But the bill was expensive.
On John Britten
BA: John rode my 500 Manx at Pukekohe back in early 95. He brought a Britten up to Pukekohe and Bob Brookland came up with him.3 Ken had said to John ‘You can ride any of my bikes’, so John had a chance to ride some pre-war racing bikes, including the 500 Manx Norton, which I owned. I talked to John as he was going to get on the bike. I told him he should take a quiet run down the pit lane just to get used to it, because the gears had a different setup. He didn’t know it was my bike at that point. After the race, he came back with a huge grin on his face and I said ‘How did you enjoy that?’ He said ‘Is it your bike?’ and I said ‘Yes, that’s why I wanted you to get the gears right!’ So I got to know John. Anyhow, he wanted a Manx and Ken said, ‘Billy, if you give him the Manx with a bit of a top up you can have this Britten.’
LW: Oh wow. You didn’t you go for that?
BA: Well, in life you end up doing silly things, don’t you, and years later you think bugger…
LW: So did you get to know John through race meetings after that?
BA: The link between John Britten and myself is this Manx Norton. When John died, it was terribly sad. The New Zealand Herald published a picture of John sitting on the Manx at the circuit – my motorbike, not his own. It should have been his bike – the Britten!
LW: Why didn’t they use a Britten?
BA: I have no idea why it happened. It was a great shot of John on the Manx. It’s just that it should have been his bike…
LW: All the stories I’ve heard about John make him seem super resourceful. I remember one story about when they took a bike to America once – one of the piston sleeves in the cylinder split and they couldn’t get another sleeve in time (this was maybe 12 hours till the race), so they pulled the engine apart, they pulled the sleeve out, and they re-welded the same sleeve. They weren’t even sure it would work, but John was like, we’ve got to do something, we’ve come all this way.
BA: But that was him. He was a real renaissance man. That wouldn’t worry John. A problem always had a solution.
LW: So would you say your passion is for engineering as much as motorcycles? Because you’re into cars too…
BA: Well it’s also about technology. I’m very fussy about accuracy and authenticity. I have gone to endless lengths to get parts and information during the restorations on my collection of race vehicles.
BA: We always assumed that the BEARS trophy was broken in the earthquake, the crystal trophy, but Felicity [Milburn, Gallery curator] told me today that it’s totally intact. It was made in Czechoslovakia and it has Andrew Stroud’s name engraved on it for winning the World Champs.4 Absolutely fantastic, so we’re getting that to exhibit too. It’s gonna be exhibited as a little side piece. There’s a photo of the podium with Stroud holding it up after the final race at Assen at the end of the six rounds. Stroud only rode five and still won it. He missed Monza because he was riding Team Max’s Yamaha in the Malaysia round of the FIM World 500 GP Championship. When he was riding that Britten it wasn’t the only thing he did – he rode GP and long-distance races – eight hours at Suzuka and that sort of thing. He just fucking rode the Britten whenever he could.
LW: I remember seeing footage of that Daytona race, you know when he was winning and he was popping wheelies next to the Ducati, but then it crapped out at the end.
BA: I’ve seen Andrew come over the hill at Pukekohe on the back wheel of the Britten, go down the main straight and around the corner, all on the back wheel!
LW: That reminds me of another story about Daytona, how when they got there – I think Daytona was the first race where they performed very well, and it was the second time at Daytona…
BA: It took a while.
LW: But apparently they pulled used tyres out of rubbish bins. They were using other people’s throwaway tyres!
BA: Bob Brookland is making the paintings for me. In the Britten’s colours and paints.
LW: I remember hearing somewhere that the blue – I know you’re into your colours – was from a bit of blue glass John had brought back from Australia? That’s the blue the Brittens were based on. Is that true?
BA: I don’t know. But John was a very great friend of Bob’s. Bob describes him as one of his best friends, and I can understand that. They worked it out together, and Bob, being from the graphics side of things, painted all the bikes, produced all the t-shirts, did all the graphic design. I had a meeting here today with him. He came to the Gallery and I’m thrilled that he’s painting the canvases for me. So I have the painter of the Brittens painting my artwork’s designs using automotive paints – the same PPG paints the bikes are painted with. So I’m happy with that, and it’s lovely to bring Bob into it.
LW: I think that would be nice too, because John Britten has become such a legend, people don’t necessarily appreciate how many other people worked on that bike.
Great Britten! A Work by Billy Appleis on display from 16 July until 6 November 2016