Having finished my walk through the first row of the Paddock at the Barber Vintage Festival, I turned down the hill and into the middle of the three streets inside the pit area.
Being a Vintage Motorcycle Festival, I guess the appearance of a nearly completely vintage motorcycle race team should have been completely unsurprising.
I mean, I guess if you’re going to campaign two vintage mid 1960s Honda racebikes, I guess you’re pretty much required to have the matching vintage lawnchair and mid 1960s Econoline transporter van.
The only thing missing is a vintage motorcyclist.
I’m available, if these guys are looking to complete their set.
Right across the way was a team that seemed to have a thing for Laverdas. They had this lovely Formula 500 Cup race bike.
And if orange is your thing, why stop at one?
Just down the row, was a team campaigning two of the most beautiful Norton racers I’ve ever seen.
They had this beautiful postwar Norton International.
Not being a Norton expert all I have to go on is the Telescopic Fork — the 30’s vintage bikes still had girder front ends. The International, with its shaft driven single overhead cam motor, became the basis for the Manx, a machine purpose-built to dominate the TT at the Isle of Man.
With its uprated double overhead cam 500 cc single, and it twin loop Featherbed frame replacing the International’s single downtube unit, the Manx became one of the more successful racing motorcycles of all time. The Featherbed frame was light, short, and rigid, at least by the standards of its day, and its performance in the 1950 TT, where Maxes swept the first six positions, confirmed the correctness of its design execution. The Manx would remain largely unchanged until the end of production in 1963.
This example is breathtaking. It is classic racebike porn — impossible to stop staring at. It has everything a racebike needs and nothing that it does not.
My rambles through the pits were interrupted by events taking place on the racecourse. At around lunchtime, The Lap of The Century was scheduled to occur, which features bikes that must be at least 100 years old. I headed towards the race control tower, which has balconies which offer a commanding view of the track.
As I headed for the stairway, these early Harley Davidsons — looks like one 1909 and one 1911 — were picking up some fuel in preparation for their lap.
I must tell the truth. The Lap of the Century is somewhat less than thrilling.
For motorcycles that, in their prime, were good for a downhill tailwind enabled 65 miles per hour, a complete lap at an average of 45 per is running them at a pretty good clip.
But after watching racing laps that maxed out at around a buck fifty, the old fellers putting around can find you looking at your watch as you’re waiting for the pack to come back into view out of the treeline at the other end of the track. And maybe making a phonecall. And playing a hand of bridge.
Kidding aside, the thrill here is that these motorcycles are alive and running at all.
And the sweet syncopated thumps of all of these VTwins echoing off the forest at the edge of the park, combined with the sight of their muted paintjobs — browns and greys and bungundies — coming through the mist that still hadn’t completely cleared off — made it almost possible to believe you were somehow inexplicably peering back in time.
Reinforcing the illusion was the battle — or lack of it — out on the racecourse. I’ve seen this combustion fueled drama before. Just as at was in 1912, by the end of the run down the main straight, there were Hendersons and Indians battling up front, and Harley Davidsons following them doggedly home.
I also have to come clean, that while I wanted to see those century bikes run, it wasn’t the most important reason I’d found my way to the baconies of the Race Control Tower.
After the old ones were flagged in — one old Indian oil smoking impressively from every engine surface — the next scheduled event was ‘The Britten Reunion’.
As the bikes were started, warmed and made ready, my buddies from breakfast appeared against the pit wall.
Then seven of the ten Britten V1000s even made took to the circuit to put on a little show.
The one thing that sticks out in my head is the sound. The sound of the Britten Vtwin is a flat, fast revving metallic Braaaaap — sounding vaguely like God’s Own Chainsaw.
I wish I understood the engineering enough to know why newer tech engines sound this way — Sweet Doris’ beloved and now gone Nissan 350Z partook of the same metallic sonic palette — but no motorcycle I’ve ever ridden or VTwin I’ve been near ever sounded like these Britten motorcycles sounded that day.
The various racers that piloted them took about 7 laps of fun — doing some good hearted dicing — snapping in and out of corners — and some bikey showing off. Although not being run in anger, the sight of one of them pulling a long, effortless fourth gear power wheelie coming down the main straight is one that’s likely to stick with me for quite some time.
The magic was too soon over as the Brittens were flagged off the track.
The track announcer did us all the favor of directing us to the Team Britten New Zealand tent, where all the motorcycles and the team would be gathered to meet with their fans.
He didn’t have to tell me twice.
The Britten pit was right to the left of the Control Tower, so I actually got there as the last several bikes rolled up and were placed on their stands.
I’ll spare people the endless spiel on the engineering on display on the bike — the Hossack front end, the underseat radiator, the carbon fiber, well, everything. The intent was so max out chassis rigidity, reduce mass to an absolute minimum, and centralize everything that was left. The radiator placement and narrowness of the machine minimized frontal area and drag.
Watching them ridden one could directly observe the effortless, crisp handling that results — The Britten is the kind of motorcycle where if one can visualize your line, you’ve already ridden it.
I’ll admit I spent a lot of time just drinking the appearance of theses machines in. The more one looks the more one sees. I did what I could to make sure my mouth stayed mostly closed.
If you owned one of these, people would have to have your meals brought to the garage.
Swag is just not my thing.
One of the joys of motorcycle travel is that in its most extreme form, you don’t have any room for swag, so temptation is futile.
I will admit that I have some simple grey jersey T-shirts with just the Barber’s logo on the chest, but nothing they sell is that elegant any more. The museum shop’s selection is awash in old iron and wind and complex graphics and is altogether too visually busy for my tastes.
No matter, I figured that Team Britten might have something worthy, so I ventured inside their pretty substantial tent.
Andrew Stroud — who had ridden Brittens for years — had been provided with a place of honor for his bike inside the tent. You can make of Andrew’s carbon fiber cane what you will. That’s racing.
With Andrew’s bike was, well, Andrew. Along with this enthusiast fan, who, being at the racetrack was involved in the great fun of telling lies, which, judging from the gestures, were subject to getting continually larger the longer they were told.
As I worked my way around to the front of the tent, the swag was on full display. Most of it was of minimal interest, but they did have some polo shirts which struck me as perfect. While appearing to be black, on closer inspection the weave was meant to resemble carbon fiber, and the shirt had a “Team Britten New Zealand” logo on the chest, and the Barber Museum’s Checkered Flag logo on the right sleeve.
So I got into line and readied my wallet for action.
When I got to the front of the line I my order was taken by a nice lady with an obvious New Zealand accent who, upon very brief reflection, turned out to be John Britten’s wife, Kirsteen, who then passed me off to another nice young lady to fill my order, who turned out to be Jess Britten, their youngest daughter.
I thought it was pretty cool to obtain my swag right from the source, in this way.
It’s also a pretty cool shirt.