The Rocky Balboa of New Zealand

Posted on October 16, 2014 by Robert Ringer


A friend of mine just returned from a trip Down Under, and I was saddened to hear him tell me that the visible destruction in Christchurch, New Zealand, my one-time home, is still enormous. Christchurch suffered a 6.3 magnitude earthquake in 2011 that killed one hundred eighty-five people and destroyed scores of buildings.

This got me thinking back to one of the most amazing people I have ever known, my one-time Christchurch neighbour John Britten. John was a quiet, modest, unassuming, and totally focused individual with an instant likeability about him.

His life story is nothing short of fascinating. He was born with a serious learning disability that made reading extremely difficult. Not able to learn in conventional schools, he attended night school and eventually earned an engineering degree from Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology. His determination to earn a degree — and, more important, gain precious knowledge — was a sign of things to come.

Some years before I met him, John began building, of all things, a futuristic motorcycle in his garage. His stated goal was to win the prestigious Battle of the Twins international cycle race in Daytona Beach, Florida.

His cutting-edge motorcycle involved over six thousand parts, most of which Britten hand-made. With the notable exception of the engine, his extraordinary machine was constructed primarily of carbon fibre, a first for the motorcycle industry.

John had such a magnetic personality that a number of dedicated helpers worked for free, mostly at night, while holding down full-time jobs during the day. Incredibly, the actual cost of Britten’s masterpiece was not more than a few hundred dollars, while many large corporate sponsors spent several million dollars on their entries.

Toiling around the clock became his trademark, and working while others slept was a Britten norm that was accepted by those who agreed to become involved in his projects. Anything short of a superhuman pace would have made it impossible for him to build his one-of-a-kind cycle from scratch in just under eleven months, barely finishing in time for the Battle of the Twins event in Daytona.

But just three weeks before the big race, Britten’s carbon-fibre cycle crashed while being tested. It was a cruel blow, considering all the man hours that had gone into building it. The task of locating and correcting the problem, then repairing the bike, seemed insurmountable, but John and his crew again managed to overcome all obstacles and arrive in Daytona just in time for the race.

But during the qualifying run, disaster again struck. Just twelve hours before race time, a hairline crack in a cylinder sleeve — one of the few parts John had not built himself — threatened to end his bid for the unofficial world championship for twin-cylinder motorcycles.

His reaction? After tireless but fruitless efforts to find the right spare part in the Daytona area, John, who had no previous experience in welding cylinder sleeves, repaired the broken part himself.

By race time, he had been awake forty-seven hours straight. But as events unfolded, it looked as though the monumental effort by him and his team would finally pay off. Once again, however, like a scene from of a depressing movie, bad luck reared its ugly head. With his cycle leading the pack, rain forced an end to the race one lap from the finish, which meant the entire race had to be run over.

In the restarted race, Britten’s cycle again led the pack most of the way, until — you guessed it — yet another non-Britten-built part, a faulty rectifier, halted his bid for victory once and for all. John Britten had captured the admiration of the racing world, but had failed to come home with a trophy.

But when Britten returned to New Zealand, he didn’t waste time focusing on the bad breaks he had experienced in Daytona. Instead, he went right back to work, rebuilt his handcrafted motorcycle, and returned to Daytona the following year. And this time, he finally won the Battle of the Twins championship, a Rocky Balboa finish if there ever was one.

The victory doesn’t end there. The first commercial version of the Britten motorcycle sold for a record $140,000. Not a bad return on the few hundred dollars he had spent on the design and construction of the original model.

The moral to this story is that most bad breaks, particularly those that do not involve life-changing injury, terminal illness, or death, are no match for human intervention. As Benjamin Disraeli said, “Man is not the creature of circumstances, circumstances are the creature of man. We are free agents, and man is more powerful than matter.”

jb1Intangibles such as focus, commitment, action, and determination, all of which John Britten displayed in abundance, have a way of rearranging the playing field, notwithstanding injustices harsh enough to bring most of us to our mental knees. John demonstrated that a determined, focused individual can overcome most of the bad obstacles life puts in his path.

Ironically, though Britten was a master at overcoming adversity, shortly after winning the Daytona title — in the prime of his life at age forty-four and hard at work on a revolutionary new airplane — he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Mercifully, he passed away quickly, on September 5, 1995, but it was a sad ending for those of us who knew him.

It was a grim reminder for me that the typical injustices we encounter in our day-to-day lives are rarely of major importance. They could be more properly be categorized as the “daily cares of life” — the little irritants that gave birth to Murphy’s Law, especially the part that states, “If anything can go wrong, it will, at the worst possible moment.”

But it’s nice to know that the daily cares of life, as well as major setbacks, can usually be overcome by anyone who is intensely focused on a goal and determined to attain that goal at almost any cost. And that, in a nutshell, describes John Britten perfectly. He is one of the few people about whom I can say that I feel truly honored to have known him. A genuinely nice guy and a truly great man.


Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

16 responses to “The Rocky Balboa of New Zealand”

  1. retlob1 says:

    The world needs more people like John! Great post Robert!

  2. Jim Hallett says:

    Good story about overcoming whatever obstacles come one's way. I think you have written about John in the past, as I especially pay attention to anything about NZ, the world's most beautiful country. Sorry to hear Christchurch has not rebuilt totally yet, as that is the area I would settle in on the South Island should I get to spend North American winters there as I desire. Many in the world starve and face huge problems, while most Americans gripe about things like burnt toast, or someone disrespecting them by looking at them funny, or other nonsense!

  3. Following on from that other great South Island motorcyclist Burt Munro whose story was told in the heart warming movie The World's Fastest Indian. Another example of triumph over adversity. And then there was Edmund Hillary who conquered Mt Everest. For a small country we Kiwis have not done too badly on the world stage.

  4. @vickytnz says:

    As an avid reader of your posts, I was surprised you'd spent time in NZ and awed you actually knew the legendary John Britten (even if he in a way is the best and the worst of the 'number 8 wire' Kiwi inventor mentality). Cheers from a grateful Kiwi.

    • Robert Ringer RJR says:

      There has never been a more unassuming, instantly likable guy than John Britten. Nor anyone as driven to perfection.

  5. Roger Roger Wickham says:

    Great story, Robert.. Thx.

  6. cspkeynes says:

    Who is John Galt ? John Britten .

  7. american real says:

    wonderful tribute, thank you for sharing. John Britten continues to influence lives even now.

  8. Mpho Rammusi says:

    Great story and thank you for inspiring us with it .

  9. Richard Lee Van says:

    Persistence Pays! If the persistent one has intelligence and skills of course.

  10. I’ve met….and heard of/read of….people like John Britten. We are amazed at their energy, their intelligence, their “drive to perfection,” their ability to handle adversity, They are a delight to be around and an inspiration to us all. They are “super people!” The tragedy is that….as Billy Joel said in his song: “only the good die young….” These super people seem to be on a crash course to an early grave, so they in some sense “compress” more living into a short life span than we could even comprehend. Much like Alexander the Great, and he died at 32. What I don’t find in all the accolades are words like contentment, being at peace with one’s self, being able to putter around and NOT be productive on occasion. They burn their candles on both ends AND the middle and everywhere in between. Just something to think about for us all.

  11. Serge says:

    I'll bet that he has inspired many to build there own niche or empire be it small or large. We will never know whom they are, but they are out there because of him.

  12. Rob Bonter says:

    Others may focus upon the negatively-disposed "Murphy's Law," I prefer to evoke the positive Buddhist term "Hendoku Iyaku," which means "Changing poison into medicine," every time I experience a set-back in my life.

    As soon as you become conscious of this truism you begin to recognize the myriad larger benefits which accrue in your life from what you originally perceived as a defeat or negative outcome situation. It almost never fails.

    My favorite example of this is when, years ago, I was fired as an assistant manager in the movie theater business. At the suggestion of a friend, I enrolled in a bartender school, and upon graduating, they used their contacts to place me with an upscale NYC East Side singles bar. In less than a year of working there, I took my savings from this job and took a six month dream vacation in Europe (Copenhagen, Nice, Rome, London) which turned out to be the best social and cultural experience of my adult lifetime.

    So celebrate those reversals in your life as they accumulate. Something bigger and better is waiting for you just around the corner.

  13. Gregory G Corradino says:

    Inspiring, but sad. Thank you for posting, sir.

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