Tuesday, August 26, 2008
No, it wasn't Italian, or Japanese... it was Belgian. In the second Isle of Man TT, held in 1908, Fabrique Nationale de Herstal (or F.N. - still in business, but making only armaments these days) sent two of their little inline 4-cylinder shaft-drive Model F machines to the Island, and R.O. Clark managed third place in the Multi-Cylinder class (which Rem Fowler won on a Norton in 1907), averaging 37.79mph, and 90mpg! The race was held on September 22, and the 'short' St.John's course over 10 laps gave a race total of 158 1/8th miles. Harry Reed on a 5hp DOT twin was the winner of this class (at 38.57mph), while Jack Marshall won the Single Cylinder class on a 3.5hp Triumph (40.4mph).
The FN had a serious weight handicap compared to other machines, tipping the scales at at well over 300lbs, while the Triumph single was a little under 200lbs - the FN was fully 50% heavier than its competition. But, as mentioned in a previous post, weight can be roughly equated with durability, and the FNs ran smoothly and consistently through the race. These early TT races were true tests of endurance for the temperamental motorcycles of the Pioneer days, which had trouble completing ANY 150 mile trip, let alone a race. The TT course itself was unpaved, and full of hazards like horseshoe nails and stray dogs and sheep (!). Flat tires were commonplace, as were get-offs.
FN returned many times to the TT, with their last foray in 1931, using a single-cylinder purpose-built racer. Their 4 cylinder bikes were quickly outclassed in the following years, and by 1913 they could only manage 33rd and 36th place, as by now their role as 'touring' motorcycles, and luxuriously smooth ones at that, made them unsuitable as 'tourist trophy' contenders.
A little FN history; the motorcycle was designed by Paul Kelecom (pictured) in 1904 - Kelecom had been designing single-cylinder motorcycle engines for several years prior, which were used under license by a host of Pioneer manufacturers, including Triumph and Veloce. Kelecom began working for FN in 1903, and after improving their existing line of single-cylinder 300cc sidevalve engines, the management gave him a new brief - to design a four-cylinder motorcycle. All of Kelecom's design work was completed within the year, and the first prototype of this revolutionary machine began testing in 1904. Its maiden voyage was a publicity tour in November and December of that year, in which the FN engineering dep't tester, a Messr Osmont, rode through France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and back through Holland and Belgium, in bad weather and worse road conditions. The new 4 performed faultlessly, and debuted at the 1905 Paris Cycle Show. The interest and enthusiasm for this novel motorcycle is hard to describe - Kelecom had created the very first practical four-cylinder motorcycle, which had a smooth and quiet engine, with genteel road manners.
This first machine had a capacity of 362cc, using side exhaust valves and 'automatic' inlet valves (ie, weak springs, no pushrod - the engine suction pulls the valve open). It was a 'wet sump' engine, and each connecting rod had a small dipper which flung oil around the crankcase. This was also one of the first motorcycles which used a magneto rather than the horrible battery ignitions of other Pioneer machines.
The frame was a full cradle, which suspended the motor from twin rails. Most impressively, Kelecom used an enclosed shaft drive, with full ball bearings and enclosed crownwheels, which then as now makes the cleanest and least labor-intensive drive system. The engine was started by bicycle pedals attached to the rear wheel by a chain on the 'other' side of the bike - so the FN had a shaft AND chain... until 1913 in fact, but this held no terrors as the engine would have been very easy to spin, with very low compression and little mechanical drag from encumbrances like strong valve springs, or a gearbox. There were two brakes - a coaster-type (actuated by backpedalling) in a rear drum, and a stirrup on the rear rim, which was hand-lever operated.
Our TT machine was very likely still direct-drive, although aftermarket kits manufactured by Englishman Sydney Horstmann (OBE) provided a two-speed kit with a clutch by 1908 (he also made an overhead-cam kit for the FN, which I'd love to see). The engine capacity in 1907 was increased to 410cc, and it is likely the TT machine was overbored to nearer 500cc.
[The machine pictured is a 1905 model, in the care of the Nichols family... ca. 1973 (only 72 years young...now the bike is 103, and counting). This and other photos are from the book 'Golden Age of the Fours', by T.A. Hodgdon, Bagnall Publishing, 1973 - a very useful book, written in a folksy style, but well-researched and illustrated.]