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.]


Anonymous said...

Hello Paul.

My name is Marten Thuresson and I'm writing to thank you for the excellent work you are doing with your blog.
I found the blog via The Classic Bike forum and I must say that I'm duly impressed with the quality of your work.

I'm working in the Swedish merchant marine and we freight newsprint paper to Philadelphia from Europe and recently we installed internet on board. Your blog is ray of light on many a lonely evening on the Atlantic. It is also a sorce of jealosy when I see the nice rideouts you have in northern California, and the mileage some of you guys do! That is impressing.
As a Velo-guy I'm always happy to read and see pictures of Velos in use.

So again, thank you and keep up the good work.

Best regards, Marten.

call me Ray or Jay, just don't call me late for dinner. said...

Hola Paul.

I've always admired the FN4's, and thought that they must represent one of the first touring bikes of high quality. I was surprised to hear from Pete Gagan that he didn't care for his early example. He said that it had very little power and would not accelerate, and felt light and spindly. A comfortable speed was in the mid 20mph range. I'm sure that the AIV didn't help, but still his comments caught me by surprise. I'm pretty sure that he sold the bike soon after we spoke.


vintagent said...

P - Yes, he sold it for a considerable sum as I recall...any motorcycle with an automatic inlet valve will never have more power than a moped, regardless of capacity or engine configuration, as there is less than no overlap on the cam timing. It's a poor system, but I'd love to try the ohc conversion on the FN! Paul

Anonymous said...

Very good blog.

Thanks for the nice description of the 1st 4 cylinders as created by my grandfather.

My father, last son of Paul Kelecom is still alive and add worked at the FN motor cycles times.

Are there info you are interested in in and that we could provide ?

Baudouin Kelecom

Anonymous said...

Nice to know the name Kelecom still lives around. There aren't many.
I live in Belgium where there are something like 100 Kelecom's alive.
Interested to see the family tree

Yan Kelecom

Anonymous said...

Hello Vintagent, a very late comment on the excellent article from 2008.

There are still a few unknowns of these masterpieces left. I happen to own one FN 4 cyl 500 cc, a gift from my Grandfather many years ago. It was on it's way to scrapping but I took care of it in 1964 as a 12 year old boy without any idea of what it was. I have estimated the age to before 1909 due to the ignition magnet's orientation downwards. I have found information that the magnet was turned upwards from 1910 and on.

It is almost complete. It was sold in Sweden under the trademark "Nordstjernan" (the Northern Star"), which also was beautifully painted in gold on the gas tank.

I am of course interested in more facts and help bringing it back in shape again, but i prefer remaining anonymous for the time being, keeping it in a secret place. Also, an idea of how many of these there are still around and if it is possible to study one somewhere in Europe.

For insurance reasons (it is not for sale), what would be the value on the market for an FN 4 1908 in "decent" shape, well suited for refurbishing?