Historic Motorcycle Brands
From 1901 until 1967 FN was a Belgian motorcycle manufacturer, producing the first four-cylinder motorcycles, with shaft-drive in all models from 1903 to 1923. FN achieved success in sprint and long-distance motorcycle racing, and after 1945, in motocross.
1905 FN 363cc four-cylinder – Yesterdays Antique Motorcycles
In 1889, FN (Fabrique Nationale de Herstal) was established in Belgium, to make arms and ammunition. In 1899, FN made shaft- and chain-driven bicycles, and in 1900 experimented with a clip-on engine.
In December 1901, the first 133cc single-cylinder motorcycle was built, followed in 1903 by a shaft-driven 188 cc single-cylinder motorcycle.
In 1904, a 300cc single-cylinder motorcycle was produced.
1909 FN single – Veteran Car Club of South Australia
In 1905, the first 362cc, shaft-drive, in-line FN four-cylinder motorcycle appeared, designed by Paul Kelecom. It featured inlet-over-exhaust valve, five-bearing crank design and was the world’s first series-manufactured, four-cylinder motorcycle. By 1907 the Four engine had grown to 412 cc.
The 1907 single-cylinder, 244cc FN motorcycle was the first bike with a multiple-ratio belt drive system, using a patented variable-size engine-output pulley.
FN four-cylinder motorcycle engine – Rankin Kennedy
The FN four was very advanced for its time, featuring an in-line, air-cooled four-cylinder engine and bevel gear shaft drive, at a time when most bikes had single-cylinder engines and belt drive.
However, the initial four-stroke engine displaced only 362cc and produced a claimed 3.45bhp (2.6kW) at 1800rpm. It also had bicycle-pedal engine start, no gearbox and and optional clutch.
It’s difficult to imagine what the lack of a gearbox meant to riders, trying to get their FNs up and down gradients, where quite often they had to get off and push up hills. Little wonder a two-speed box was later offered.
Steep descents with no engine braking and a tiny rear-wheel drum brake would also have been ‘interesting’!
FN Four – Charles S Lake
Those of us unfamiliar with ‘atmospheric inlet valves’ need to understand that, while the exhaust valves were camshaft-driven, the inlet valves sat in the inlet manifold, controlled only by atmospheric pressure and lightweight coil springs.
When a descending piston lowered cylinder pressure, atmospheric pressure exceeded the seating pressure of the spring and the valve opened. When the piston moved back up the cylinder, the pressure differential ended and the spring closed the valve once more. The valve springs needed constant maintenance.
For 1908, the US-Export model went into production and was big hit in the USA, no doubt inspiring in-line-four designs from US makers, Henderson and Pierce. At the same time, the Four’s engine size grew to 493cc engine. In 1910, the Four’s engine was 498cc, in a bike that weighed only 75kg and could do 64km/h.
In 1908, R O Clark of England took third place in the Multi-cylinder Class. He was well known for his early involvement in motorcycling events and distance records on FN motorcycles. He entered the 1909 TT but did not finish.
FN Four – Charles S Lake
In 1909, FN two-speed singles had camshafts to open the inlet valves, instead of the earlier ‘automatic’ valves. Starting from 1912 the singles had a hand lever clutch and foot pedal rear brake.
Two FN fours were entered in the isle of Man TT, in 1914, by S B White and Rex Mundy, but they finished well down the field. Their engines were 500cc, not the production 748cc, to suit the class rules.
For 1914, the FN ‘Type 700’, 748cc Four was released, with the gearbox at the rear of the engine.
1913 FN Four – Jeff Dean
During World War I, FN was forced to manufacture motorcycles for the occupying German Army, so it greeted the post-War scene with few parts left and some of its previous suppliers no longer in business.
The FN Type 700T Four didn’t appear until 1921 and featured a three-speed gearbox. In 1922 the Type 285TT single had an improved cylinder head. Also the first racer, the Type VII was built.
1920 FN 285T side-valve – Yesterdays Antique Motorcycles
From 1924, all models had less-expensive chain drive. Most of these were side-valve and overhead-valve, 348cc and 498cc singles.
The FN M70 ‘Sahara’, 348cc side-valve model was the most produced FN motorcycle of the inter-war period. The external flywheel of the early models was coloured red, hence the model’s original nickname of ‘Moulin Rouge’ (red windmill).
1928 FN M70 348cc Sahara – RAF Museum Hendon
It then scored the signature ’Sahara’ name, following a successful crossing of the Sahara in April, May and June 1927. To prove the model’s reliability, two French army officers, Captain Bruneteau and Lieutenant-Colonel Gimie, and a Belgian mechanic, Joseph Weerens, rode identical 350 FN M70s across this giant African desert. The bikes had slight modifications, including larger tanks and saddlebags.
The M70s covered a distance of 8800km, including 6300km of desert, without any major drama.
1935 FN M86 – HD Classics
The FN M86 and M90 were 498cc, side-valve and OHV models that were produced in the 1930s. There were also 596cc OHV machines.
From 1924, FN single-cylinder engines changed from semi-unit-construction to unit-construction engines, as seen in the new-for-1924 M60.
A new chain-drive M50 Four featured a new Amac carburettor and front brakes. In 1931, a Villiers 198cc, two-stroke FN model appeared.
The year before, with Handley or Dougal Marchant aboard, FNs with 350cc and 500cc engines had set speed records at Arpajon and Montlhery, recording speeds up to 192.7km/h. At the end of 1930, FN held 33 World Records.
1939 FN M71 350cc
In 1931, Wal Handley was entered on an FN in the IoM TT, instead of his usual Rudge, but his FN broke down in practice, so he qualified on a Rudge. FN repaired the bike, but it failed during the race, with gearbox problems.
Dougal Marchant had joined FN in 1930 and created some fast 348cc and 498cc, overhead-camshaft, racing singles.
1938 FN Supercharged 500cc Twin – Mister G
Van Hout developed these in the following years, and then, in 1937, designed a supercharged 498cc, vertical-twin, OHC racer, ridden in 1938 by ‘Ginger’ Wood. However, the bike’s potential was never realised, because of the looming war clouds over Europe.
In 1938, the M12 was powered by a purpose-designed, 992cc, air-cooled, side-valve, flat-twin (boxer) engine for military use.
1939 FN M86 single 600cc OHV – Yesterdays
The aluminium-alloy-engined M11 was released in 350cc OHV, 500cc and 600cc side-valve models. Then World War II intervened.
FN’s M12 Tri-car was developed and produced for military use, but couldn’t be used by the Belgian Army before the Nazi invasion. The Wehrmacht successfully employed the M12 during the War, taking advantage of its four-soldier, or 550kg payload capacity.
FN M12a – V Sheyanov
After the War, FN built unit-construction side-valve and OHV 249cc, 344cc, 444cc and 498cc models, along with two-stroke models from 49cc singles, to 248cc twins. The two-stroke models used German JLO engines.
The semi-unit-engined Tri-car was released for civilian commercial use as the Tri-car T-8, with a five-speed gearbox.
1949 FN M13 – Yesterdays
In 1947 the MXIII was available in 250cc OHV, 350cc OHV, 350cc side-valve, 450cc OHV and 450cc side-valve configurations. The first model used an unusual patented Swiss coil-sprung, girder front fork and rubber rear suspension.
In 1948, the Swiss forks were replaced with an adaptation of the rubber rear suspension and that was improved further.
1955 FN M13 – Classic Motorcycles Netherlands
In 1951 the option of telescopic forks was introduced. And, in 1954, a swing-arm frame was introduced. By 1958, the MXIII toolbox was incorporated into the fuel tank pressing.
There was some post-War success in international 250cc and 500cc motocross, with riders including Mingels, Leloup and Beaten, but FN withdrew from competition at the end of the 1950s.
1957 FN Cross 500cc – Alf van Beem
FN last exhibited at a motorcycle show in 1965 and MXIII production ceased in 1966. In May 1967 the last FN moped left the factory.
1960 FN Cross 250cc – Davide Marelli