FN 350 Built like a gun

Old Bike Australasia - - CONTENTS -

Sev­eral mo­tor­cy­cle com­pa­nies around the world started out as man­u­fac­tur­ers of guns and other ar­ma­ments be­fore go­ing on to ar­guably bet­ter and cer­tainly safer things. Along­side BSA, Royal En­field, CZ, Husq­varna and Benelli, the one which started it all was FN, the Bel­gian na­tional ord­nance fac­tory es­tab­lished in 1889 at Her­stal, just out­side Liège, to make arms and am­mu­ni­tion, which from 1901 to 1967 also built mo­tor­cy­cles.

FN – stand­ing for Fabrique Na­tionale (d'Armes de Guerre) – man­u­fac­tured the world's first pro­duc­tion four-cylin­der mo­tor­cy­cle, was noted for the use of shaft fi­nal drive on the ma­jor­ity of its models built from 1903 to 1923 (rather than the cheaper and less ef­fec­tive belts), and achieved some suc­cess in Grand Prix road rac­ing and es­pe­cially Mo­tocross with a range of of­ten idio­syn­crat­i­cally de­vel­oped ma­chines. To­day it still pro­duces a wide range of well-re­spected ar­ma­ments – but noth­ing any more with wheels and an en­gine. In 1899, FN had be­gun build­ing shaft and chain­driven bi­cy­cles as a side­line, and in 1900 ex­per­i­mented with a clip-on four-stroke en­gine to pro­duce its first pow­ered two-wheeler. In De­cem­ber 1901, the first 133cc sin­gle-cylin­der FN mo­tor­cy­cle ap­peared, fol­lowed in 1903 by a 188cc model with shaft fi­nal drive. Af­ter the suc­cess of these de­but sin­gles, FN took a gi­ant step for­ward late in 1904

Story Alan Cath­cart Pho­tos Kel Edge

with the in­tro­duc­tion of what was un­doubt­edly for its time the most so­phis­ti­cated mo­tor­cy­cle yet built any­where. This was the world's first four-cylin­der two-wheeler to be man­u­fac­tured for sale, with an air-cooled in­line 362cc mo­tor placed length­ways in the frame. It was de­signed by FN en­gi­neer Paul Kele­com, and by 1908 the FN four had a two-speed trans­mis­sion with a foot-op­er­ated sin­gle-plate clutch and shaft fi­nal drive. In 1910 Kele­com en­larged the en­gine to 498cc. The FN fours were now be­ing ex­ported all over the world, es­pe­cially to the USA from 1908 on­wards. There, they pro­vided the di­rect in­spi­ra­tion for the first Amer­i­can Four built by Pierce, which en­tered pro­duc­tion in 1909, fol­lowed soon af­ter by the Hen­der­son Four. For 1914 the 748cc FN Type 700 Four was in­tro­duced, with the gear­box and clutch now at the rear of the en­gine – but the on­set of war later that year saw the Her­stal fac­tory swiftly taken over by Ger­man troops and although mo­tor­cy­cle pro­duc­tion did con­tinue, it was only for its oc­cu­piers. It took time for FN’s fac­to­ries to recom­mence vol­ume man­u­fac­ture post-WW1, es­pe­cially with the dis­ap­pear­ance of many of its sup­pli­ers in the war­rav­aged Ar­dennes re­gion, but from 1921 things got un­der way again, with a three-speed trans­mis­sion now adopted on the new Type 700T Four with its 570cc en­gine. This was ar­guably the most lux­u­ri­ous se­ries pro­duc­tion mo­tor­cy­cle yet built in Europe, which con­tin­ued in pro­duc­tion un­til 1926, when the last shaft-drive four-cylin­der model was de­liv­ered. Post­war Europe de­manded lighter, eas­ier-han­dling and more af­ford­able ma­chines, so FN re­sponded with a new range of sin­gles de­but­ing in 1922 with the Type 285TT, fea­tur­ing over­head valves and chain fi­nal drive. FN sur­vived the De­pres­sion for the sim­ple rea­son that it was a state-fi­nanced com­pany pro­duc­ing the means with which Bel­gium could at­tempt to de­fend it­self against its in­creas­ing mil­i­tant Ger­man neigh­bour. In 1931 a 198cc Vil­lier­spow­ered two-stroke FN model ap­peared, fol­lowed by a range of 500/600cc side­valve sin­gles, and then in 1938, the M.12 992 cc air-cooled side­valve flat­twin – all of them with an eye on mil­i­tary use. Then in 1939 World War II in­ter­vened, and FN mo­tor­cy­cle pro­duc­tion shut down for the du­ra­tion.

The FN fac­tory’s en­trance to com­pet­i­tive sport was her­alded in 1927 by a most dar­ing and suc­cess­ful stunt, when a team of three rid­ers on 350cc ma­chines suc­ceeded in cross­ing the Sa­hara Desert from North to South. The favourable pub­lic­ity this gen­er­ated led to the for­ma­tion of a fac­tory team for road rac­ing, as the firm's di­rec­tors strove to com­bat the ef­fects of the De­pres­sion with pub­lic­ity gained from their com­pe­ti­tion suc­cesses. Post-WW2 Bel­gium be­came the cra­dle of Mo­tocross as we know it to­day, and FN de­vel­oped

a range of of­froad four-stroke thumpers ideally suited to this branch of the sport. A works team was formed and com­peted with co­pi­ous suc­cess all over West­ern Europe in the early ‘50s, with FN rider Vic­tor Leloup win­ning the in­au­gu­ral 1952 Euro­pean 500cc Mo­tocross Cham­pi­onship. The fol­low­ing year Au­guste Min­gels swapped his Saroléa for an FN to win the ti­tle, re­tain­ing his crown the fol­low­ing year. In 1957 the se­ries got World cham­pi­onship sta­tus, with nine races held all over West­ern Europe, and in 1958 FN-mounted René Baeten took the World ti­tle for Bel­gium. Sadly, he was killed to­wards the end of the 1960 sea­son, af­ter which FN re­tired from com­pe­ti­tion in the face of de­clin­ing street­bike sales.

Af­ter the war, FN had ini­tially fo­cused on mo­tor­cy­cle pro­duc­tion at the ex­pense of ar­ma­ments, in an at­tempt to pro­vide a means of per­sonal trans­porta­tion in the war-rav­aged coun­try. Man­u­fac­ture restarted with a line of two-strokes rang­ing from 49cc sin­gles to 248cc twins, sup­ple­mented by the XIII side­valve and ohv range in 249cc, 344cc, 444cc and 498cc ca­pac­i­ties, which de­buted in 1947. These were orig­i­nally avail­able us­ing Nie­man rub­ber-band rear sus­pen­sion, and an un­usual patented Swiss­de­signed coil-sprung trail­ing-link girder fork. In 1951 a tele­scopic fork op­tion was in­tro­duced, with a more con­ven­tional twin-shock swing­ing-arm frame fol­low­ing in 1954. In 1955, FN in­tro­duced a line of out­sourced mopeds, built at the nearby Royal Nord fac­tory and pow­ered by Ger­man JLO en­gines, while sourc­ing 100cc and 200cc two-stroke en­gines for its Type-S range from Saroléa. But in 1965 the XIII range ceased pro­duc­tion, as FN Mo­tos be­came an­other of Europe's many ca­su­al­ties of the Ja­panese on­slaught, un­able (or un­will­ing – they ex­ported very lit­tle in their post­war pro­duc­tion pe­riod) to change to meet the new de­mands of the mar­ket­place. In May 1967 the last FN moped left the fac­tory, which hence­forth fo­cused ex­clu­sively on mak­ing guns and ammo, as it does to­day as part of the Her­stal Group owned by the re­gional gov­ern­ment of Wal­lo­nia (the French-speak­ing prov­ince of south­ern Bel­gium), to­gether with its wholly-owned Amer­i­can sub­sidiaries man­u­fac­tur­ing Winch­ester ri­fles, and Brown­ing pis­tols. FN Her­stal is cur­rently the largest ex­porter of mil­i­tary small arms in Europe. The con­sid­er­able num­ber of FN road­bikes seen at Clas­sic events across Europe shows that they were soundly con­structed and built to last – just like a gun, in­deed! But they’re a com­par­a­tively rare sight­ing in the UK, which makes the two bikes on dis­play at the Sammy Miller Mu­seum on Bri­tain’s South Coast all the more wor­thy of in­spec­tion. One of these is an early Four, but the other is one of the de­cid­edly cu­ri­ous­look­ing post­war XIII range, a side­valve 350 which was FN’s best-sell­ing post­war model, with 3,509 ex­am­ples built be­tween June 1947 and 1958, along­side an­other 1,183 units bear­ing a higher per­for­mance over­head-valve en­gine in the same cy­cle parts. The 1947 bike in the Mu­seum car­ries FN’s de­sign of trail­ing-link front sus­pen­sion, which was also em­ployed on Leloup’s and Min­gels’ cham­pi­onship-win­ning FN mo­tocrossers, so it was ev­i­dently suc­cess­ful in of­fer­ing greater wheel travel and im­proved damp­ing com­pared to a pre­war girder fork. This bike was pur­chased by Miller in Fe­bru­ary 2001 in a shabby but com­plete con­di­tion, even down to the per­ished rub­ber belts com­pris­ing the rear sus­pen­sion on this swingarm model. Af­ter a typ­i­cally com­pre­hen­sive restora­tion by him and his right-hand man Bob Stan­ley, the Miller Mu­seum’s me­chan­i­cal ma­gi­cian, the FN went on dis­play later that year. The front end con­sists of two for­ward­point­ing tubu­lar steel tri­an­gles at­tached top and

bot­tom to each other via hor­i­zon­tal struts, which are joined to­gether ver­ti­cally via a third strut which piv­ots in the steer­ing head to turn the wheel from left to right. Sus­pen­sion is pro­vided by a pair of rods op­er­at­ing the coil springs mounted ei­ther side of the assem­bly via a link­age, in ex­ten­sion. This de­liv­ers quite sub­stan­tial wheel travel for the era, how­ever, rather than em­ploy bear­ings, the pivot points are all made of steel, ground down and then elec­trolyt­i­cally coated with cop­per. This is in­tended to de­liver a more rigid struc­ture, with the cop­per coat­ing act­ing as an anti-fric­tion lin­ing, which in the­ory en­sures a longer life. These pivot links are only guides, keep­ing the wheel in align­ment – but a key is­sue is one of clean­li­ness, mak­ing it im­por­tant to keep the links free of mud and road dirt which might score the cop­per coat­ing, and stiffen up the ac­tion of the links. Pre­sum­ably this was es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult in dirt bike use, when the works FN team must have had to con­stantly re­place the dif­fer­ent el­e­ments in the front sus­pen­sion, so as to keep the cop­per-coated faces clean and func­tion­ing prop­erly. The XIII FN’s hum­ble 344cc side­valve en­gine pro­duces just 14 bhp at 4,000 rpm at the rear wheel, and can be eas­ily coaxed into life thanks to the low 6:1 com­pres­sion ra­tio needed to run on the fuel avail­able in the im­me­di­ate post­war era. Its four­speed gear­box works well via the light clutch. 80 km/h is its max­i­mum com­fort­able cruis­ing speed, but that’s quite am­ple for this child of its times, when even Bel­gium’s long, fast Routes Na­tionales were pock-marked by the rav­ages of war. But you must at all times be aware of the FN’s quite pa­thetic brak­ing, the tiny 140mm front and 180mm rear sin­gle lead­ing-shoe drum brakes have very lit­tle ef­fect in re­duc­ing mo­men­tum on a bike scaling 135kg dry. Those pock marks would have been the mo­tive be­hind the de­vel­op­ment of the FN sin­gle’s trail­inglink front end. I didn’t re­ally suc­ceed in find­ing a proper pot­hole to test it on, but there were enough mini-ridges in the tar­mac to show that the FN’s front end de­sign worked pretty well by the stan­dards of 1947 in ab­sorb­ing road shock, but with a cor­re­spond­ing sense of in­sta­bil­ity, es­pe­cially at low speeds. There, the steer­ing felt very strange – it seemed to have a pen­du­lum ef­fect, per­haps thanks to the plen­ti­ful high-up weight. En­ter­ing a turn the han­dle­bar would flap lazily from side to side in my hands, and there was the con­stant sense that the front wheel would fold on you as you leant into the apex. By re­main­ing at­ten­tive I be­gan to get used to it, but I can’t say it felt very con­fi­dence in­spir­ing, and I can’t imag­ine how Au­guste Min­gels won two Euro­pean MX ti­tles on a bike us­ing this de­vice. Sammy Miller de­scribes the pur­ported ad­van­tages of this sys­tem very suc­cinctly. “Imag­ine the bike is a wheel­bar­row,” he says. “With the FN’s trail­ing link front end, it’s the same as pulling the wheel­bar­row’s sin­gle wheel up and over a kerb be­hind you, whereas it you try to push it for­ward over the kerb in front of you, the wheel just jams, and won’t move for­ward.” I’d been look­ing for­ward to sam­pling the FN’s rub­ber­band rear sus­pen­sion, but sadly the pair of them fit­ted to the XIII from new had per­ished badly by the time Sammy ac­quired the bike, and it’s been im­pos­si­ble to find re­place­ments, So to make the bike ride­able Bob Stan­ley had welded up the rear end to turn it into a rigid-framed bike. At least the orig­i­nal Bel­gian sad­dle fit­ted was nice and springy. FN al­ways re­garded mo­tor­cy­cle man­u­fac­ture as a side­line – un­like BSA for ex­am­ple, or even Royal En­field – so the shut­down of their bike pro­duc­tion in 1967 was a storm the com­pany eas­ily rode out. But dur­ing its 66 years of mo­tor­cy­cle pro­duc­tion the Bel­gian com­pany wasn’t afraid to think out­side the box – and the post-WW2 side­valve sin­gle in the Sammy Miller Mu­seum is a fine ex­am­ple of that al­ter­na­tive thought.

FAR LEFT Bur­ley Bel­gian Au­guste Min­gels wres­tles his FN at the Moto Cross des Na­tions. LEFT Cover of the 1905 FN own­ers man­ual. ABOVE 1950 pho­to­graph of a nat­tily-dressed road tester on a 350 FN.

ABOVE An­other FN In­no­va­tion – wedge block front brake. ABOVE Alan Cath­cart sam­ples the FN’s road hold­ing. TOP RIGHT Miller Mu­seum restora­tion ex­pert Bob Stan­ley shows the orig­i­nal rub­ber band rear sus­pen­sion. CEN­TRE RIGHT Owner Sammy Miller (cen­tre) with Bob Stan­ley and Alan Cath­cart at the Sammy Miller Mu­seum, New Mil­ton, Hamp­shire UK. RIGHT 1912 500cc FN in Clas­sic Mo­tor­cy­cle Mecca, In­ver­cargill, with gear­box and clutch mounted at the front of the en­gine.

ABOVE 1914 750 FN in Musue de Moto, Spain, with gear­box at the rear of the en­gine. RIGHT FN ad­ver­tis­ing poster from 1948.

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