FN 350 Built like a gun
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.