Classic Bike Guide

The four-cylinder’s history in Europe and USA


Four cylinders were made in the early

1920s by manufactur­ers such as ACE, India, Excelsior, Henderson, Pierce and Cleveland in the USA, as well as in Europe by Nimbus in Denmark, Ariel and Matchless in the UK, and the first manufactur­er, FN in Belgium. And those first four-cylinders from FN were even produced with shaft drive! Although there were four-cylinder engines before the FN already, none resembled the four-cylinder inline engine of the smooth and usable FN.

Its sublime design, like any good design, was copied, and so the American Pierce

Four used the same inline engine with shaft drive. The story goes that Pierce-Arrow’s Percy Pierce took home a 1908 FN Four from Europe, disassembl­ed it and then scrutinise­d all the parts and design. It is therefore unsurprisi­ng and even abundantly clear to see that the ‘four’ engines as seen in brands like Indian, Henderson and Cleveland are inspired by the FN Four.

Other stories in circulatio­n would have us believe that William G Henderson was the man who designed the American fourcylind­er at the beginning of the last century; also clearly a copy or at least ‘inspired’ by the FN inline four-cylinder. Running into financial difficulti­es, he sold his design and name to Schwinn/Excelsior in 1917 but William, who stayed in the company, soon got into disagreeme­nts with the designers. They made ‘his’ bike too heavy and wouldn’t work on the performanc­e, and since Henderson’s concept was based on the motto ‘performanc­e allied with lightness’, he decided after a short time to leave the firm.

In 1919 he acquired financial backing and started his own company the following year, called Ace, as he could no longer use the Henderson name. The 1229cc Ace engine has a three-bearing crankshaft and overhead valve, and inlet valves mounted directly above the side valve exhaust valves. With a power output of 35 horsepower, it can reach about 75mph (120kph). Ace held the top speed record at 129mph (about 210!), and when Cannonball Baker rode his historic seven-day trip on an Ace – 3332 miles (5340km) from Los Angeles to New York – in September 1922, orders poured in.

Unfortunat­ely, as the accounts department discovered, the motorcycle’s manufactur­ing cost turned out to be higher than the figure they were sold for, and financial troubles forced the factory to close in late 1924.

The four-cylinder story doesn’t end here. When Indian bought Ace and renamed the Ace as Indian Four, showing it to the public in 1927, it looked as though production would continue. However, Indian production came to an end when the Second World

War began for the US in 1941. Very few Ace or other four-cylinders were eventually produced; these days, astronomic­al prices are paid for antique motorcycle­s like these fourcylind­ers and each year the value seems to rise faster than a land-speed record machine can ride...

The Second World

War ended motorcycle production in the US, the last being the four-cylinder Indian. After the war, the four-cylinder concept was forgotten and mainly big V-twins were built. In Europe, MV Augusta and Gilera, both Italian manufactur­ers, introduced fourcylind­er street bikes for the common man after their first racing successes in about 1966.

This MV Augusta 600GT had a DOHC fourcylind­er inline engine and delivered 50hp, but unlike all other beautiful Italian designs, this model was reviled and nobody seemed to like it, with the result that only about 120 were made.

But in the years after the Second World War, a huge motorcycle industry emerged in the Land of the Rising Sun, becoming one of the first to produce four-cylinders in large numbers. And the rest, as we know, is history.

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