Early days at FN

Were F.N. trying to disown their first-built motorcycle? The Spare Parts List: F.N. Motor Cycles issued in December 1913 by F.N. (England) Ltd., 106, Great Portland Street, London W. had this to say about the scope of their coverage:

Every model that has been and is made, is dealt with, except for the very first 1 1/4-h.p. machine, which was fitted with an engine with outside flywheel, flat belt, and wooden belt rim; but spare parts can even be obtained for this - invariably from stock.

The first machine listed in this parts list is the 1903 2-h.p. Single Cylinder (frame numbers 6,000 to 9,999). In 1920, A. Ernest Gelder, Managing Director F.N. (England), Ltd. wrote to Motor Cycling to clear up issues relating to the date of manufacture of F.N. motorcycles. The earliest machines he refers to - frame numbers 5,000 - 5,999 - are listed against the year "1902".

There are a number of surviving examples of this early 1 1/4-h.p. FN, which is really little more than a pedal-assisted bicycle. Jacques Maertens snapped this brass-tanked model at an F.N. show a year or two ago:

c1902 FN single, courtesy Jacques Maertens

Except for the finish on the tank, and the position of the tank-top levers, this machine - basking in the Californian sun in the 1980s - seems to be built to much the same specification. Note the advanced lubrication system! The door for the battery-and-coil ignition system can just be seen at the front left of the tank.

c1902 FN in California, USA

The up-coming celebrations of 100 Years of FN Motorcycles 1902-2002 started me thinking about when the first model was actually produced. While it's probably true that the earliest powered machine to leave the F.N. works was called a "1902 model", there is evidence that manufacture was underway in 1901. Guy de Becker, in Quand la FN avait deux roues, gives October 1901 as the commencement of production of motorcycles. Harold Karslake - famous for his exploits on his "Dreadnought" motorcycle, and later a noted motorcycling historian - wrote a brief but interesting note to the Official Journal of the Vintage Motor Cycle Club (UK) many years ago that seems to support this date:

F.N. Motor Cycles

In the March issue, page 64, correspondent Charles Broad tell us something about numbers on top of head lugs. Someone must have raised a query as to when F.N. motorcycles started production, but Mr Broad only tells us that "F.N. did make motor-cycles prior to 1904." This is easy to state as the four-cylinder F.N. was in production during 1904, following 2 h.p. single-cylinder models from 1902 onwards, with the engine in the modern vertical position ahead of the bottom bracket.

These models were preceded by a 1 1/4 h.p. model certainly produced during 1901, if not earlier. REF.- Bicycling News, 11th December, 1901, page 21. "the Motor Traction Co., Walnut Tree Walk, Kennington, London, have, as we prophesised a couple of months ago, bounded into a prominent position in the motor trade in record time. The firm control the British interests of several leading types of motor cars, and also the Holden and other makes of motor bicycles. Their latest introduction in the motor bicycle line is the machine made by the Fabrique Nationale d'Armes de Guerre, of Herstal, near Liege - the B.S.A. of Belgium. The 1 1/4 h.p. engine is a particularly neat affair, and is well placed over the bracket. The transmission is by a flat belt, which drives over a wooden pulley fixed to the back wheel. The weight is under 60 lbs., and the cost is very moderate, and shows a good margin of profit to the agent. Mr. J. H. ADAMS, the sales manager of the company, anticipates doing a big business with the F.N. motor bicycle."

The Danish motor cycle paper, "Auto-Cyclen," of Copenhagen, 20th March, 1902, page 131, contains a write-up and a good illustration of the 1 1/4 h.p. model.

Harold Karslake
Historian, B.C.M.C.I.A.

So there we have it. Assuming Harold had his facts straight (I don't have access to Bicycling News to check, but I have no reason to doubt), F.N. did manufacture motorcycles in 1901, even though they were most likely referred to a "1902 models". Supporting this idea, I do have 1902 advertisements for the "1903 2 h.p. F.N.".

Can anyone provide an earlier reference to F.N. motorcycles?

Finally a curiosity. In addition to manufacturing complete motorcycles, F.N. produced proprietary motors (similar to their 1903-pattern, but without the mounting flange at the rear as used on in-house machines) and lugs to other manufacturers. In Europe, makes like Vindec were large users, and even in Australia small manufacturers like Leitch produced F.N.-engined machines. The advertisement below is reproduced from the 25 March 1903 edition of The Motor, and while it purports to show a Whippet Motor Bicycle, the machine is clearly almost identical to a  "1902-pattern" F.N. The "triple crown" front fork suggests that the the cycle parts were not sourced from F.N., so this was probably a very early example of F.N. supplying the motor trade with proprietary motors and accessories. Interestingly, the 2-speed gear is not attached to the motor but to the pedalling gear of the bicycle!

The Motor, March 25, 1903


Copyright Leon Mitchell 2002

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