What was the first four-cylinder racer at the Isle of Man TT?  No, it wasn’t Japanese, or even Italian … it was Belgian. In the second Isle of Man TT, held in 1908, Fabrique Nationale de Herstal (or F.N. – still in business, but making only armaments today) sent two of their little inline 4-cylinder shaft-drive Model F machines to the Island, and R.O. Clark managed third place in the multi-cylinder class (which Rem Fowler won on a Norton the previous year), averaging 37.79mph, and 90mpg! The race was held on September 22 over the ‘short’ St. John’s course over 10 laps,  giving a race total of 158 1/8th miles. Harry Reed on a 5hp DOT twin was the winner of this class (at 38.57mph), while Jack Marshall won the Single Cylinder class on a 3.5hp Triumph (40.4mph).  It was typical in these early days for twin-cylinder machines to lag behind singles.

R.O. Clark speeding to 3rd place in the 1907 Isle of Man TT on his FN Model F four. The St. John’s course was almost entirely unpaved. [The Vintagent Archive]
The FN had a serious weight handicap compared to its competition, tipping the scales at at well over 300lbs, while the Triumph single weighed in at under 200lbs.  the FN was 50% heavier than its competition, but weight in those days was roughly equated with durability, and the FNs ran smoothly and consistently through the race. These early TT races were true tests of endurance for the temperamental motorcycles of the Pioneer days, which had trouble completing a 15o-mile road trip, let alone a race. The TT course was almost totally unpaved, and full of hazards like horseshoe nails and stray dogs or sheep. Flat tires were commonplace, as were get-offs, and the need to open and close gates when passing through farmer’s fields.

They’re still out there! A 1907 FN Four in original paint condition, coming up for sale at Mecum’s delayed 2021 Las Vegas auction. [Mecum]
FN returned many times to the TT, with their last foray in 1931, using a single-cylinder purpose-built racer. Their 4-cylinder bikes were soon outclassed in the following years, and by 1913 they could only manage 33rd and 36th place, as by now their role as ‘touring’ motorcycles, and luxuriously smooth ones at that, made them unsuitable as ‘tourist trophy’ contenders.

Pioneer motorcycle designer Paul Kelecom, who was hired by FN in 1904 to update their motorcycle line. [The Vintagent Archive]
The FN Four was designed by Paul Kelecom in 1904, after he was hired by the armaments/bicycle manufacturer with a brief to design a new motorcycle line. Kelecom had experience designing single-cylinder motorcycle engines for several years, which were used under license by a host of Pioneer manufacturers, including Triumph and Veloce. Kelecom began working for FN in 1903, and after improving their existing line of single-cylinder 300cc sidevalve engines, the management gave him a new brief – to design a four-cylinder motorcycle. All of Kelecom’s design work was completed within the year, and the first prototype of this revolutionary machine began testing in 1904. Its maiden voyage was a publicity tour in November and December of that year, in which the FN engineering dep’t tester, a Messr Osmont, rode through France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and back through Holland and Belgium, in bad weather and worse road conditions. The new 4 performed faultlessly, and debuted at the 1905 Paris Cycle Show. The interest and enthusiasm for this novel motorcycle is hard to describe – Kelecom had created the very first practical four-cylinder motorcycle, which had a smooth and quiet engine, with genteel road manners.

The first, 1905 version of the FN Four with 362cc, slim and minimal, but still 50% heavier than its competition at the Isle of Man. [The Vintagent Archive]
This first machine had a capacity of 362cc, using side exhaust valves and ‘automatic’ inlet valves (ie, weak springs, no pushrod – the engine suction pulls the valve open). It was a ‘wet sump’ engine, and each connecting rod had a small dipper which flung oil around the crankcase. This was also one of the first motorcycles which used a magneto rather than the horrible battery ignitions of other Pioneer machines.

FN’s first motorcycle of 1901, essentially one of their bicycles with a small motor attached. [The Vintagent Archive]
The frame was a full cradle, which suspended the motor from twin rails. Most impressively, Kelecom used an enclosed shaft drive, with full ball bearings and enclosed crownwheels, which then as now makes the cleanest and least labor-intensive drive system. The engine was started by bicycle pedals attached to the rear wheel by a chain on the ‘other’ side of the bike – so the FN had a shaft AND chain… until 1913 in fact, but this held no terrors as the engine would have been very easy to spin, with very low compression and little mechanical drag from encumbrances like strong valve springs, or a gearbox. There were two brakes – a coaster-type (actuated by backpedalling) in a rear drum, and a stirrup on the rear rim, which was hand-lever operated.

A wonderful Beaux-Arts poster introducing the FN Four in 1905. [The Vintagent Archive]
The very first four-cylinder TT machine was likely still direct-drive, although aftermarket kits manufactured by Englishman Sydney Horstmann (OBE) provided a two-speed kit with a clutch by 1908 (he also made an overhead-cam kit for the FN, which I’d love to see). The engine capacity in 1907 was increased to 410cc, and it is likely the TT machine was overbored to nearer 500cc.  Many of these early FNs are still on the road, including one that was ridden around the world in 2012 by Ron Fellowes, as documented in his book ‘No Room for Watermelons.’

Showing off all the goods: automobiles, motorcycles, and guns in this 1906 poster for FN. [The Vintagent Archive]
The original four-cylinder motor designed by Paul Kelecom, the first mass-produced four in the motorcycle industry, with separate cylinder castings, automatic inlet valves, no oil pump, direct drive, and a magneto. [The Vintagent Archive]
A symphony of levers controlled the magneto spark advance, air mixture, and oil pressure. [Mecum Auctions]