Experience has shown that the chainless FN is an excellent vehicle for tourism. It is the best vehicle in use since its maintenance is practically nil, even when used daily. Its adjustment is very easy and less frequent than in the case of any other vehicle. The chainless does not need any particular care. Unlike as in the case of vehicles with chains no sludge or dust can affect the docility of its running. More, the disposition of its propulsory movement, which places the front angle pinion between the handles, effects in the most rational distribution of force and so gives the maximum yield. Thus the chainless is most convenient for those who use their bicycle constantly.
– Notes On Maintenance, National War Armaments Factory, Herstal-les-Liege, 1925
The chainless bicycle was introduced in Great Britain in the 1890s. After French Humber’s merger with other leading French companies, the British Humber company marketed the French Metropole Acatene in Great Britain. Quadrant and Rover also sold chainless models. But they did not really catch on with the British public, and few were sold.
By WW1, F.N was the market leader in chainless bicycles, and after the war FN’s British agency launched a publicity drive. The Model C55 was available for £20 and exhibited at the 1919 Olympia Show as ‘the only chainless bicycle marketed in this country.’
Chainless bicycles were more expensive to manufacture than conventional bicycles, mainly because they required special tooling. FN’s enviable reputation in arms manufacture ensured that its chainless bicycle, like its pistols and rifles, was an elegant design using a minimum of inter-changeable parts with top quality control standards.
1907 FN (Fabrique Nationale) Ladies Chainless Type C55 (Shaftdrive/ Cardan)
28″ Metal-capped Wooden Wheels
28 x 1 3/4″ Tyres (37-622)
C.I.C.C.A Paris ‘Model 271’ Saddle
Frame No C 6997
Although, on first glance, the most striking points of this machine are its chainless mechanism and beautiful wooden wheels, the observer soon realise that its uncluttered simplicity is what actually provides its elegance. Whereas the later models had celluloid-encased handlebars and a front brake (illustration above), this early example has cowhorn handlebars with only a rear coaster brake, and this lack of ornamentation somehow gives an unconscious sense of freedom.
The machine is in good condition all round. I am not sure of its precise age. The frame number seems to correspond to 1903, but forward extensions on front mudguards were not introduced in Great Britain until around 1907, so I have assumed that to be its age. The other fittings are original and early 1900s. The metal-capped wooden wheels are probably American, sold under licence, popular in Europe in the early years of the twentieth century. The head badge is the heavy duty first pattern, also used on the first FN motorcycles (superseded by a small circular badge sometime after 1910). The pedals are early style, as are the cowhorn handlebars and wooden grips.
The tyres are 28 x 1 3/4″ (37-622). Those fitted are as I purchased it. I have a pair of 37-622 roadster tyres with an old style tread pattern and without a logo on the sidewall, which would look more authentic. The saddle is 1920s.
The Chainless was designated ‘Type C55′ while the model with a chain was ‘Type VI.’ Note the use of the English word in the French language FN catalogue below – ‘La Chainless.’
BRIEF HISTORY of FN HERSTAL
Fabrique National d’Armee de Guerre
Weapons manufacturing in the Belgian city of Liège began as early as the 16th century. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the city featured a number of prominent arms manufacturers. In 1886, a group of manufacturers, including Ancion, Dumoulin Frères, Dresse-Laloux & Cie., J. Hanssen, and Pirlot-Frésart joined together to form an association, Les Fabricants d’Armes Réunis (United Arms Manufacturers).
An order from the Belgian Army in 1887 for 150,000 repeating rifles encouraged Les Fabricants d’Armes Réunis to begin planning a new, large scale factory, and in 1888 the group created a new company, Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre. The new factory was built in Herstal, and in 1889 the company launched production of the Belgian army order, producing Mauser-designed rifles under license. Mauser, based in Germany, then bought up the company from its founders.
At the completion of that contract, the Belgian army returned to the company, later to become known as FN Herstal, with an order for 30 million rounds for the Mauser rifles. FN Herstal promptly set up a dedicated munitions factory next to its rifle production site in 1891.
FN Herstal soon expanded its production to include civilian arms, especially hunting rifles. By the mid-1890s, the company began seeking other production areas, and in 1896 the company launched production of its own line of bicycles, including its own “acatene,” or chainless, shaft-driven bicycle designs. The company would remain a popular producer of bicycles for some 30 years.
From bicycles, FN Herstal entered the young automotive market, producing its first car in 1900 and its first motorcycle two years later. FN also provided proprietary engines for other companies. Vindec was one of several companies using FN engines in the early days. Below you can see an advert from The Motor, 25th March 1903, illustrating a Whippet with an FN engine. The 2-speed gear is not attached to the motor but to the pedalling gear of the bicycle. (Picture and info thanks to Leon Mitchell http://users.senet.com.au/~mitchell/index.htm).
While the company stopped producing cars in 1937, it continued to build motorcycles into the 1960s. In addition, FN Herstal became a prominent truck manufacturer, with production running from 1930 to 1966, and also built trolleys between 1932 and 1955.
Closer to its core weapons production was the manufacturing of military vehicles, and activity in this area continued until the early 1980s. Its diversified product line notwithstanding, FN Herstal achieved its greatest renown as a maker of small arms.
According to the advert at the top of the page, from Cycling magazine of 20th November, 1919, the address of F.N. (England) Ltd was Kimberley Rd, Willesden Lane, London NW6.
But my 1912 Cycling magazine ’show issue’ mentions their address as being 106 Great Portland St, London W:
“These makers, who have specialized in the shaft-driven motorcycle, show a very attractive pedal cycle with this form of power transmission. Although only a sideline in the F.N business, these chainless bicycles are so popular on the Continent that the factory possesses facilities for a 50,000 output annually. The machine shown is an entirely new model.” (Sadly, no illustration provided).
The FN Herstal company still exists as a firearms manufacturer, and is located in Columbia, South Carolina.
These brochures with thanks again to the excellent Belgian FN Motorcycle website –
I.C.C.A PARIS ‘MODEL 271’ SADDLE
THE AGE OF FN BICYCLES
You can see from the chart below the build-up of lightweight model production to 1914, with optimum output between 1903 and 1909. From the chart below, frame no 6997 appears to be 1903 manufacture.
1° Machines légères or Light weights.
1902 from n° 5000 to 5999
1903 from n° 6000 to 9999
1904-06 from n° 10.000 to 14.999
1907-09 from n° 20.000 to 24.999
1909-10 from n° 30.000 to 31.999
1910-11 from n° 32.000 to 34.999
1912-13 from n° 40.000 to 41.999
1913-14 from n° 42.000 to 45.830
Above chart thanks to Jacques Maertens’ excellent FN website – http://users.telenet.be/FN.oldtimers/index.htm