Motorcycle History: Shaft Drive

Motorcycle History -



Each week RideApart looks back at key milestones in motorcycle history from technical innovations to significant model introductions to racing successes and, of course, some of the disastrous things we’d rather forget. This week we dive into the history of shaft drive.

For most motorcycle enthusiasts when they hear of shaft drive they think of BMW, which has perfected the system for the past 90 years. But it’s a little known fact that the Germans were not the first company to design and equip motorcycles with this type of system.

Shaft drive has been part of motorcycle engineering since the very early days, as it offered relatively low-maintenance and reasonable durability. However, one of the disadvantages of shaft drive is that you need complex gearing to turn power from the engine 90 degrees from the shaft to the rear wheel and in the process you lose some engine power compared to a conventional chain driven motorcycle.

The first manufacturer to engineer and design a shaft drive system for a motorcycle do this was Belgian arms and munitions maker FN (Fabrique Nationale de Herstal) that diversified its business in the early 1900s to begin motorcycle production.

In 1901, FN made its first single-cylinder 133cc bike and the following year launched the world’s first shaft driven motorcycle with its FN300. But it was in 1905 that FN made its mark on the motorcycle world when it launched the FN Four that had an in-line four-cylinder engine with shaft drive.

The FN Four was also a big commercial success for the company and it was produced for more than 20 years. At one time – between 1911 and 1912 – it was the fastest production motorcycle you could buy with a heady top speed of 40 mph.


The FN Four was originally offered with a 350cc engine that grew in size to 750cc and it went from a two-speed transmission to a three speed in its final years of production.

However, what made the FN400 stand out was the fact it was the world’s first shaft driven motorcycle with a single shaft turned by a bevel gear. Up until 1913 – when the FN Four adopted a proper kick-start – the rider had to start the engine by using bicycle-style pedals with a chain drive and sprockets to the rear wheel.

Read More – Page 2 >>

  • John

    165-185 pounds for a 4-cylindar shaft drive 350cc-750cc motorcycle 100 years ago.

    Thank god for technological advancement!!!!

    • Reid


    • metric_G

      Yeah, who needs good suspension, brakes, frame that doesn’t bend in every turn, reliable engine that starts with a push of a button, exhaust which doesn’t make you choke, no one, right?

      • John

        So you think those things add up to 200-250lbs?

        • Aakash

          Like metric_G said, add an effective starting system, modern suspension, 3-4 more gears in the transmission, more robust materials and components (clutch, drivetrain, crankshaft, casing, heads, etc) to handle increased loads and frames that are stiffer and designed to work with the suspension and engine at speeds in consistently in excess of 120mph and up to 200mph.

          • John

            Sorry, I don’t buy that, except to say that building a motorcycle to go over 120mph is a waste of engineering energy. Aluminum frames are very light. Starters are very light. I would love to see someone take that design, modernize it and evolve it to see how well you could do. A closer modern example is the FreeRide which weighs 220lbs with electric start, more gears, strong frame, etc, etc.

            • Aakash

              Not necessarily a waste of engineering energy, but rather a question of priorities. You build to the spec’s to which you value.

              The KTM FreeRide 350 looks fantastic. It’s an example of an engineering and design tailored for a specific purpose. Not a bike you’d want to go long-distances on in comfort, but a bike that is designed for the task at hand.

              Additionally, engineering and designing any vehicle to be lightweight, perform-well (to your prescribed values) and robust is difficult and potentially costly. Thus, a vehicle’s core design attributes must also come in conversation with the practical economics of production, marketing and audience.

              • John

                I understand, my main point is that we’re going in the wrong direction. This bike weights less than almost any motorcycle now built. WITH shaft drive and 4-cylinders.

                • CruisingTroll

                  Yes, and it makes a whopping 5 hp.

                  We CAN and DO make motorcycles like this, that weigh less, and go faster. They’re called MOPEDS, or MOTORIZED BICYCLES. Built with a bicycle frame and forks, no suspension, etc.

                • John

                  I think we can do a bit better than that. The FreeRide proves it.

                • appliance5000

                  And it’s a blast to ride and can take you anywhere you want to go. what’s the problem?

                • John

                  No problem, just pointing out that it’s heavier than a similar motorcycle from 30 years earlier, so weight is not something we’ve improved much.

                • Racetrack Style

                  Prime example that weight reduction has not been enough of a focus:

                  1993 CBR900RR had 124 hp & weighed 408 lbs
                  2009 BMW 1000RR had 193 hp & weighed 403 lbs.

                  This is a 55% increase in hp, while the weight has only been reduced 1.2%. Material Science has advanced more than those numbers suggest during those 16 years.

                  You mention aluminum frames are very light. Yes they are relative to the task but you can’t compare those frames and their task of controlling the amount of force on today’s bikes to the frame on the Belgian. Nonetheless, chassis weight can be cut a lot. e.g. James Parker cut 27 LBS. from a stock GSX-R frame

                  I’ll drink a Belgian to learning they were the 1st to go with a shaft drive

                • Racetrack Style

                  One may reply that any reduction in weight while increasing power 55% is impressive. It is until you look at the GSX-RADD.

                  All of which could result in related topics…

                  alternate front ends typically reduce weight at the cost of complexities in production and, in many examples, part count rises.

                  What about BMW’s cost to develop the electronics for the 1000RR?
                  Would that equivalent amount of investment in a less powerful but much lighter bike have paid off more? Keep in mind they aren’t racing the 1000RR after just a few years….

                  all of which makes you wonder if motorcycles are truly develop with a clean sheet holistically instead of according to the status quo which is unfortunately entrenched in racing specs.

                • John

                  I’d love to see someone start with that bike, and then evolve it from that starting point, sort of an age progression, to see what it could be with modern design. Obviously EPA crap adds a lot with the muffler and water cooling. That looks also to be a 2-stroke. Still…….

                • appliance5000

                  Weight is an interesting issue and not straightforward. Obviously cost comes into the mix but there are other factors. I’m thinking here of road bikes – trail bikes are a different story.

                  More weight is helpful in some important ways. The proportion of unsprung mass is lower with obvious benefits. And stability is generally increased – more resistance to buffeting.

                  Some of the weight on the hondas is due to the steel frame. But steel is your friend. It has some flex so it’s less expensive for engineers to dial in the flex necessary for road compliance. It’s also repairable – especially important for adv tourers.

                  If the balance is struck regarding weight, advances in fueling, manufacturing, and engineering tolerances, materials engineering, and engine design all add up to a more efficient, durable machine with consistent performance in a range of conditions.

                  So something like the cbs seem, on paper, to be mediocre bikes but out in the world they’re quick agile and a ton of fun. I’m not a great rider, but I’ve tested some bikes that push the envelope of weight/power and they’d do more at the extremes- but below that threshhold their dynamic advantages are not apparent.

                • John

                  I actually like a little heft in most street bikes for the reasons you mention, especially for hauling a passenger. OTOH, for the purposes I might use a CB500X, the weight is more of a hindrance. I’m actually okay in many ways with “mediocrity” given the state of the industry. I just want to enjoy motorcycling, not race anyone.

                  What struck me though is how this heavy looking bike is half the weight of modern bikes, complete with 4 cylinders and shaft. People say that these things necessarily cause a heavy bike, but that clearly isn’t the case. And now we have LEDs and carbon and aluminum and lithium batteries and……..

                • John

                  Not even close to being similar. A more appropriate comparison would be a K75. This bike has shaft, 4-cylinder, up to 750cc, full sized wheels.

        • Richard Gozinya

          Obviously they do. Unless you want to build a bike out of titanium and carbon fiber, which you could actually do, but it’d be extremely expensive.

          • John

            I’d counter with “not obvious at all”.

    • Justin McClintock

      You can get something that’s not crazy heavier than that with similar performance now if you so choose. I’d be willing to bet my DRZ400SM would mop the floor with that thing in every measurable characteristic. While the DRZ might be heavier, it’s not crazy heavy, and it’s really not even exotic by any stretch of the imagination. A KTM390 would likely be even faster and lighter. If you’re going to complain about other bikes in the 400-600 lb. range, I would argue that you’re complaining not about weight, but about additional capability that you have no use for….in which case, why are you even looking at those to begin with?

      EDIT: BTW, you did notice the part about it being UPSIZED to 498cc so it could make 5 hp, right? A CRF50 makes that…and weighs less as well.

    • HammSammich

      If you want to compare apples to apples, you need to look at the performance. The article claims a top speed of 40mph, so you might be better served looking to something like this.
      The Ruckus weighs in under 200lbs and undoubtedly handles better, accellerates faster (which isn’t saying much), burns cleaner, and probably get’s 4-5x the fuel economy – all while reliably starting with the push of a button with only minutes of maintenance per year.
      It’s a neat design, but it’s absolutely rudimentary compared to even our least advanced scooters and motorcycles today…Despite your sarcasm, thank god (or Science) for technological advancement, indeed!

  • John

    Also, still not clicking on page 2s.

  • DragosStefan

    An article on the history of suspension (with details on various solutions along time for both front and rear) would be nice.

  • Jack Meoph

    The FN FAL is a beast! the BMW looks gorgeous. Those 20′s and 30′s beemers are sweet looking MC’s. Too bad Hitler had to come along and ruin it. Fokker! (started in germany moved to netherlands)

    There was a shaft on a GSX1100g I once had. That thing was nice, for a giant pig of a motorcycle. The CX-500 was also a shaft, and that was a pretty decent bike as well. I think those are the only two shafties I’ve owned.

    • Piglet2010

      Uh, the FN FAL* is an assault rifle.

      *Fabrique National Fusil Automatique Leger

      • Jack Meoph

        duh, it’s a beast of a weapon…NATO’s weapon of choice in the cold war, 7.62 boom stick of doom. You must be a teacher, because you like to correct people even when the only mistake that’s been made is your assumption of a posts content.

        • Piglet2010

          Why would you refer to an assault rifle in a comments section about an article on motorcycles? Ridiculous.

      • CruisingTroll

        Actually, the FN FAL is a BATTLE rifle. FWIW, the key difference between a Battle Rifle and an Assault Rifle is the chambering and weight. The 7.62 NATO is a “full size” round, whereas the 5.56 NATO is an “intermediate” round. Both BR and AR are select fire, magazine fed rifles designed for use by individuals. There are other salient characteristics they share that distinguish them from your run-o-the-mill deer rifle or sub-machine gun.

        Now, if only I had one…. :D

        Not a teacher, but I have been known to be pedantic at times. :p

  • Mykola

    An old 4-speed Vulcan 1500 was the best $1005 I ever spent, and the only shaftie I’ve ever owned. I’m not sure there’s any reason for transverse-crankshaft motors to run a shaft rather than a belt anymore though; correct me if I’m wrong.

  • eddi

    How about a history of brakes? I notice both the pictured bikes lack front brakes. And I’ll bet you could stop faster by putting your feet down then hitting the rear brake.

    • Adam

      This is what I was thinking.

  • Chris

    Do an article on the rise and fall of the European motorcycle industry, and its renaissance.

  • Carter

    An article on Glenn Curtiss would be interesting… but you might need to make a trip to Hammondsport, NY, to go to the museum. He was the fastest man in the world with a V-8 motorcycle, which now resides in the Smithsonian Air & Space museum. (He was also the same ‘Curtiss’ that made airplanes suchs as the C-47 and P-40.)