1913 FN: More vintage than veteran
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It’s not often you meet a true rarity, but this 1913 FN is thought to be the only one on the road in New Zealand, tootling around the backblocks north of Auckland 104 years after it was first sold here, new.
Paul Collins bought it two years ago, three years after he first spotted it at a national veteran car rally in Te Awamutu. He was working on a 1913 Willys Overland Roadster restoration at the time, so he was familiar with the quirks of cars built before mass production.
Somehow he blagged a chance to drive the FN, and was impressed.
“It was more vintage than veteran in its operation,” says Paul. And when the owner moved into a retirement village and couldn’t keep the car, Paul inquired about buying it.
“The price was beyond our pocket. But two months later, his circumstances changed, and he dropped the price – for us — after turning down a higher offer as it was going into a shed, and they didn’t want it to go overseas.”
FN was Belgium’s longest-lived car manufacturer, operating from 1899 to the 1930s, and producing motorbikes and trolley buses until the 1960s.
Back then a factory built all the mechanicals and a specialist coachbuilder added the body. This rolling chassis was shipped to the UK, where Charlesworth fitted a handsome body before the car was exported to Aotearoa, and sold new in Taranaki.
Apparently it ran as a taxi around the Hawera area for some years, then it was a family car.
At some point it arrived in Auckland for a tidy-up, returning to the Rotorua and Matamata areas in the 1950s or 1960s, before passing to its previous owner in 1974, and being restored.
“They did a lot of mileage in it, and knew my wife and I would look after it, and keep it going. Unfortunately my wife passed away soon after, but she had a few months of enjoyment in it,” says Paul.
The couple even towed it to Dunedin for five days for an international rally, and to Wanganui for the national veteran car rally. Paul aimed to join the re-enactment of the 1917 Parliamentary tour, too, and drove to Devonport for the start before heading north — and running out of brakes in Whangarei.
Now it’s not running all that well, though once he’s manually pressurised the fuel tank (once under way it’s pressurised by exhaust gas), it seems to idle nicely.
Soon we’re aboard and Paul has wielded the brass gear lever by his right knee into the first of four gears and engaged the 1950cc four-cylinder engine.
I’m not sure how he keeps track of everything when driving. All instruments are in the footwell — hardly in line of sight — and, like 90 per cent of the car, they’re original. The few updates include a new radiator core five years ago.
We’re soon rolling happily down the first hill as he reassures me that the brakes are “quite good now”. The handbrake operates internal shoes on the two back wheels and the foot brake two external shoes on the Cardan shaft drum on the driveshaft.
“It’s quite savage, and it puts a lot of strain on the diff, so I try to use the handbrake,” he says.
The car’s clearly not as happy on the uphill that follows, clearing its throat asthmatically. We’re stopped by roadworks and he hauls on the brakes and looks unsure whether we’ll pull away on such a slope. We do, albeit slowly enough for the workers to get an appreciative look as we chunter past. It’ll usually do 65 or
70 km/h on the highway, Paul says, but not today, and we wonder whether the petrol is a little off. A car that’s a century old is entitled to be a bit fussy, though sometimes it throws a hissy fit.
Paul says he’s even had a fire. “It backfired, and the carburettor caught alight!”
I’ve been trying to work out what the instruments are. One is just a window with a small cog rotating within it.
Apparently it shows oil flow — as long as that cog is turning, you know that oil is flowing through the motor. The bit of wood by my feet is the petrol gauge. Dip it in the tank to see whether you need more, and if you do, be prepared to work for it. You need a spanner to get the cap off.
Paul says he doesn’t drive the FN enough — partly because he owns a number of cars, and partly as he has only a car port these days. Thank goodness for spare storage at the North Shore Vintage Car Club.
As we leave the car club building, a few of the members have gathered round, trying to work out why the engine’s lost a few horses. If they find them again, you can bet Paul will be out again over summer, keeping this piece of New Zealand history going.