Wal Handley was a legend. He had won the 1930 Senior Isle of Man TT race (on a Rudge), the 1925 Junior, the 1927 Lightweight and the 1925 Ultra-lightweight (all on on Rex-Acmes), and going into the 1931 races held the lap records in the Senior, Lightweight and Ultra-lightweight classes.
Handley's entry for the 1931 Senior TT was technically advanced, fast and unquestionably handsome. So handsome that it must have saddened F.N. when The Motor Cycle published the illustration above, but erroneously captioned it as an N.S.U.! Designed by Dougal Marchant - best known for his exploits at Brooklands - the key feature of the machine was the massive unit-construction power plant, with bevel-driven overhead camshaft.
Writing in The Motor Cycle the day before the 1931 Senior TT race, "Michael Kirk" dismissed fifty of the sixty starters, giving them "... about as much chance as an eclair on the tea table at a boy's school." Handley was discussed along with the other "chances":
Elsewhere in the same issue, Motor Cycle's "man on the spot" said of Handley's chances:
The pedigree of the F.N. machine was not in doubt. Through 1930, with Handley (or occasionally Marchant himself) aboard, similar machines of 350 cc and 500 cc had captured a gaggle of speed records at Arpajon and Montlhery, at speeds up to 192.7 km/h (500 cc flying mile). By the end of 1930, F.N. held 33 World Records, and clearly had a machine fast enough to win races. Surely this was to be a far cry from Mundy and White's sedate tour around the TT course in the 1914 races.
Preparations for the 1931 TT races were far from smooth, and with one of England's favourite sons in the saddle there was plenty of comment and speculation in the motorcycle press. After the exciting build-up, the race itself was a massive anti-climax for Handley and F.N.:
"Ubique" reviewed in detail the mechanical breakdowns in the race:
Well, that was the official explanation. Does anyone know a different story? One could imaging more intriguing explanations for an abandonment so close to the start. Would Handley rather have been riding his Rudge? Was the handling of the machine as dangerous as "Michael Kirk" had suggested?
If there were any consolation for Handley, it may have been that while he was the first to retire from the race, he was far from the last. Of the 56 starters, only 12 actually finished - or 13 if you wish to count the unfortunate rider who was still circulating when the roads were reopened.
For the record, Norton made a clean sweep of the places, and in finishing 1-2-3 emulated Rudge's Junior performance of the previous year. Rudge were not entirely disgraced, finishing fourth and fifth. I wonder where Handley might have finished had he been allowed to start on his Rudge?
From Guy de Becker's lovely book Quand la F.N. avait deux roues (When F.N.s had two wheels), we find an interesting postscript to the 1931 TT saga. On his return to Liege, Marchant was sacked as head of the racing department, which was then restructured and brought back into the F.N. factory proper from the building that had been especially constructed for Marchant. New race machines were designed, still with overhead camshafts, but this time driven by chain.