We’ve seen the big European nations have had more than a few Deadly Sins, but let’s not forget the smaller countries. This three-part installment will focus on the interesting case of Belgium’s hyper-concentration of its domestic car industry into Minerva-Impéria, the Swiss sensation that was Monteverdi and the meteoric rise of the Dutch DAF cars. Let’s get started right away with some lovely fossils from Brussels…
Belgium has an illustrious automotive past, starting with the 1899 “Jamais Contente” pictured above. This electric-powered cigar enabled its Belgian constructor and driver, Camille Jenatzy, to become the first to pass the 100 kph mark. Almost every European country has had some national automaker – back before the First World War, many had several. Such was the case of Belgium in 1914, including the capable Impéria and the luxurious Minerva, but also a host of long-forgotten marques: Métallurgique, FN, Excelsior, Nagant, Pipe and many others. Exports were relatively healthy and some Belgian designs were even licensed in other countries. Yet within 20 years, Belgium’s largest companies had all consolidated into one, which finally expired after another 20 years. How did it all go pear-shaped in such a short while?
Belgium’s car industry was like a faster, petri-dish-sized version of the French, British or German ones. A multitude of small and larger automakers came and went from the 1890s to about 1920, then alliances, buy-outs and bankruptcies cleared the field, leaving fewer (but larger) companies. This process took about 40 years in Belgium, but it lasted until the ‘60s in larger countries.
One of the earliest large Belgian automakers was FN (Fabrique Nationale), a weapons manufacturer turned bicycle, motorcycle and finally car and truck maker – not unlike Hotchkiss in France, Škoda in Czechoslovakia, Izh is Soviet Russia or BSA in the UK. By the ‘20s, FNs were well-built, middle-of-the-road kind of cars, like a Belgian Peugeot – the 1.4 litre roadster and saloon pictured above were among FN’s best-sellers, though unlike the motorbikes, FN cars were rarely seen outside their region of origin. But Belgium also had one of the world’s leading luxury carmakers in Minerva, which was a key export.
Initially renowned for their bikes, Antwerp-based Minerva began making motorcars in 1905. Very quickly, Minerva found their niche near the top of the pile, making very competitive luxury cars that were sold throughout Europe. The Minervas began using the Knight sleeve-valve patent in 1908 to improve their cars’ smoothness; by 1910, all Minervas had Knight engines and the company was Belgium’s largest by 1912. From 1914 to 1918, German occupation halted all car production, but Minerva came back to life in 1919 with a timid 4-cyl. 20HP, followed by the large (30 HP) AC chassis – still using the Knight “sans-soupapes” patent. Belgium had many coachbuilders, such as Van Den Plas (the original Belgian one, not the BL atrocity) or d’Ieteren, to clothe these huge chassis with the requisite amount of taste and luxury. Foreign coachbuilders also practiced their art on quite a few Minervas, especially the larger models.
By the mid-‘20s, Minerva had become a very successful company, exporting its largest 6-cyl. cars far and wide – but especially to the UK, where a 30HP Minerva sold for half the price of a Rolls Phantom, but conveyed as much prestige. About half of Minerva’s production (circa 2000-2500 chassis per year) went to the British market in those days. The big Minervas also had a following in the US – Henry Ford owned a couple, and he wasn’t the only one. Minerva also had a line of trucks (above: a “chapel/ambulance” for missionaries in the Congo, made by Jonckheere) and kept a smaller 4-cyl. car line (above: a 12 HP coupé) chiefly for domestic consumption. The firm’s Dutch founder, Sylvain de Jong, died in 1928 right as the marque hit its zenith with the 6-litre 32 HP AK chassis, which became the darling of the concours d’élégance across Europe.
The largest Minerva chassis ever attempted, the 6.6 litre straight-8 AL, came out right on time for the Wall Street Crash. It was also known as the 40 HP, a reflection of tax band, not power, which was closer to 130 hp. The ambition to compete with the likes of Daimler, Hispano-Suiza or Pierce-Arrow had served Minerva well thus far, but the necessity of joining forces with another automaker was keenly felt.
Prior to his passing, de Jong had seen the way things were going and initiated an alliance with FN, which he was not able to see through to a merger. The small 12 HP Minervas were relatively successful, but FN’s standing (and pricing) in that segment meant the so-called allies were, in effect, still competing with each other. This was a dangerous strategy, for in another corner of Belgium’s automotive landscape, there was a frantic fellow named Mathieu van Roggen, another Dutch émigré who was buying out everything it could lay its hands on.
In 1919, van Roggen had bought Impéria, based in Nessonvaux near Liège, merging it with his marque, ATA. Van Roggen dreamt of a sort of European GM and had enough success with Impéria in the ‘20s to acquire smaller Belgian automakers, including the other Belgian luxury marque, Excelsior, as well as Métallurgique and Nagant. The mainstay of Impéria in the ‘20s was their sleeve-valve 1.1 litre economy car, the 11/25 HP; a slightly larger 6-cyl. range was added in 1928. That year, the company officially became Impéria-Excelsior.
Impéria’s factory at Nessonvaux was heavily remodeled in the late ‘20s to include an 800m circuit, partially built of the factory’s roof, Lignotto style. Van Roggen was essentially asset-stripping his competitors to build up Impéria as the foundation stone of his Belgian-sized multinational empire.
The “Belgian General Motors” that Impéria dreamed of becoming entailed finding new partners outside Belgium. In 1928, French automaker Voisin needed a cash injection, which Mathieu van Roggen eagerly provided. This allowed Impéria to sell a few Voisin-bodied chassis in France, but not much else. Gabriel Voisin and his team worked with the Belgians for a while, then left the company. The prestigious and highly unconventional Voisin marque had become a costly mess by 1931, when the world economy went into a tailspin. Gabriel Voisin managed to regain control of his company in 1933 – van Roggen lost a packet on the Voisin deal, but there were opportunities elsewhere. Especially right here in Belgium.
Coming up with new designs and engines was beginning to look impossible for Impéria to finance. A mild revamp of the range did little to turn things around: the marque badly needed a shot in the arm, and quickly. The new in thing was front-wheel drive, which many, including Minerva and FN, were contemplating in the early ‘30s.
Van Roggen decided to take everyone by surprise and launch the first Belgian-made FWD car in 1933: a German Adler with an Impéria badge, just as Rosengart had started doing in France. Two models appeared: a small 1-litre TA-7 and a 1.6 litre TA-9. The car was a relative success and saved the company – license production was the way forward, it seemed. Once all Belgian marques had been absorbed by Impéria, of course.
The ultimate prize was Minerva, then in a most precarious position. Luxury automakers were dropping like flies around the world in the early ‘30s. The flamboyant Flemish marque tried making their smallest model yet, the M-4, in 1932. It was definitely not a hit. The huge 6- and 8-cyl. cars were still in production as well, but despite the addition of a sports AKS chassis, sales had slowed to a trickle.
Minerva’s sort-of-partner, FN, were in a similar pickle. They had launched a luxury straight-8 model in 1930 (great timing) and then renewed their 4-cyl. range in 1932, but their new 1.6 litre Type 42 “Prince Baudoin” model failed to gain traction. After a final run of 2.5 litre “Prince Albert” (!) aerodynamic cars in late 1934, FN quit car production. Trucks and motorcycles continued until the late ‘60s; the original weapons business is still active today.
Just as FN chopped off their ailing car branch, Minerva filed for bankruptcy in the last days of 1934. Impéria pounced on the corpse of Minerva, creating the Minerva-Impéria Group in 1935. Van Roggen had succeeded in acquiring all of the country’s automotive sector, bar a couple of very small makers (such as Belga-Rise), truck manufacturers and coachbuilders.
The truth was that the Belgian automotive sector was much bigger than just Minerva-Impéria. The initial cause of death of the sector was simply foreign-owned assembly lines. Ford, GM, Studebaker, Chrysler, Citroën, Fiat, Renault and many others were assembling cars in Belgium by the ‘20s and ‘30s in increasing numbers. These flooded the domestic market and drowned the home-grown marques in a sea of cheap cars. When the economic crisis hit and tariff barriers went up after 1930, Belgian car exports dropped like a stone, but the government did nothing to raise Belgium’s tariffs in return. Impéria was just the last one standing after the carnage. How long could it stay on, realistically?
The license-built Adlers sold well and were eventually clothed by Minerva, which had a rather large body-making factory near Antwerp – a key asset that Mathieu van Roggen had had his eye on. The original 1931 Adler design seemed a bit passé by 1936, so Impéria launched a home-made modernized version of the TA-9 (top pic) called the Diane, which was succeeded by the 2-litre TA-11 Jupiter in 1938 (bottom pic).
The struggle of keeping the lights on at Impéria meant that Minerva were left with a role in the bus and truck sector, but not cars. The last Minerva car chassis were sold around 1939 and no new model was slated to replace it. The Belgian GM was turning into a cut-rate Belgian Cord.
Military orders soon started pouring in, dramatically improving the compary’s fortunes. Impéria continued car production at a slow rate into 1942, by which time Adler stopped sending parts. The Minerva factory, used by the Germans to refurbish aero engines, was heavily bombed by the Allies, but the relatively isolated Impéria factory escaped large-scale damage.
The game had changed after 1945: Impéria needed an engine – and preferably, some sort of large foreign partner – to keep existing. The brave Belgian brand found the engine in France: Hotchkiss had launched the Amilcar Compound, an advanced 1.3 litre FWD car, just before the war, but did not want to resume production. The Hotchkiss engine and transmission were made to fit the pre-war chassis, making the new Impéria TA-8 two-door saloon, cabriolet and roadster ready for production by 1947.
In parallel, Impéria began importing Standard-Triumph cars. Eventually, van Roggen saw a way to keep the Nessonvaux factory’s lights on and did a deal to assemble and sell the new Standard Vanguard in 1949. The slow-selling TA-8 was unceremoniously dropped and Standard production ramped up.
There were little differences with the British model – a soupçon of Walloon luxury here, a slightly altered suspension setting there… Soon, Impéria went ahead and designed a Benelux-only model, the Nessonvaux cabriolet. The initial two-seater was a bit weird-looking, but the subsequent 1952 four-(six-?)seater was rather fetching. Fifty to 100 were made until 1955, but plenty of saloons were sold over the years thanks to this “halo car,” keeping the firm afloat.
In 1952, Impéria put a fixed roof on the Triumph TR2 and called it the “Coupé Francorchamps.” Was this all that Belgium’s last automaker could muster now? Slightly modified British cars?
Well, yes, it was, with the exception of a few dozen Alfa Romeo 1900s assembled at Nessonvaux circa 1953. But it wasn’t through lack of trying. The Minerva marque was awakened from its slumber in 1952, first as the bearer of a new scooter and then as the maker of a highly advanced car. The scooter was an abysmal failure and was out of production within 12 months. The car, which was the CEMSA-Caproni F11, had haunted European car shows since 1947 (and keeps popping up in this European Deadly Sins series like a bad penny), but only a few prototypes were ever made. Slapping a Minerva badge on Professor Fessia’s FWD streamliner seemed like a good idea, but the plan fizzled out almost immediately.
But now people (in Belgium at least) were talking about Minerva again. Van Roggen had just done a deal with Rover to produce the Land Rover under license in Belgium, with a view to sell them to the Belgian army . In 1952, the Minerva Land-Rover, a.k.a the TT (Tout Terrain) was born. This was just as well, as the Standard contract was not going to last forever. Impéria’s final vehicles were thus badged as Minerva.
After making around 10,000 Landies, Minerva tried out their home-grown C-20 / C-22 4x4s (which looked like a reverse-engineered Land Rover, but was a monocoque design powered by Continental engines) in 1956, but the Belgian army didn’t go for it. Neither did anybody else, come to that: less than 100 were made before Minerva-Impéria closed down for good in 1958.
Of all the defunct marques around the world, Impéria was probably one of the least likely to be reborn, given its relatively modest historical footprint. But somehow, 50 years later, a Belgian firm called Green Propulsion had the idea of re-registering it as “Imperia” (no accent on the “e” this time, it seems) and introduced an innovative plug-in hybrid with a turbocharged 1.6, the 2011 Imperia GP. Three cars were made before the company went bust a couple of years later, to literally no one’s surprise.
What was surprising was the unveiling of the 2013 Minerva JM Brabazon. It may be related to the above, but that is not a certainty. It just so happens that this car is also a hybrid, albeit with a mid-mounted V12 (not sure which one) and a completely different design. As far as one can tell, it also sank without a trace shortly after its launch…
Did Impéria have any hope in hell to make it past the ‘30s? No, never in a million years. Just like Swiss, Dutch or Danish carmakers, they had too small a domestic base – a type of pre-existing Deadly Sin, if you will – to rely on when things got rough. High volume production was not an easy change to switch make anywhere, but in smaller countries, this usually meant prestige marques fared better than the lower-priced ones, which got swept away by bigger and cheaper foreign competitors.
The rug was then pulled from under the luxury sector when the economy plunged after 1930, which was soon fatal for Minerva and forced the merger with Impéria. The company managed to cling on for dear life and almost made it to the ‘60s. The plucky Belgian firm was ambitious, but it was a small fish in a very small pond, which eventually dried up.
See you tomorrow, as we visit the fair Canton of Basel-Land’s green-topped mountains (hills?) and gaze in wonderment at the legendary Monteverdi.
The Tupelo Automobile Museum, by Jason Shafer (the only CC post with a Belgian car up to now!)
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European Deadly Sins series