By the early 1950s, Rover had realised that the Land Rover (then still the Series 1) had scope beyond the stop gap it was originally foreseen to be. Alongside the upmarket and steady saloons, here was a product the world was ready for, needed and seemingly few seemed fully interested in developing or supplying. Beyond Jeep, there were few truly credible competitor and international tariff boundaries kept many of these to local markets. A classic case of this was Belgium.
In 1951, the Belgian Army was looking for a new cross country vehicle and the two credible candidates were the Jeep and the Land Rover. But there was also the question of Belgian national industrial interests, and this is where this vehicle came from.
Professor Tatra87 has previously given us a history of the Minerva and the later Minerva-Imperia, so I won’t go through the full history of the business. there’s simply no need of the Professor has already done so.
After the second world war, Minerva-Imperia had ended up building a car based on the pre-war Hotchkiss, and importing and then assembling Standard Vanguards from the UK. Quite a fall from being one of Europe’s leading luxury car builders and coachbuilders before the war. Post war Europe was not an easy place for smaller players and those with smaller domestic markets.
So, when the Belgian army was looking for the new cross country vehicle, supporting national industrial interests was not only a desirable from the Government’s position but also achievable. Minerva’s driving force, Mathieu van Roggen, saw an opportunity to do another licence build (or at least assembly) deal with a British player, in this case Rover.
And this worked for Rover as well. The Land Rover was an obvious, but not the only, European product for the Belgian need. In theory, there was also the Fiat Campagnola, the Alfa Romeo 1900M and Austin Champ for example, but you sense that the Land Rover was probably the preferred and most credible candidate, held back by only one thing – production capacity in Solihull. Which is where Minerva saw the opening, obviously.
The deal was done between van Roggen and Spencer Wilks of Rover. Rover would supply kits consisting of the Land Rover series 1 80 inch wheelbase chassis, axles, transmission and 2 litre petrol engine. Minerva would build the body, which was steel rather than the aluminium used on the British build vehicles, and with the distinctive differently shaped front wings, probably as they were easier to form than the curved Land Rover profile. Apparently, the cars rode better than the Land Rover, being heavier, but also corroded more, inevitably. Local content was put at 63%, though exactly how this was calculated was not clear.
There were some variations elsewhere, around detail parts, as was usual in bulk supply to users like the military. In 1953, a civilian market version was released.
There was a range of detail variations between this and the military version, with features like a third seat added, a different tailgate and provision for a power take off, to support the classic early Land Rover use in farming environments, and for power supply in construction environments.
Minerva also offered station wagons, truck cabs and supported adaptation to fire service use and like, just as Land Rover did. There is some record, but little clear evidence, of distribution through the Netherlands and Luxembourg, possibly using the Armstrong Siddeley distribution network which Minerva had used previously. Certainly, the Dutch military was a customer.
In 1954, the Minerva product, like the Land Rover went to a wheelbase of 86 inches, with all the extra space in the load bay. Land Rover paired this with an extended 107 inch wheelbase vehicle, and some of these were also produced by Minerva, though they are now very scarce, if not extinct. There is a record of one being used on a typical Land Rover over land journey from Brussels to Baghdad and Bombay (now Mumbai), which was chronicled by Paul Frere.
The original arrangement was for 2500 vehicles for the Belgian army, which grew to closer to 6000, some of which the military stockpiled and released to service as and when necessary. These are in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1960, at the time of independence.
In late 1954, Rover and Minerva managed to get into a contractual dispute, and the whole agreement ended in 1956, after about 9000 vehicle sin total had been produced. Apologies for the grainy image, but this is the Belgian factory.
I saw this example parked curbside in south west France last summer. As a Curbivore, I stopped and was asked if I wanted to buy it. Tempting? Maybe – certainly a little different to a UK Land Rover. I’m calling it a 1953 car, as it is clearly an 80 inch wheelbase and has a later format grille badge, and it is a military specification vehicle. If you bought it and suspect or know I’m wrong, them please comment below!