King Albert I and Tintin both drove Belgian cars. Of course.
In the first half of the 20th-century, Belgium was home to some world-renowned car brands: Minerva, Excelsior and Imperia. Light, affordable, well-made, good handling, smooth, beautiful, comfortable, sporty, luxurious... there was something for everyone.
Minerva set the wheels in motion. In 1897, the Roman goddess of the arts lent her name to an Antwerp bicycle brand founded by Dutchman Sylvain de Jong. In 1899, he produced the first motorcycles. At the Antwerp Car and Bike Exhibition, Minerva's first experimental car, similar to that of French manufacturer Panhard, drew great attention. Actual production began in 1904, predominantly exporting to England and later the United States. With around 3000 vehicles produced each year prior to the First World War, an all-time high, Minerva was Belgium's largest car manufacturer. King Albert I bought a luxurious model. However, the 1930 economic crisis witnessed a change in the company's fortunes. In 1935, the brand came into the hands of Mathieu van Roggen, Dutch ingineer of the Imperia-Excelsior group.
In 1904, around the same as Minerva in Antwerp, Compagnie Nationale Excelsior, a company producing light but expensive cars in Brussels owned by Arthur De Coninck, started production. The company later moved to Zaventem. The Belgian Royal family was equally fond of this brand. After the First World War, however, Excelsior hit hard times. The Germans had taken all of their machinery in 1918. The final blow would prove to be the influx of American car imports. In 1927, Excelsior was also taken over by Mathieu van Roggen.
In 1906, Adrien Piedbœuf developed a taste for cars and motorcycles. He began production from a garage in Liège. However, Imperia's increased sales forced him to move production to a large factory in Nessonvaux. Having grown up in Aachen, Adrien named the company Imperia as a nod towards the city's history as Charlemagne's chosen seat of the Holy Roman Empire. This would also inspire the crown used as the company's logo. These were the golden years. Imperia's sports models reigned supreme at the Francorchamps 24 Hour race and the Monte Carlo rally up until the outbreak of the First World War. In 1923, Mathieu van Roggen, by this stage already well known, cast his eye over Imperia. He heralded another golden age for the company until 1949, when it would also finally close its doors.
Two fun facts about imperia?
With the river Vesdre on one side and hills on the other, the Nessonvaux test circuit could not be extended any further. Therefore, in 1929, Imperia built an 800-metre-long circuit between the factory's saddleback roofs. A unique design, but for a similar design at a Fiat factory in Turin. Unfortunately, more than half of the circuit has been demolished, with only the listed 19th-century neo-Gothic facade still remaining. Also, notice the water tower in one of the circuit's bends. Some classic cars can still be viewed at the nearby museum. Make sure not to get run over by Tintin in his Imperia Mésange from The Crab with the Golden Claws. Although, has this not been towed away? Hergé rode it himself for a year.