Fragments on the forgotten makes No. 20: The Minerva

The Minerva is not altogether a forgotten make, especially since Motor Sport wrote up last May a 1930 32/34-h.p. Victor Broome limousine of this make. But the fact remains that less than a dozen Minervas are thought to have survived in this country and Of these, only a couple appear to be in regular use. So Some further information on “The Rolls-Royce of Belgium” is called for and this was kindly provided by an interview with Mr. Hooper, who was with the Company in London from 1918 until it closed down in 1938. (For this interview we naturally arrived in a Minerva, of which pictorial evidence is provided.)

It seems that Minerva came into being in about 1902 as manufacturers of motorcycles and made their first cars in 1904. They supplied their well-known motorcycle engines to many of the leading. British manufacturers when the movement was in the adolescent stage. It is well known that the Company adopted the Knight double sleeve-valve engine before the 1914/18. War and a team of these cars, emitting the usual smoke-haze, finished second, third and fifth in the 1914 T.T., driven respectively by C. Rieken, L. Molon and C. Porporato.

Two brothers named de Jong, from Amsterdam, founded the Company, and in England Mr. Citroen began importing their motorcycle engines from premises at 40, Holborn Viaduct. Later a move was made to Charlotte .Street, W.1, and then to Chenies Street, off the Tottenham Court Road, where William Holloway and his brother Sydney built Minerva House, some years before the 1914/18 War—today, Minerva House is occupied by A. E. Gould, Ford agents, but the statue of Minerva can still be seen there. When war came car production in Antwerp ceased and the English Company also went over to the manufactureof shells and fuses.

When Mr. Hooper joined them as a boy in June 5918 the only Minervas in the works were two old sleeve-Valve vans, one a 26 h.p., the other a 38 h.p. Soon, however, cars that had been in storage fir the duration of hostilities started coming in for overhaul. The Chairman and Director at that time was a ‘Dutchman, Mr. David Citroen, Mr. Everett was the Secretary, Mr. Stanley Charles 11 olloway the Works Manager, and Stanley Matthews the Store-keeper. The pre-war machinery was all worn, so new Machine tools were installed. AS production had not. started in Belgium some adaptation was necessary and Mr. Hooper recalls spending three weeks tiling sleeve castings obtained from Daimler, whose engine fimunately had the same 140-mm. bore as the Minerva engine. The pre-war engines had half-junk sealing rings and fully-skirted c.i. pistons. It took three weeks to assemble an engine, checking sleeve/piston/cylinder clearances with feelers after the pistons had been boiled in hot-water coppers to assess their rate Of expansion. A new engine would be motored round from the overhead belting in the shops and tow-started after assembly in its chassis, so stiff was a newly built-up unit. The English Minerva Company bought castings and other parts here whenever possible, to avoid import duty. After his fearful task of filing sleeves Mr. Hooper remembers being “promoted ” to filing phosphor-bronze gear gate blanks for fitting to the overhauled chassis!

By 1921 new cars began to arrive, with the new shapely radiator replacing the fiat radiator of the pre-war Minervas. Two models were available, the 20-h.p. 4-cylinder and 30-h.p. 6-cylinder. The cars came over shod with Englebert tyres but this did not meet with the approval of a well-known English tyre manufacturer, who arranged to supply their tyres at very competitive prices. During hostilities Belgians skilled in machine-shop work and fitting had been in what in World War Two were termed “reserved occupations” in the factories. Some of them came to Minerva in England and cars were exhibited at the rozo Motor Show, which earned praise from King George V. The Antwerp factory had survived the German invasion, machine tools having been shipped to Holland when war broke out, while, rather as Bugatti hid racing cars in a cellar, two Minerva chassis had been saved by hauling them up into one of the factory chimneys.

The aged works lorries were supplemented by a model-T Ford lorry and Minerva were back in the car business at Minerva House.

The 1921/22 cars suffered trouble with their cone clutches and every one had to be changed, but the quality of pre-war Minervas was remembered and the demand was substantial. The 20-h.p. and 30-11.p. cars of the immediate post-war period were replaced by new models (see accompanying table), of which the most successful was the 6-cylinder 32/34-h.p. car with very light steel sleeves and lightweight slipper pistons that had a very small rubbing area in contact with the sleeves. This model pioneered the use of Tecalemit chassis lubrication and Scintilla electrical equipment in this country. It had some notable design features, such as the ingenious mounting of the cantilever rear springs, the U-bracket on the torque-tube that was ball-jointed onto a cross-member, and other items mentioned in the “White Elephant itis article last May. Very little trouble was experienced, although some German wheel rims proved faulty and broke up, resulting in loss of wheels—there is the story of a Minerva negotiating a London Square, a wheel from which landed up on the operating table of a London nursing home, just before the patient was brought in. Cars were recalled from all over the country for these dangerous wheels to be replaced. The later Scintilla combined magneto and dynamo, was badly lubricated anti many had to be replaced, while some trouble was experienced through water seeping past the water pump gland and washing oil off the timing chain, which rapidly wore out. The timing chain had no adjustment on the 32/34, but a spring-loaded jockey sprocket was introduced on the 40-h.p. straight-eight, whereupon the chain sometimes jumped and slipped the timing. Brass baffles cured the water seepage. Rapid wear of the sleeves was caused if the Ki-gas wasn’t screwed down, allowing petrol to get sucked into the engine which diluted the oil-film on the sleeves. The multi-plate clutch was apt to wear indents in the hub which stopped the plates from sliding freely.

Otherwise, this was a well-designed and magnificently built car that was endowed with some of the most beautiful coachwork in the World, by all the leading specialists in such work, although Minerva also made their own bodies. Perhaps the peak year was 1925, when the live delivery drivers were each bringing in a car or chassis a day from Harwich, where imports from Antwerp were unloaded at Parkstone Quay. Bleriot and Harry Hawker owned pret 914 Minervas, the saloon body from the latter’s later gracing a twin-rear-wheeled 40/50-h.p. Rolls-Royce chassis, and Royal patrons using Minervas included H.M. The King of the Belgians, H.H. Prince Leopold of Belgium, H.H. Prince Charles of Belgium, H.H. The Princess Stephanie of Belgium, H.M. The King of Norway, H.M. The King of Sweden, H.H. The Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, H.H. The Consort Prince of Holland, H.M. The King of Roumania, H.H. The Maharajah of Pithapuram, H.M. The King of Afghanistan, H.E. Admiral Horthy, Regent of Hungary, H.M. The King Of Morocco, H.M. The King of Siam, H.M. The Shah of Persia, H.H. The Princess Nazli Helmi of Egypt, H.H. The Rajah Mida of Selancor, H.H. The Prince Chandaburi of Siam, H.I-1. The Sultan de Marakech, etc., etc. FEM. The Queen Mother, before her marriage, had expressed interest but the prevailing “Buy British ” movement probably influenced her decision not to own a Minerva. The Under-Secretary of Air of those days had a 30/32-h.p. open tourer which slipped into the water while being loaded for shipment to Fishguard. Minervas were unquestionably popular and even the 22/28-h.p. straight-eight sold well, but the 40-11.p. straight-eight was a very large car appealing only to the wealthiest clients. The last one was sold to Mr. Bernstein of the Granada group.

Apart from cars, 4-cylinder sleeve-valve commercial vehicle chassis were imported, Convoys of Deptford and Keith & Boyle having fleets of Minervas, the latter with coach bodies.

Urgent spares were ordered by cable and flown to Croydon. This reminded Mr. Hooper of an amusing incident. A steering assembly was wanted quickly and he cabled for it. Perhaps his ignorance of Flemish had something to do with it, but the lorry to which it was fitted was found to go in the direction opposite to that in which its steering-wheel was turned! On another occasion some spares were needed in Perth, Scotland. They were duly dispatched but failed to arrive—” N.B.” had been omitted from the address on the parcel and they subsequently turned up in Perth, Australia. . . .

The growing challenge of Packard from America and the “‘ Buy British ” campaign is blamed by Mr. Hooper for the drop in Minerva sales that started in 1930. Before this the Company had expanded satisfactorily; had, indeed, outgrown the Tottenham Court Road premises, so that a service • station was opened at Park Royal—Minerva Road is there to this day. Minerva Motors Ltd., so termed since 1918, had become a public company, Minerva Motors (England) Ltd., in 1927, the shares selling out at once. The prospectus quoted profits for the year ending mid-1923 as £41,985, rising to £89,432 in 1924/25 and as £50,855 for 1926/27. The Company instituted its own Hire Service, on the lines of Daimler Hire, with uniformed chauffeurs, but this was not as successful as anticipated and Harrods of Knightsbridge took it over. The Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society also had a fleet of Minerva hire and funeral cars. Evidence exists to show that one of these 32/34-h.p. Minerva hire cars cost only £10 a year for repairs and tyres for the seven years it was in service, although no doubt it only ran a small mileage.

A Mr. Pickett had obtained control of Minerva shares in Europe and it is said that by stepping up Minerva imports to France he put De Dion Bouton out of business. He was associated with control of Minerva Motors (England) Ltd. in conjunction with well-known stage celebrities. Alas for these ambitions, the Company failed in February 5932, Mr. J. C. Pidgeon being appointed Liquidator. Maximillian Fabri, of the F.N. Company, took over, reforming the Company as Minerva Automobiles Ltd. Minerva House being too expensive, he moved to premises in Headfort Place, Halkin Street, formerly occupied by Victor Broome, the coachbuilders. Access was up a driveway at the back of a block of fiats and the men, who came in at 8 a.m., were not permitted to begin work until 9 a.m. as the flat-dwellers objected to the noise. Coupled to this difficulty was the fact that no customers were attracted by the showrooms opened in Stratton Street, and the bailiffs walked in and wound up the English branch of Minerva in October 1938. .Mr. B. W. King of the Hyde Park Garage took all the spares.

After the failure of Minerva Motors (England) Ltd. Mr. S. C. Holloway started his own motor business behind the Ladies’ Carlton Club in Halkin Street; Mr. William Holloway marries Mr. Citroen’s daughter.

Minerva took practically no part in competition motoring after their good showing in the 1914 T.T. but at Brooklands the private entrant G. L. Baker did very well with his boat-bodied 32/34-h.p. car, presumably a Type AKS. Between 1931 and 1933 he won two races and gained three ” seconds “and three” thirds,” his best race lap-speed being 96.15 m.p.h. It is rumoured that some of the car’s success was attributable to Baker having had a special crown-wheel and pinion cut, to raise the axle-ratio.

In Belgium Minerva had imported front-drive Adler Trumps and Trump Juniors front Germany, attempting to sell them as Minerva-Imperias, without much success. The old Antwerp factory is now occupied by a firm making food machinery, but during the war Minerva made motorcycles and Land-Rovers under licence. It is interesting that in its hey-day three different mascots, each featuring the head of Minerva, were used, the bestknown being the one on the 32/34-h.p. car. Pd. Soete sculptured a different head for the Type AL straight-eight and yet another style was used for the earlier 20-h.p. cars. Like the R.-R. ” Flying Lady” these beautiful mascots were all too easily stolen but Mr. Hooper preserves one of each.

That is the story of this fine motor car. Perhaps the nicest tribute to it came from a doctor who, believing it to be every bit as good as a Rolls-Royce, had an R.-R. bonnet and radiator fitted to his Minerva coupe.—W. B.