Through the Roof


Written by The Staff of Motorsport Marketing

From the July 2016 issue

Posted in Features

story and photography by Dirk de Jager

Belgium may be known for its chocolates, waffles and beer more than its car manufacturing, but before World War I, this small country—just a touch bigger than Maryland and squeezed between Holland, Germany, France and Luxembourg-made its mark on the automotive world.

To tell that story, we’ll need to rewind to more than a century ago–1907, to be exact–and travel to the Belgian countryside hamlet of Nessonvaux. The town sits between Liége, an economic hub teeming with festivals and folklore, and what is perhaps the most beautiful race track in the world, Spa-Francorchamps. Here, nestled in the hills among charming stone cottages, a factory occupied nearly 2 acres of land. Inside, a fledgling car company called Impéria was stretching its legs after moving out of a much smaller facility.

It needed the room.

Earlier that year, the press had fawned over the company’s elaborate debut at the auto show in Brussels. Now that company owner Adrien Gustave Hourmade had bought these new digs, Impéria could begin to meet the growing demand for its handsomely finished coaches. It could also start designing new models to show off at the year-end Paris Motor Show.

Under the arched glass ceiling of the Grand Palais that December, Impéria dazzled showgoers yet again with its machines, underlining its status as a manufacturer to watch. From there, the brand continued to build high-quality automobiles and a reputation to match.

But that momentum abruptly hit a wall in the form of World War I. German forces plundered the Nessonvaux factory, appropriating Impéria’s cars and equipment.

Restoring Impéria

That wasn’t the end of the company, though. In 1919, the year after Germany’s surrender and Hourmade’s death, young Matthieu Van Roggen bought Impéria and set about reviving its prewar grandeur. There was staff to hire, factory equipment to replace, and a future to envision.

He already owned another small car company, and in the late 1920s he started adding to his collection to better compete with the Chryslers, Buicks and Fords encroaching on the European market. Van Roggen bought out other famous Belgian luxury manufacturers Métallurgique, Excelsior and Nagant and absorbed them into his growing empire.

This expansion carried the company to an even bigger plant–still wedged in the hills of Nessonvaux–that opened in 1929. The locals had long complained about the loud, dangerous car tests Impéria conducted on the village streets, so the new facility received a banked, 1-kilometer test track that began indoors and circled its roof. (Yes, the inspiration was the rooftop circuit at Fiat’s Lingotto factory, which had opened in 1923.)

Van Roggen’s vision didn’t stop there: In 1932 he added a license to build Adler motorcycles and cars. Two years after that, he took over Belgium’s grandest-and recently bankrupt–automotive marque, Minerva. Impéria had become the top dog of Belgian car manufacturers.

But the company’s expansion was again squashed by war. Production ceased during World War II as German forces again took over the factory. Van Roggen eventually sold off the company.

Turning to Triumphs

The company flickered back to life again after another war and another change in ownership, but this time it would mainly be churning out cars licensed from other brands: Adler and, starting with the 1949 model year, Standard-Triumph. The factory’s first Standard-badged cars were Vanguards, and later it also started making Triumph TR2s.

Two government programs also helped the manufacturer get back on its feet.

Thanks to the Marshall Plan, which set out to rebuild Europe’s war-ravaged infrastructure and economy, the United States gave several companies a boost in capital so they could reboot and put people to work. Minerva-Impéria was on that list.

The Belgian government was also eager to see its industries grow, so it dropped the import tax on parts and machines to a record low. The idea was to persuade foreign companies to invest in Belgian businesses, and it worked out especially well for Impéria.

After receiving these benefits, the company was able to start building several more European vehicles under license, including the Triumph Mayflower saloon, the Alfa Romeo 1900 and Bussing autobuses. The Adlers, Vanguard and TR2 were still in production, too.

Sports Cars, Too

Exact numbers aren’t really known, but over three or four years Impéria built about 500 copies of the Triumph TR2. To avoid taxes, the factory shipped them as “complete knockdown” kits-basically regular TR2s in disassembled form. A few differences distinguished them from the British-made cars, though, like the left-hand-drive layout and metric dashboard.

In 1954 and with Standard’s blessing, the bosses at Impéria decided to build their own twist on the TR2: an enclosed coupe version. The plans were drawn by in-house designer Frans Pardon, who also penned the Standard Vanguard Cabriolet that launched at the Brussels Motor Show in 1950. Mysteriously, little else is known about Pardon besides his work on these two designs.

His plans didn’t simply call for a steel roof to be welded onto the standard-issue roadster. Instead, the company completely redesigned the car and gave it a roomier, more luxurious cabin. It still looked like a typical TR2 at first glance, though. They named it the Coupe Francorchamps after the nearby race track.

The Triumph TR2 Coupe Francorchamps seemed set up to succeed. It premiered at the high-profile 1955 Brussels Motor Show, and at the 1956 event, Triumph even parked the car on its official stand and touted its features in a specially made sales brochure.

Yet records show that only 22 of these beautiful cars ever managed to sell. Why? We can assume the price tag didn’t help. It sold for 147,500 Belgian francs (or around £1050 to £1100 in Britain), a nearly 25-percent premium over a normal TR2.

Today, the whereabouts of those cars are largely unknown. About 19 Coupe Francorchamps chassis numbers have been confirmed. Records reveal that one example was cut back into a normal TR2. Another was wrecked and its roof went missing. About 11 are believed to still survive, and just seven of those are fully running and driving cars.

Oh, and the Impéria factory closed its doors for the final time in 1958. Standard-Triumph realized having its own plant in Belgium would be more profitable than giving out a license, so that’s just what they did.

Behind the Wheel

This Coupé Francorchamps belongs to a Belgian enthusiast who has a soft spot for drivable cars with storied pasts. In this case, “Made in Belgium” was the reason he acquired the little sports coupe.

Even though it looks like a normal TR2, much of this car is bespoke–like the doors, which slightly differ from the English-made ones. The locks are unique to the Belgian-built cars, too, as they were sourced locally. So is the sunroof, which came from a factory next door in Nessonvaux. It also features far more chroming than a standard example, and some of its parts are from the Triumph Mayflower bin.

The interior is what really sets the Belgian car apart, though. Once inside, that big glass roof draws your attention right away. It gives the cockpit a nice, airy feeling so you don’t really notice you’re in a tiny, enclosed car. It’s actually surprising how spacious the car is considering how narrow most early TRs feel. A TR2 isn’t the most spacious of cars, and that’s without a solid roof or actual side windows.

To make its version a bit more comfortable, Impéria made the most of precious millimeters of leeway. It nudged the seats 50mm closer together for more elbow room and dropped the floor 25mm to create some extra headroom. Even the steering wheel sits a bit more inboard.

If you’re in the mood for some fresh air, you can pop open the sunroof or even remove it completely–you’ll have to leave it at home, though, as it doesn’t easily fit in the car.

Another difference from the British spec: There are two shift levers, a standard one and then a smaller one below it for the overdrive. That overdrive works on all four forward gears.

Once on the road, it feels just like any other TR. Despite the steel roof and more luxurious interior appointments, the Belgian car weighs just 62 extra kilograms. The weight difference doesn’t really bother at all and gives the Coupé Francorchamps a firm but similar planting on the road. Even the overdrive gearbox is easy to use and works like a charm. (Since Triumph parts are used throughout, service should be easy.)

Most bystanders are left to wonder what just drove past. The exterior offers two clues: the Francorchamps badge on the back and one small Impéria plaque on the side. Like the company that created it, this car’s ambition stands unnoticed. Yes, it’s a true rarity hiding in plain sight.

This story ran in an old issue of Classic Motorsports. Want to make sure you’re reading all the latest stories? Subscribe now.

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