No. 7: The Minerva AK (1927)
Back in 1897 the Belgian company Minerva – named after the Roman goddess of wisdom, art and commerce – was set up by a gentleman named Sylvain de Jong. It's first products were bicycles; motorcycle engines followed, then motorised bicycles, and finally, from 1902 onwards, cars. These were not your normal run of the mill mass-produced cars; they were impeccably built, luxurious machines designed to be driven by chauffeurs.
Initially the engines were of a side valve configuration and then from 1908 onwards they adopted a double sleeve valve design; a metal sleeve sat between the piston and the bore and slid during the cycle to uncover the inlet and outlet ports at the right stages. This was much quieter than rival engines but far more expensive to manufacture.
This did not particularly bother their customers. A list of some of them reads like a 'Who's Who' of the period; the Royal families of Sweden, Norway and Belgium were amongst the buyers, and even the prince amongst car manufacturers, Henry Ford, bought one too. In England, Charles Rolls, one of the founders of Rolls-Royce, owned a Minerva dealership.
They were not just stately conveyances either. They were raced in the 1914 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy; no they didn't come first but they still managed a very creditable second, third and fifth place. They won the Swedish Winter Cup three times between 1911 and 1914; and their team won the Belgian Grand Prix.
The First World War interrupted production but once that was over production started again with a large number shipped across the Atlantic to the United States, where they were welcomed by film stars and rich industrialists. They were after all amongst the very few people in the world that's could afford one; they were cheaper then the equivalent Rolls-Royces but not by very much!
In 1927 the AK version was launched; this featured a 5.9 litre six cylinder engine and the coachwork was superb. Most designs featured long running boards to the sides, which rose up and over the front wheels, wire wheels and a bust of the goddess Minerva on the radiator cap. There was a lot of demand for the Landaulette model; this had a solid roof over most of the car but a folding top covered the rear seat. This could be folded back so that the owner, driven along by the uniformed chauffeur, could be exposed to the admiring public. This must have been one of the most potent ego trips of the period!
The 1929 American stock market crash, and then the Great Depression, caused a lot of belts to be tightened and a lot of industrialists went from very rich to very poor overnight. Minerva was badly hit by this and by 1934 the company was obliged to merge with another Belgian manufacturer named Imperia. In 1938 the end of luxury car production finally came; war was threatened and the company switched to making a version of the Land Rover under licence for the Belgian Army until a contract dispute brought this to an end, too.