Last revised: 26-1-2009

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Car of the Month - September 2006

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Imperia TA-8 - roadster body - manufactured in 1948

The Belgian made Imperia is nowadays nearly forgotten, but it was the longest surviving of the car makes originating from the pre-war period in this small Western-European country. From the start of the 20th century car industry was very fertile in Belgium, helped by its large North Sea harbour and extensive iron processing industry. The limited internal market and the economic crisis at the end of the 1920s however meant that many Belgian makes struggled or had disappeared during the 1930s. After the end of the second World War only Imperia was able to return with a new model range.
Imperia was established in 1906 by Adrien Piedboeuf in Liège and he chose the crown of Emperor Charlemagne as symbol for his company, which explains the name of the cars. Early Imperias were of conservative design but with the arrival of gifted German engineer Paul Henze more advanced and powerful models were introduced. Though Imperias were mainly marketed locally and in neighboring countries like France and Germany the company was contacted by Spaniard Francisco Abadal in order to produce his sports car designs which were inspired by the Hispano-Suiza Alfonso model. These cars were introduced in 1912 in Spain under the Abadal name but Imperia also produced these models under its own name with different radiators and bodywork.
In 1920 the Imperia company was acquired by businessman Mathieu van Roggen, who proved to be the key factor in the survival of Imperia. During these years production was very limited and the model range still based on the advanced but expensive Abadal designs. Van Roggen introduced some costly performance models which achieved some success in competition but didn't boost sales. A new direction was taken in 1923 when engineer Arnold Couchard was hired away from competing car manufacturer FN to develop a cheaper car. Couchard designed a new small sleeve-valve engine which had a relatively high power output. This engine formed the base for the 6CV and 7CV models which were produced until well in the 1930s. The 6CV was more affordable than previous Imperia models and sales rose to about 500 cars a year.

Imperia's fortunes faded in the early 1930s as a consequence of the crisis, an outdated model range and competition from cheaper import cars. Van Roggen had bought former competitors Excelsior, Métallurgique and Nagant in 1929 while his main rivals Minerva and FN had also joined forces. The reorganized Imperia company was now one of the largest car manufacturers in Belgium, but Van Roggen realized that he had to introduce new models in order to survive while having hardly any budget for development. He then made a remarkable move: he turned to the German Adler company for help. Adler had introduced an advanced front wheel drive model in 1932 named the Trumpf and developed by famous engineer Hans Gustav Röhr. Judging correctly that this was the way to go Van Roggen contacted Adler and made a deal to import the Adler Trumpf powertrain into Belgium and fit it into Imperia produced cars (model name TA-9). This proved to be quite lucrative and later similar contracts were signed concerning the Adler Trumpf Junior (model TA-7 Alouette) and 2-Litre models (model TA-11 Jupiter).
Around 1935 the most prestigious of all Belgian makes, Minerva, had failed and Mathieu van Roggen added it to his empire and became the largest Belgian car manufacturer. Near the end of the 1930s dealing with the German authorities became increasingly difficult and Van Roggen's successful move to use Adler technology became his downfall. While bartering Belgian textiles for Adler components he ran into serious debt with the Hauzeur-Gérard textile company, which took control over Imperia in 1940, leaving Van Roggen with only the Minerva part of his former empire.
After the war Imperia imported and later assembled British Standard-Triumph cars. The last Imperia model appeared in 1947 and was named the TA-8. Externally it resembled a more sporting version of the pre-war Imperia models, but underneath the body it no longer relied on Adler technology. Instead it was based on the powertrain of the ill-fated pre-war Amilcar Compound model from France. This front wheel drive car had been designed by Jean Grégoire in 1938 and its 1340 cc 4-cylinder engine had just been fitted with modern overhead valves before production was ended by the war. It was this, still very up to date, version which was used by Imperia under license from Hotchkiss.
The TA-9 performed well but suffered some reliability problems and after a few years Imperia had to conclude that it couldn't make a profit with these cars. After about 1000 TA-9 cars had been made production was stopped in 1949. Imperia continued with assembly of Standard-Triumph models and Adler motorcycles amongst other things. The end for Imperia came in 1958, when Standard-Triumph opened its own assembly plant and ended its association with Imperia.

More than 50 years after its first car Imperia disappeared quietly from the scene and with it went Belgium's national car industry. A sad event hardly noticed by the world. These days surviving Imperias are rare and mostly extant in Belgium, where enthusiasts keep this small but colorful make from extinction.

© André Ritzinger, Amsterdam, Holland

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