1931 Minerva 8 AL Convertible Sedan by Rollston
- Brilliant sleeve valve engineering in Minerva’s exclusive masterpiece
- Stunning Rollston coachwork; one of only about 50 eight-cylinder ALs built
- Superb Steve Babinsky restoration
- Multiple concours awards, including class win at Pebble Beach
Minerva was named after the Roman goddess of commerce, craftsmanship, poetry, medicine, magic and the inventor of music. The car company was founded by a Dutchman, Sylvain de Jong. Like so many early automobile companies, it began as a machine shop manufacturing bicycles. It was the manufacture of bicycles that led him to small one- and two-cylinder engines, which could be adapted to existing bicycles or purchased together.
Bicycles led to automobiles, and the company expanded quickly. From 200 employees in 1899, the first year, by 1912 the company employed 1,600. The advent of the First World War changed everything, and those who could get to London were housed in the company’s London dealership. Those who could not refused to work for the Germans, and as a result they seized the factory and turned it into a vehicle repair operation.
After the war, de Jong began working on new designs. Unfortunately, protectionism, which was rampant throughout Europe, was not implemented in Belgium, with the predictable result that the big international companies quickly established plants there, and volumes grew quickly. Companies like Minerva were relegated to niche markets.
Sylvain de Jong passed away in 1928, leaving his brother in charge of the factory. It was under his control that the company’s greatest product was introduced – the magnificent eight-cylinder AL. A sleeve valve masterpiece, it was smooth and quiet but frighteningly expensive, and it is thought that no more than 50 were produced before the plant closed. They were, however, the greatest cars Minerva had ever made.
The Sleeve Valve Engine
The contemporary poppet valve engine design, while efficient, was quite noisy in operation. Every revolution required a valve in each cylinder to open or close, slamming to a stop at the end of each of these motions. In the case of an eight-cylinder engine, the result was eight such operations on every revolution. It created a cacophony, and engineers spent fortunes trying to abate the noise.
The solution was the sleeve valve engine, invented by Charles Knight. With his design, opening and closing of valves was accomplished by a pair of slotted sleeves which moved up and down within the cylinder bore and within which the piston reciprocated. When the ports in the two sleeves aligned with the exhaust port, the exhaust cycle was underway. Intake worked according to the same principle. The action of the sleeves moving up and down was caused by a fairly conventional camshaft, acting on roller bearings affixed to arms attached to the bottom of each sleeve.
This innovative design at once eliminated all the sources of mechanical noise as the movement of well-lubricated sleeves up and down (with no sudden stops or starts) made no sound whatsoever. There were other benefits as well, such as leaving the entire cylinder head area available to optimise its shape and the position of the spark plug. The only downside to the sleeve valve design was the oil consumption, particularly if the car was unused for a period of time. Fortunately, as the engine acquired mileage, carbon build-up on the inner and outer surfaces of the sleeves caused them to seal better as time went on, causing it to consume less oil, not more.
Knight’s marketing plan was clever in that rather than use his engine as the basis for building a complete car, he licensed the technology to the top automakers in each country – Daimler in England, Panhard et Levassor in France, Mercedes in Germany and of course Minerva in Belgium, among others.
The Minerva offered here was purchased by Henry Walker Bagley of New York and his wife Nancy, the youngest daughter of the late R.J. Reynolds, founder of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, in 1931. Mr. Bagley ordered the top-of-the-line eight-cylinder Minerva chassis from the factory in Belgium and commissioned Rollston to design the body.
In later years, the car was acquired by D. Cameron Peck, one of the most prolific collectors of his era, for his Long Island Motor Museum. Subsequent owners included Fred H. Bultman, Dr. James Dees and Gerald A. Rolph. RM Classic Cars Inc. purchased three cars from Gerald Rolph, including this Minerva, which was then sold to noted collector Charles Morse of Seattle, Washington in the late 1990s.
Morse subsequently commissioned the car to a full restoration by internationally renowned restorer Steve Babinsky in 1998, following which the car was invited to Pebble Beach – where the beauty of the car and the quality of the restoration was recognised by a first in class award.
It was an award winner in 1999 at many shows, including the Meadow Brook and Amelia Island concours events and Louis Vuitton in New York. The same year it was awarded its First Junior at Hershey in 1999 followed by “Best of Show” at the Grand Classic National Meet in Cleveland shortly afterwards.
Driving the AL today offers a glimpse into what might have been. The car is ghostly quiet and accelerates like an electric car. The Rollston coachwork is stunning, one of the finest collaborations between an American coachbuilder and a European chassis builder. With its superlative restoration, it is not only wonderful to admire but almost certainly even better than the day it was built. It is a car that would earn pride of place in any important collection.
Please note that this car is eligible for import into the UK at 5% VAT.