Rich chocolate. Crispy waffles. Fries dipped in creamy mayonnaise. Belgium is certainly known for its culinary delights, but unlike European neighbors such as Germany and Italy, Belgium is not a well-known hotspot for automotive treasures. However, nestled in Brussels’ city center is a car museum that will satiate any gearhead. Housed in a former exhibition hall in Cinquantenaire Park, Autoworld Brussels was founded as a permanent home for the expansive collection of Ghislain Mahy, a car-trader from nearby Ghent who amassed hundreds of vehicles over the 20th century.
What truly separates Autoworld from other car museums is not the size of the collection, but rather the diversity. From pre-war classics to 1950s Americana to an array of old race cars, the Autoworld collection covers nearly every aspect of the automotive spectrum.
Most of the airy and spacious first floor is dedicated to pre-World War II vehicles, but even among this crowd there is variety. In the early days of the automobile, cars were still in many ways adaptations of the horse-drawn buggies they were replacing. The museum’s black and red 1904 Oldsmobile Curved Dash is a prime example of this—powered by a measly one cylinder engine making just 10 bhp, the simple wooden front and lofty seating position is reminiscent of Santa’s sleigh. By the 1920s development had surged, and the urge to go faster had captured the minds of the automotive pioneers. Several of these early sports cars are on display, including a unique, low-slung 1927 Ford Model T Speedster in a stunning deep red. Two rare Bugattis sit nearby—the 50 bhp 1920 Type 23 is one of only 2,005 examples, while the 1927 Type 44 finished in light blue with maroon wheels was even rarer, with 1,095 produced. Design took a huge leap forward in the 1930s, and the 1937 Cord 812 on the second floor shows this off well with its distinctive “coffin nose” grille and hidden headlights. The 812 (and the earlier 810 iteration) was also one of the first forays into front-wheel drive.
While Belgium isn’t known for its automotive output, several automakers called the nation home before the Second World War, and Autoworld contains a number of Belgian vehicles. The 1927 Excelsior Albert 1 Sport and 1929 Minerva Type AE are both imposing two-door cruisers with stately two-tone paint schemes. Excelsior was sold to Belgian competitor Impéria in 1929 and Minerva, originally a bicycle manufacturer merged with the same company in 1938. There are also several cars from FN (“Fabrique Nationale”), such as the eye-catching 1925 FN 1300 S Sport and the 1930 FN 1400 S, which features intricate carved wood bodywork.
Pre-war vehicles can begin to look a bit same-y, with their separate fender pieces, circular headlamps, and tall radiator grilles. Luckily, a cluster of classic post-war American cars add some design pizzazz. All of the fan favorites are present, from a pink 1955 Chevy Bel Air to a classy black 1956 Ford Thunderbird. The excess of chrome continues on a 1958 Cadillac Fleetwood and a 1965 Lincoln Continental, both of which belonged to King Baudouin, who held the Belgian throne from 1951 until his death in 1993. For those who like their Americana with a dash of speed, there’s a 1965 Ford Mustang sporting leather hood straps and yellow rally lights and a red Corvette Stingray from the same year.
Fans of post-war European sports cars will not be disappointed either. Italy is heavily represented—a rare 1956 Ferrari 250 GT Boano sits back to back with a gorgeous silver 1965 Ferrari 275 GTB. A 1965 Alfa Romeo 2600 Sprint Zagato, one of only 105 examples, stands out with its recessed headlamps, while the headlights of a 1970 Alfa Romeo Montreal peak out from behind its horizontal shutters nearby. A 1980 Porsche 924 Carrera GT, one of 400 road-going versions built to homologize the 924 for Group 4 racing, represents Germany well with flared wheel arches and a mean mug peppered with vents. The squat 1980 Renault 5 Turbo, another homologation special, represents the bonkers rally scene of the 1970s and 1980s.
It gets even better for motorsport fans, as some true racing vehicles reside close by. A Porsche 934 RSR raced by Team Kremer in Group 4 shows off a wild turquoise, purple, red, and orange livery, and a 1966 Porsche 906 Carrera 6 displays curvy bodywork. Formula 1 fanatics will recognize the striking livery of the 2008 Renault R28, which was the driving force in the infamous “Crashgate” scandal. While the R28 at Autoworld is just a show car, a full-blooded F1 car sits to its left—this Arrows-BMW A8 scored a podium at the 1985 San Marino Grand Prix in the hands of Thierry Boutsen. A 1953 Porsche 550 Spyder and a 1954 Jaguar D-Type are parked in a mock garage not far away.
Autoworld also hosts temporary expositions—the exhibit when I visited was “In The Spotlight: Bentley 100 Anniversary.” Several exquisite classic Bentleys were present, including a 1930 4½ Litre complete with leather straps and a Union Jack. There was also a 1948 Bentley Mark VI Radford Countryman Estate, one of eight wood-sided shooting brakes and the personal car of the man who built them, Harold Radford. Representing the period under Vickers ownership was a chunky 1999 Bentley Turbo RT Mulliner, one of 56 Mulliner editions of the run-out special for the Turbo R. The new Continental also made an appearance, a product of the current VW ownership.
Plenty of obscure curiosities are scattered throughout the collection. Looking like a bad prop from a 1980s sci-fi movie, the Sinclair C5 was an electrically assisted pedal cycle and a major flop: 14,000 were made, but only 5,000 found homes before Sinclair went under. The bubbly J.P.W. Prototype is a little-known creation by Jean-Pierre Wimille, a French driver, mainly for Bugatti, who won two pre-war 24 Hours of Le Mans. A 56 bhp Citroen-sourced four-cylinder was housed at the rear, and the Prototype featured was seating for three (think McLaren F1). Wimille was killed in a crash while training for the 1949 Grand Prix of Argentina and only three J.P.W. Prototypes were built.
Equally strange is the 1954 Bugatti Type Brown. Sculptor Jacques Brown constructed the fiberglass body on top of a pre-war chassis, and while his creation is not an improvement over the classic Bugatti styling, it is a rare find nonetheless. Another ugly duckling is the 1988 Italdesign Aztec, which was produced in limited numbers using an Audi turbo-five and a four-wheel-drive system based on that of the Lancia Delta HF Integrale. If the plasticky ’80s styling wasn’t bad enough, the Aztec features a confusing seat design where the two passengers sit in separate compartments. Even more baffling are the tacky code panels built into the bodywork near the rear wheels which allowed drivers to access information about the status of different parts of the car.
Another Delta HF Integrale-based oddity can be found close by. Perched atop the Media Room is a 1993 Lancia Hyena, one of only 24 made by Italian coachbuilder Zagato. The project was not sponsored by Fiat, forcing Zagato to privately purchase Delta HF Integrales before converting them into Hyenas. On the other end of the second floor is a 1965 Amphicar, a dorky-looking amphibious car packing a Triumph Herald engine under the hood, propellors under the rear end, and a heavy dose of ’50s-inspired styling.
Belgium might not be an automotive Mecca like Germany or Italy, but the diversity of vehicles found at Autoworld Brussels makes a pilgrimage to Belgium worth it any car enthusiast.