By Bill Moore
I could have sworn the Imperia GP was a real car. The high-resolution images on the company web site are so realistic that they've fooled others besides me.
"Maybe they are too realistic," admits Yves Toussant, a founding member of Green Propulsion , a Liege, Belgium-based automotive testing and prototyping firm that has resurrected the long-dormant Imperia brand. With plenty of real hardware experience, Green Propulsion (GP) opted to first explore the potential market for a plug-in hybrid two-seat sports car by having it designed on a computer and then rendered into the life-like reality you see above.
The response has been promising enough that GP has begun work on their "mule", the rolling platform on which they will test their propulsion system that also includes the first use of a new V-4 internal combustion engine now in development by Weber in Germany.
As you can imagine, the story of how GP came to resurrect the Imperia brand name is a fascinating one that began some four years ago and includes, along the way, a student design contest that produced the stunningly classic styling of the concept car illustrations on the web site.
A century ago, according to Toussant, there were some 100 companies in the automotive business in Belgium alone. One of them was Imperia, which began manufacturing cars in 1904. The company reached its heyday in the 20s and 30s after a string of racing successes. Gradually, competition stalled all but two of the car companies in Belgium, finally taking down Imperia in 1958. Once considered the Belgium sports car equivalent of Rolls Royce, it was relatively simple for Green Propulsion to acquire the marque.
The Imperia project is an outgrowth of GP's research work on hybrid-electric drive systems that have spanned the range from karts to small urban buses. They developed a hybrid version of the Volkswagen Lupo and Renault Kangoo. In working for European carmakers, they came to realize that none of their clients were interested in developing a hybrid sports car, so they decided to create one themselves.
"In four years, we have developed the optimal drive for this application," Toussant explained.
There is some poetic justice in deciding to brand the project with the Imperia name. Back in its early 20th century heyday, Imperia cars were manufactured in the same building where the very first hybrid-electric cars where built more than a century ago by a Belgium company called Auto-Mixte. However, the original company never offered a hybrid version, Now, with the help of 21st century technology, its reincarnation hopes to correct that short-coming.
In deciding to resurrect the Imperia marque, Toussant and his colleagues wanted their design to reflect some of the styling cues of the original vehicles, much along the lines of what Volkswagen did when they revived and updated the original "Bug" in the New Beetle. BMW did the same with the very popular Mini Cooper, as did Fiat with its 500. Acquiring the actual brand name was simply a matter of registering it, since by 2004, no one owned it any longer.
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