The Mahymobiles Musée de l’Auto is a 1000-car collection of a motoring-mad Belgian. And it's fantastic
Probably Europe’s largest private collection, Mahymobiles isn’t well known outside Belgium. Yet housed in an anonymous old mill near Lille is an astonishing collection of classic cars. Most are unrestored and there are reckoned to be around a thousand of them, though many are tucked away from view in the 12 halls of the reserve collection.
The original owner, Ghislain Mahy, was born in 1907, a time when the automobile had captured the imagination of the industrial world. He built his first car when he was 17 and then sold it to begin his lifelong career in the motoring industry. He opened the first car rental agency in Belgium and also began selling new cars.
Mahy developed his knowledge of mechanics during World War Two, mainly by hands-on experience. He already owned a Ford Model T and at the end of the war bought another couple of cars, starting a collection, which he kept in an old winter circus building in Ghent. By the 1950s, he had accumulated around 35 cars.
During the Korean War, scrap metal values rose and Mahy could buy interesting cars for their scrap value. He decided to start a Belgian car museum and set up in Limburg with around 250 vehicles. He drove all over Europe, visiting auctions and autojumbles, searching for more interesting stock.
As the collection grew and became recognised as being worthy and of future importance, people began donating cars. Restorations were sometimes undertaken, but only by volunteers, so the process could be lengthy and laborious.
In 1986, Autoworld, in central Brussels, opened to accommodate a significant chunk of the Mahy collection, and it has since developed into a fine museum. But there were around 750 cars left over, so Mahy’s son, Ivan, found the empty textile factory that now houses Mahymobiles. The main hall is worth the trip alone and the vehicles there mostly bear multi-language information cards. Further exhibits are viewed from walkways and balconies – keen enthusiasts might like to take binoculars.
The diversity is phenomenal. For instance, dominating the main floor is a 1921 CGO Schneider, originally built as a Paris bus. It was converted to a dustcart in 1938 and worked for another 30 years. It is entrancing in its Heath Robinson styling. There is what Mahymobiles describes as its ‘mystery car’, a 1914 AVA single-seater. It has a single-cylinder De Dion Bouton engine and belt drive and is nicknamed ‘The Egoist’. There are microcars, including a 1946 Volugrafo Bimbo voiturette, made in Turin with aluminium from scrapped WW2 aircraft.
English visitors’ attention might be drawn to a 1936 Rolls-Royce Phantom III, described as the factory prototype, with a Park Lane body. The V12 engine has been replaced by a six-cylinder Dodge motor…
In the six halls open to the public, there are also bicycles, motorcycles, models, a children’s pedal-car track, an educational room, and galleries dedicated to aspects of car and commercial vehicle development. This is a rare chance to see examples of Belgian cars such as Minerva, Nagant, FN, Germaine, Imperia, Vivinus, Fondu, Miesse and Belga Rise – and the reference library is measured in tons!
Mahymobiles, Rue Erna 3, 7900 Leuze-en-Hainaut, Belgium. Open from mid-March to late October, Thursdays and Saturdays from 1pm to 5pm, Sundays and Bank Holidays from 10am to 5pm. Admission €8.
Groups of 25 or more can visit at other times by appointment. Car parking is plentiful. Further information is available at www.mahymobiles.be.
Words and photography: Barry Wiseman