Facel-Vega

 

French metal producer FACEL (Forges et Ateliers de Construction d'Eure et Loire) was a well established French firm which decided to branch into car manufacturing in the mid 1950's. FACEL had already supplied complete body shells to French manufacturers  Simca, Panhard and Ford France. It had no special claim to automotive excellence, because until it started building  cars of its own, it was barely in the automotive business at all. In a ten-year span from 1954 to 1964, Facel Vega built cars that  attracted customers like Ava Gardner, Danny Kaye, and Ringo Starr. 
 
 One might legitimately ask why  Facel Vega became the noted French luxury marque of the fifties and sixties instead of Bugatti, Delahaye, Hotchkiss or Talbot-Lago.  You might also ask why a Corvette is better than a Citroen, but then we'd have to send you for a cat scan. After all, prior to WWII France had been manufacturing very fast, sharp-handling luxury machines with styling that  looked much better than the offerings from Mercedes-Benz. Certainly the Nazi occupation of France, postwar shortages of materiel, and the disruption of the European markets were partly to blame for the fate of most of the French auto builders. One also could point the finger (or give it, your choice) at the postwar French government, which instituted steep taxes on high horsepower luxury cars, essentially putting a stake in the heart of its own luxury car manufacturers. Don't you just love socialism?

By 1952 Bugatti was barely in business, Hotchkiss was building a few antiquated designs, the Delahaye-Delage combine built fewer than 100 cars a year, and Talbot-Lago was stumbling along at an equally dismal pace. But some can always find hope in adversity, and such a man was Jean Daninos, the brother of a prominent French writer. 

Daninos had  founded a metal stamping company called Forges et Ateliers de Construction d'Eure et de Loire (FACEL) in 1938 and immediately profited from the rearmament of Europe that accompanied Hitler's rise to power. During the Nazi occupation of France, Germany  ordered his company to build  wood-gas generators (no, they didn't build Chrysler's Instant Heater)  for cars and trucks, and though working for the Nazis was distasteful, (really? imagine that) it did guarantee that FACEL would emerge from the war largely unscathed. Unlike Adolph, who would not emerge at all and would be very scathed.

After the war, Facel returned to  building combustion chambers for license-built Rolls-Royce and de Havilland gas turbines. Daninos decided to diversify his production, and soon the company was fabricating scooter chassis, kitchen cabinets, and office furniture. The company's diversification brought it into the automobile business as a supplier of specialty bodies for Panhard, Delahaye, and Simca. 

The French-Ford Comete took Facel to the brink of actual automotive manufacture because, unlike the others, the coupe was a Facel design. The Comete, in fact, was an obvious precursor of the Facel Vega with its wrap-round rear window and the legendary "roly-poly" seats. But the chassis and 2.2-liter V-8 engine never lived up to the promise of the bodywork, and the Comete was eventually dropped. Gee, what a shame. I always wanted one of those. 
Daninos longed to do a bit more than build car bodies for auto manufacturers. He wanted to build a car of his own, and he saw an opening in the collapse of the French ultra-luxury industry. 

At the 1954 Paris Auto Show, Daninos shocked the press and public with a show car he called the Vega, after the star. Designed by Jacques Brasseur, the show car was sleek, understated and elegant. The grille and headlights combined modern design with classic, and the thin-pillared greenhouse had a lightness about it. Brightwork  was kept to a tasteful minimum, with virtually all the bright pieces on the car being fashioned from stainless steel. Inside, the well-tailored seats  and the full gauges and lever-operated controls showed the company's aeronautic influences. 

While the interior and exterior of the first Facel Vega reeked of European sophistication,  American power lurked under the hood. Knowing that building an engine from scratch was a daunting and expensive task, Daninos went shopping in America and chose the  276 cubic inch De Soto Firedome V-8. With a compression ratio of 7.5:1, hemispherical combustion chambers and pushrods operating its overhead valves, the venerable hemi offered 180 horsepower at 4,500 rpm, more than enough for grand touring in the European tradition.

Backing up the hemi engine were two transmissions,  the Chrysler Torqueflite three-speed automatic with  push-button control  or the Pont-a-Mousson four-speed all-synchromesh manual transmission in tandem with a Borg and Beck clutch that required considerable leg strength. 

With its luxury appointments and big engine, the Facel Vega was fairly heavy, but  it had a reasonably stiff frame fashioned of steel tube side-members joined by both tubes and channel-section cross-pieces. The suspension was nothing revolutionary with an independent coil-and-wishbone front suspension and longitudinal semi-elliptic springs locating the live axle at the rear, while tubular shocks did the damping. The suspension was tuned to minimize body roll, and road testers said that the Vega actually felt quite nimble. Brakes were a bit weak, but adequate for most conditions.


At a price of $7,000 in 1954, the first Facel Vega didn't sell that well, but it is said 46 were built in 1954 and 1955. This was encouraging enough to Daninos that he decided to significantly revise the car for 1956. The major change was the shift to the 331 Chrysler hemi V-8. Daninos called the new version the FVS, and it continued in production until 1959, when more revisions resulted in the HK 500, complete with a Chrysler engine under the hood. 

About the same time, the company produced a four-door model called the Excellence on a stretched HK 500 platform. The car was very pricey at $12,800, aimed at the Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz 300 buyer, and its pillarless greenhouse gave it a stately look. Unfortunately, the chassis was not properly stiffened and its rear doors had a disturbing habit of swinging open as the car rounded corners. "Oops, hang on, Pierre!" Some 152 of these cars  were manufactured between 1959-62. It looks disturbingly like a cross between the Cadillac El Dorado and the Cadillac El Dorado Brougham.

The beginning of the end came for Facel Vega in 1960 with the introduction of a two-seat coupe called the Facellia.  Daninos suddenly turned his back on the successful and reliable American engines that had made his previous cars viable, and decided to use a  French engine. The 1.6-liter "explode-o-matic" powerplant, designed by Carlo Marchetti, formerly of Talbot, and Paul Cavalier of Pont-a-Mousson, was a failure, sending the company hurtling toward bankruptcy. Even the eventual substitution of the Volvo P1800 powerplant could not revive the fortunes of the Facellia. (Facellia is Italian for Bendix Fuel Injection) Though envisioned as a "volume" car, only 1500 were produced.

With the company already on its way to receivership, the sleek, sophisticated Facel Vega II was introduced in October 1961. With  390 horsepower streaming from its Chrysler engine, (good move, but too late) zero to 60 times were variously reported in the 7 second range. Top speed was  140 mph. Even when equipped with a  Torqueflite automatic that required the engine to be de-tuned to  355 horsepower, the Facel Vega II was a force to be reckoned with. Now that one, I could get to like.

Despite the excellence of the company's Chrysler-powered cars, the  company slipped into receivership in late 1962, and with Daninos out of the picture the company faded still further. It finally shuttered its doors forever in 1964, leaving us a legacy that included not only its own vehicles but also the European marques that relied on American horsepower like Iso Rivolta, De Tomaso, and Jensen.

Of course, we know that Chrysler borrowed the Pont A Mousson 4 speed gearbox for a handful of 300Fs, detailed elsewhere. Parts are not available for this transmission, so if you have a Facel with this gearbox, don't power shift! Facels are pricey and rather nice looking, as you can see in the gallery. The fact that most of them have Chrysler drive line components made them easy to maintain, and a good number found their way to the U.S.



Gallery

 

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