The 1954-1964 Facel Vega combined Gallic grandeur with American muscle as one of history's most memorable hybrids. Anyone with a soul who ever drove a Facel Vega wouldn't need a reason for its existence. Unfortunately, that's something most of us will never do, because the total number of these Chrysler-powered bolides hardly surpasses a thousand.
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The 1962 Facel II sported a glassy greenhouse, fashionably squared-up contours, and the most potent engine in Facel Vega history. See more classic car pictures.
Facel specialist Fred Kanter once called the Facel Vega "a cross between a Lincoln Continental and a Mercedes-Benz 300SL." Kanter's description sounds strange, but it's really more accurate than you might think.
Driving a Facel Vega is a unique experience. Surrounded by disarmingly luxurious accoutrements, you snick through a notchy gearbox transmitting power sufficient for a howling 140 mph. If the gearbox happens to be an automatic, it doesn't much affect the performance.
Pinning occupants deep into posh seat cushions was a Facel tradition. So was the marque's ability to combine some of the best American and European driving characteristics. And since it lasted a full decade, the FV rates as one of history's most successful hybrids.
But the Facel Vega story begins long before the mating of American power with French bodywork. It dates back to 1938, when Jean Daninos formed Facel S.A. (Forges et Ateliers de Construction d'Eure et de Loire) in Paris to manufacture aircraft dies and tooling.
After the fall of France in June 1940, the works was occupied by the Germans and thus ordered to produce war materiél. On the side, Daninos produced charcoal-burning generators, very useful with the concurrent shortage of gasoline in the occupied nation.
French industry was relatively unscathed despite the conflict with Germany, and Facel expanded quickly after peace was restored in 1945. Just five years later, the company was producing almost everything including the kitchen sink: scooters, bodies for military cars, combustion chambers for Rolls-Royce and de Havilland jet engines, office furniture, kitchen cabinets, and those metal sinks.
By then it employed 2000 workers at four factories, two in Paris, one in Dreux, and one -- the largest -- in Amboise.
The military body business proved particularly profitable, and Facel soon turned to constructing car bodies for Delahaye, Simca, Panhard, and Ford France. The mechanical presses at Amboise punched out steel and aluminum panels, which were then transferred to Paris, assembled in jigs, and welded into complete bodies.
By 1952 the firm was turning out about 105 per day. The bodies supplied to Ford were for the V8-60 Comète and its Mercury-powered counterpart, the Monte Carlo. These models are significant in the development of the Facel Vega because their body design was entirely Facel's -- a finely styled, softly rounded 2 + 2 of the Pininfarina school, with a prominent grille, very clean slab sides, and a broad, curved windshield.
Having been involved with making everything from car bodies to kitchen sinks, Jean Daninos resolved to build a high-performance car that would restore France to a position of prominence in the GT field. Trouble was, it would have to survive as an export.
While the Facel-built bodies were undeniably sleek, Simca, Panhard, and Ford were hardly in the grand routier tradition of marques like Bugatti and Delage. Few native products were.
High postwar taxes severely limited French market demand for cars with horsepower rated above 15 chevaux (the Comète was 13), and by 1954 only Lago Talbot was soldiering on, nearly bankrupt, with its 4.5-liter, 210-bhp GS. There was little to represent the tricolor in the GT field except Deutsch-Bonnet and Renault Alpine, which were hardly in the Ferrari league.
A patriot as well as an enthusiast, Daninos resolved to correct this situation. If a French performance GT couldn't survive on the home market, maybe it could as an export, particularly if it employed foreign mechanical components.
His first move in this direction was to top the 4.3-liter Bentley chassis with a trim, three-seat coupe body of smooth lines. This car starred at the 1951 Paris Salon, and six of these Facel-Bentleys were ultimately built.
In construction they resembled the Comète: steel doors and sides, Duralinox front and rear body panels, and light alloy roof, carefully mated to create a body that appeared "all of a piece." Styling prefigured that of the first Facel Vega, which arrived in 1954. Read about the debut of the Facel Vega on the next page.
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