Facel founder Jean Daninos’s primary goal for his company was to create a postwar car that would bring his native France back to the front of the GT market. Facel already had plenty of experience in manufacturing cars for other companies, and a contract cancellation left one of its factories running well below maximum output. With the facilities, the resources, and -- perhaps most importantly -- the drive to succeed, Daninos set out in earnest to make his goal a reality.
He began with the Facel Vega, a superbly-constructed machine that borrowed some of the best parts from around the industry, including Chrysler’s famous Hemi engine. It was costly, but Daninos wisely targeted the wealthy California import market, and found success.
Later models, such as the Facel HK500 and Facel Facellia, took their body styling cues from the Vega, creating a new, distinctive look. Unfortunately, engine issues surfaced in the Facellia, driving customers away and tarnishing the company’s reputation. Worse, Facel didn’t have deep enough pockets to react quickly to these problems, and Daninos was eventually forced to close Facel’s doors.
In the next few pages, you’ll learn more about Facel’s rise and fall, through detailed car profiles and in-depth history. Take a look at how Facel very nearly pulled through, and how -- even though the company didn’t survive -- Daninos just might have achieved his goal anyway.
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Facel Vega & FVS
A patriot and motoring enthusiast, Jean Daninos resolved to build a new postwar car that would return his native France to prominence in the GT field -- the Facel Vega. The tricolor certainly had few high-performers by the early Fifties. Deutch-Bonnet and Alpine-Renault were hardly in Ferrari’s league, Bugatti and Delage were moribund, and Talbot-Lago was soldiering on, nearly bankrupt, with its old 4.5-liter GS.
Daninos was in an excellent position to correct this situation. Before World War II he’d founded Forges et Ateliers de Construction d’Eure et de Loire -- FACEL for short -- and it had built most everything including the kitchen sink: scooters, office furniture, military vehicle bodies, combustion chambers for deHavilland and Rolls-Royce jet engines. By 1954 it employed 2000 workers at four factories, and was also building car bodies for Delahaye, Ford France, Panhard, and Simca. Lending impetus to Daninos’s idea was surplus production capacity at his Colombes facility, created when Panhard cancelled a new model.
High postwar taxes severely limited French-market demand for cars with rated horsepower above 15 cheveaux, so the new GT would have to survive largely on export sales. What better way to assure that than by using foreign mechanical components? Daninos first tried putting a smooth new coupe body on the 4.3-liter Bentley chassis for the 1951 Paris Auto Show.
This Facel-Bentley was well received, and six were ultimately built. But Bentley chassis weren’t cheap, and Facel could make its own. Moreover, it was already producing attractive 2 + 2 hardtop bodies for the Ford France Comète/Monte Carlo. Why not a larger version with a few distinctive touches?
The result of all this was the first Facel Vega, introduced in July 1954. The chassis was a simple but rugged tubular affair with channel- and box-section reinforcements around the engine bay and rear axle. It’s credited to Lance Macklin, a recent member of the HWM racing team with Stirling Moss and Mike Collins, and son of Sir Noel Macklin of Railton fame. M. Brasseur helped with the body styling but, as The Autocar noted, Daninos himself was “the project engineer, designer, and indeed the driving force behind the whole enterprise.”
For power, Daninos gave the Facel Vega what was technically the world’s best V-8: the Chrysler Corporation hemi in its 276-cubic-inch DeSoto version, basically stock but rated at 180 horsepower for this application. It drove the rear wheels through either a French-made Pont-a-Mousson 4-speed manual or Chrysler automatic transmission (2-speed PowerFlite initially, 3-speed TorqueFlite after 1956).
Suspension was conventional: independent with coil springs up front and a live axle on semi-elliptic leafs at the rear. Steering was cam-and-roller, the hypoid final drive came from Salisbury, and slotted steel or Robergel wire wheels ventilated 11-inch-diameter aluminum drum brakes all-round.
Intended as a big and brawny routes nationale cruiser, not a “turn-on-a-dime” sports car, the Facel Vega was massively engineered and thus heavy (over 3700 pounds), but could easily exceed 100 mph. The cabin was rather undersized but lush, with leather trim and an impressive array of instruments and switches. A predictive feature was the fold-down rear seatbacks for interior access to the trunk, which had a regular external lid.
There was nothing regular about the Facel Vega’s workmanship -- it was impeccable. Body panel fit was faultless, rust-resistant stainless steel was used for brightwork, and interior materials were of the highest quality. No wonder the price was a lofty $7000 -- about as much as a contemporary Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn -- and that only 46 Vegas were built through 1955.
At least Daninos had the good sense to target California, land of the rich and famous, as his prime export market, choosing Charles Hornburg, the west coast Jaguar distributor, as his main dealer. Later, for the east coast, Daninos signed on import-car baron Max Hoffman, who’d continue to sell Facels through 1963.
Following adoption of a 291-cid engine, Daninos launched an improved Facel Vega in 1956. Called FVS (for Facel Vega Sport), it carried an even larger, 330-cid Chrysler hemi with 325 bhp, and was distinguished (if that’s the word) by an American-inspired wraparound windshield. Power steering and brakes were offered by 1957, and optional four-wheel disc brakes arrived for 1958, the model’s last year, along with a 1.5-inch longer wheelbase and a 225-bhp 354-cid hemi. Alas, these cars suffered poor front-end geometry, which necessitated frequent wheel alignments and suspension overhauls after only 20,000 miles. But performance was terrific: as little as 9.5 seconds 0-60 mph and up to 134 mph all out.
The first-generation Facel Vega was unquestionably in the grand routier tradition, spiritual heir to the prewar greatness of Delage and Delahaye. It was also a commendably professional effort for a new manufacturer. In fact, Daninos not only sold all he could build (including 11 special convertibles) but actually made a modest profit, which set the stage for a more ambitious effort, the HK500.
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Facel Vega HK500
It’s been said that nothing succeeds like excess. It sure did in the Fifties -- which may explain why the second-generation Facel Vega, the HK500, was simply more of the same. Announced in 1959, the new HK500 retained the basic chassis design of the original FVS, but had updated running gear and a restyled body of altogether more “transatlantic” character. The result, said veteran Mechanix Illustrated magazine tester Tom McCahill, was “sexier than the Place Pigalle and throatier than a Russian basso...a sporting piece of equipment that looks like money, which is exactly what it costs [$9,795]...a car to be appreciated as a remarkable and wonderfully satisfying road companion.”
The HK500 continued on the 105-inch wheelbase of the last FVS, so accommodation remained more 2 + 2 than full four-seater. (One British scribe said it helped if you had very small friends for back-seat passengers.) Still, the new envelope was smarter and more contemporary. The FVS had been somewhat rounded, more Forties than Fifties, but the HK500 was crisper and more Detroit-inspired, right down to stacked quad headlamps and a fully wrapped windshield with “dogleg” A-pillars.
The HK500 also continued Facel’s fondness for Chrysler V-8 power. Early examples carried the 325-horsepower, 354-cubic-inch hemi engine as in the ’58 FVS, but this gave way within a year to the American firm’s new 383-cid wedge-head unit, with two four-barrel Carter carburetors and a rated 360 bhp in this application.
As the HK500 weighed little more than the FVS, the bigger motor gave truly formidable performance. Top speed was at least 140 mph, and the 0-60 mph sprint consumed less than 8.5 seconds. Fuel economy, though, was more dismal than ever: only about 14 mpg, a big drawback in Europe. Pont-a-Mousson 4-speed manual and Chrysler 3-speed TorqueFlite automatic were available as before. So were the Dunlop all-disc brakes, but Facel sensibly made them standard equipment from 1960 on, along with power steering.
Though faster, more stylish, and more roadworthy than its predecessor, the HK500 was still mainly a grand touring machine a comfortable, lavishly equipped high-speed cruiser of obvious quality.
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Facel Vega Facellia/Facel III/Facel 6
Though Facel Vega was one of history’s more successful “hybrid” marques, it went bust after a relatively short 10 years. The main reasons were an over-reliance on high-priced cars, lack of financial depth (which prevented correcting flaws), and stiff competition from thoroughbred marques like Aston, Porsche, and Ferrari. But the deciding factor was the Facellia, a smaller, less expensive car whose poor engine reliability and high resulting warranty claims literally cost Jean Daninos his shirt.
Launched in October 1959, less than a year after the HK500, the Facellia had a distinct Facel look, with the same sort of square central grille, flanking sub-grilles, and vertical head/parklamp clusters. In appearance, it forecast the later Facet II, leading some folks to confuse the two models, though the Facellia was not only smaller and less spacious but a lot slower. A tubular chassis, coil-spring/wishbone front suspension, live rear axle on semi-elliptic leaf springs, cam-and-roller steering, and Dunlop disc brakes were all familiar, though no components were shared with the V-8-powered senior Facels.
That naturally included the body, a new all-steel convertible style that was welded to the chassis on initial assembly. Seating was of the “2 + 1” variety, and a lift-off hardtop was offered as an optional alternative to the standard folding fabric roof. Dimensionally, the Facellia rode a nine-inch-shorter wheelbase than the HK500 and Facel II, had narrower 51.25-inch front and rear tracks, and weighed almost half as much.
The Facellia engine -- and Daninos’s ultimate downfall -- was a new twincam 1647-cc four, specially designed by Britain’s Westlake Engineering and finalized by ex-Talbot engineer Carlo Marchetti. Dual downdraft Solex carburetors were initially fitted, but double twin-choke Webers were also available from mid-1961. Compression ratio was 9.4:1, necessitating high-octane fuel, but the resulting 115 bhp was competitive with the latest Alfa Romeo and MG twincams. Both the engine and 4-speed gearbox (automatic wasn’t offered this time) came from Pont-a-Mousson -- curious, as the French concern had never built an engine before.
Daninos had conceived the Facellia to rival established small/medium roadsters like the Alfa Giulia, Triumph’s TR, and the new MGB, planning to build 5000 a year once production hit full stride. Facel certainly had the facilities to compete in the volume sports-car market, as it had once supplied large numbers of bodies to other automakers. And the car itself was competitive: fast (as one example proved in officially observed speed runs), a decent handler, attractive, and civilized.
But for once, success eluded Daninos. Though the Facellia got an encouraging reception from the press, severe engine problems surfaced almost as soon as deliveries began. The main problem, piston burning, couldn’t be traced right away, and it wasn’t long before buyer interest evaporated. As with the MGA Twin Cam, which experienced similar traumas, the trouble was eventually diagnosed (poor block cooling), but by then it was too late. American buyers, still Daninos’s chief target, didn’t expect to have to heave to with wrenches or attend to major engine work every 40,000 miles. Moreover, parts and dealers were both scarce in the U.S., a situation that wreaked havoc with sales.
As a result, only about 500 Facellias were called for and Facel’s fortunes began sinking fast. By 1962, the firm had slipped into receivership.
But the following spring, the receivers attempted a comeback with the Volvo-powered Facel III, basically a Facellia with the Swedish firm’s much more reliable 1.8-liter overhead-valve four. Some 1500 were sold, which kept Facel alive through the end of 1963.
Then hope for a rescue appeared as the SFERMA subsidiary of Sud-Aviation agreed to manage Facel for the following 12 months. The new guard briefly considered another derivative powered by an aluminum twincam Facel four with up to 200 bhp, but that only implied more of the problems that had plagued the Facellia.
Ultimately, they settled on the BMC 3.0-liter ohv six as used in the Austin-Healey 3000, debored to 2.8 liters and 150 bhp to get under France’s 15 chaveaux tax limit, for a mildly modified Facellia called Facel 6. But there was still no getting around the Facellia’s poor reliability image, and just 26 were built.
By the end of 1964, Facel had negotiated in vain for use of the BMW 2.0-liter sohc six, and SFERMA had refused to continue managing the firm. Facel S.A. was quietly liquidated in early 1965, thus ending Jean Daninos’s dream of a new French GT dynasty.
To learn more about Facel and other sports cars, see:
Facel Vega Facel II
While the small Facellia was busy going nowhere, Jean Daninos treated his rugged “senior” chassis to a second restyle. The result, called Facel II, was too costly to generate the kind of sales that might have saved the company, but it was undeniably the best Facel of all.
Styling wasn’t the new model’s only attraction, just the most noticeable. Glassier and more angular in the contemporary idiom yet unmistakably Facel, it can still turn heads more than a quarter-century later. Compared with the HK500, the Facel II was a tad narrower and lower but rode the same 105-inch wheelbase, so it was just as much a 2 + 2 rather than a full four-seater.
Nevertheless, it looked wider thanks to a lower nose and grille, matched by more neatly integrated Marchal headlamps, still vertically stacked quads. In place of the old wrapped windshield and knee-banging A-posts were simply angled non-dogleg pillars and a taller windshield curved slightly at the top as well as at the sides.
The rear window was similarly contoured, both front and rear glass more steeply raked, the roof flatter, C-pillars slimmer. All this gave the Facel II a much airier appearance than the HK500 despite retention of a fairly high beltline. Lower-body contours were squared up, especially at the rear, but deft use of chrome accents kept the car from looking “fat.”
Beneath the new exterior was basically the same rolling chassis found on late-model HK500s. The Chrysler 383 V-8 was now rated at 355 horsepower with optional TorqueFlite automatic transmission or a smashing 390 bhp with the standard Pont-a-Mousson 4-speed manual. Carburetion made the difference: one and two four-barrel Carter instruments, respectively. Standard disc brakes were also retained, as was power steering, still optional with manual transmission and standard on automatic cars.
With its new styling, the Facel II not only looked more aerodynamic than the HK500 but by all accounts was. And as curb weight was actually reduced by about 400 pounds, its performance was even more formidable. Curiously, 0-60 mph still took a fraction less than 8.5 seconds, but top speed was up to 150 mph, enough to rival the speediest Italian and British supercars of the day.
Unhappily, the Facel II was as much a victim of the Facellia debacle as Facel Vega itself, and only 184 (some sources quote 182) had been built by the time the firm was forced to close its doors in late 1964. Altogether, Facel completed only some 1270 of its Franco-American GTs in 10 years.
Richard M. Langworth, writing in Collectible Automobile® magazine, opined that “it’s probably just as well that Facel died when it did. It’s difficult to imagine what its cars would have been like in the age of emission controls and 5-mph bumpers...As it stands, the Facel record isn’t bad for a firm of its size.”
Langworth then went on to quote writer Bernard Cahier, who provided this fitting epitaph: “[The Facel Vega was part of] that elite group of classic, high-powered touring machines which were immortalized in the prewar days by such as Duesenberg, the Talbot, and the Delahaye...Daninos created a car of which France could be proud, and much credit must be given to his efforts and persistence in creating such a superb machine.”
We can put it more succinctly. A good work is its own reward, and the automotive world is that much better for Jean Daninos and his dream.