1954-1964 Facel Vega

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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1962 Facel II
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
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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The 1954-1955 Facel Vega's raison d'être was cost: Bentley chassis weren't cheap, and Facel had the ability to make its own. A key figure here was Lance Macklin.

A former member of the HWM racing team with Stirling Moss and Mike Collins, and son of Sir Noel Macklin of Railton fame, he designed the Vega's strong cruciform chassis, which dropped well below the drive-shaft centerline between front and rear wheels. It employed two 31/2-inch forward side tubes, to the insides of which were welded channel-section steel with flanges that widened toward the front.

The tubes also curved upward and inward toward the front, which increased rigidity. Two smaller tubular members curved back over the rear axle. Cross-bracing was a combination of tubular- and channel-steel members, some placed diagonally.

A second collaborator was M. Brasseur, who helped with the body styling. But, as The Autocar commented, Daninos was "the project engineer, designer and, indeed, the driving force behind the whole enterprise."

As for power, Facel selected what was technically the best V-8 in the world at the time: Chrysler Corporation's hemi, specifically the 276-cubic-inch DeSoto version, rated here at 175 bhp in 1954-1955.

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 was supplied by Salisbury, and Robergel wire wheels ventilated 11-inch-diameter aluminum drum brakes all-round.

Although it weighed over 4000 pounds, the Facel Vega could easily exceed 100 mph with either the standard Pont-à-Mousson four-speed gearbox or the optional two-speed PowerFlite automatic, also from Chrysler.

Later, the American company brought out its more advanced three-speed Torque-Flite, and the French firm quickly adopted it.

The new car appeared in Paris on July 29, 1954, with the Vega model name. Confusingly, this was combined with Facel in 1956 to create the Facel Vega marque. Whatever you called it, this was one helluva automobile.

Coachwork was impeccable: the doors closed like bank vaults and the body panels were faultlessly joined (restorers stripping F-V bodies have found no fewer than five perfectly mated panels forming the roof). Attention to detail was evident in the use of corrosion-resistant stainless steel for brightwork, and in the top-grade cowhide and thick carpet that lined the interior.

With all that, the Vega sold for a price you might expect: a lofty $7,000, about as much as the concurrent Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn. It's hardly surprising then that only 46 of the 1954-1955 Vegas were built.

We move ahead with the 1956 Facel Vega on the next page.

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Daninos had to export the 1956 Facel Vega FVS to survive, and he chose California as his prime target and Charles Hornburg, the west coast Jaguar distributor, as his sales outlet.

Later, for the east coast market, he signed up Max Hoffman, the godfather of the import car business in the U.S., who introduced Americans to more European marques than everybody else combined. Hoffman Motors continued to sell Facels until 1963.

1956-1957 Facel Vega FVS dashboard.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
The FVS "wood" dash was actually painted metal, though very realistic. Full instrumentation was included.

With the U.S. market in good hands, Daninos launched a refined Facel Vega in 1956. Designated "FVS," it was powered by a 330-cid Chrysler hemi belting out 225 bhp and was distinguished -- if that's the word -- by an American-inspired wraparound windshield.

Though the extreme dogleg A-pillars raised knee welts from Palm Beach to Beverly Hills, it didn't much bother the Beautiful People who doted on and drove the beasts. Indeed, they were the only ones who could afford to.

The FVS reintroduced a unique dashboard treatment first tried with the Facel-Bentleys: what appeared to be highly polished burl walnut was, in reality, painted metal. It was the best sham woodwork ever manufactured. It even crinkled with age like the real thing.

Another surprise was the dashboard "glovebox," which was nothing of the sort -- just a hinged plate containing a vanity mirror. The true gloveboxes were built into the door panels.

Like all Facel products, the FVS was properly instrumented, with a large speedo and tach supplemented by five minor gauges. Chrysler influence was evident in the heater controls with their huge chrome knobs, as well as the push-button transmission selector on automatic cars.

Facel charged a minimum $7,500 for the FVS. One reason the price was so high was that the company had to pay double duty, first on the arrival of the Chrysler bits in France, then on the arrival of completed cars in the country of sale.

A temporary import permit for the Chrysler parts might have been arranged, but Facel never thought of it. These were car nuts, not customs agents. On the next page, let's do a road test of Facel Vegas from 1956 to 1959.

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Now let's try a Facel Vega road test. If the Facel Vega performed well, the Facel Vega FVS was a stormer. Typical examples ran 0-60 mph in 10.5 seconds and could reach two miles per minute with the 2.93:1 rear axle ratio. Production cards indicate that 227 of these cars were built for 1956-1957. Over three-fourths were exported, mostly to America.

Unhappily, the FVS suffered from one serious flaw: poor front-end geometry. Perhaps because of America's rough secondary roads, wheel alignment was a much-too-frequent necessity, and suspension overhauls required after as few as 20,000 miles were not uncommon.

1956-1957 Facel Vega FVS
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Vega's successor was the 1956-1957 FVS, with wrapped windshield and more hemi power but the same 103.5-inch wheelbase. Just 227 were built. Most came to America.

But Daninos sold the FVS as fast as he could build it -- and at a modest profit. Another 130 were completed for 1958, now on a wheelbase lengthened 1.5 inches to an even 105 and powered by the 325-bhp Chrysler 354 hemi.

This mighty engine was continued on the HK-500, the little-changed FVS successor announced in 1959, and was good for that 140-mph maximum.

Daninos had obviously latched on to a good thing: the American horsepower race. Every time Chrysler produced a hairier V-8, Facel happily bought a small batch for its Parisian flyers. After Chrysler switched to the 383-cid wedge-head for some of its 1959 models, Facel followed suit.

The presence of automatic on most HK-500s didn't seem to make much difference. Motor Life magazine timed the standing quarter-mile in 17.3 seconds at 78 mph, while The Motor in England scored a second less and about 8 mph more with the Pont-à-Mousson four-speed.

"One of the world's fastest and most controllable luxury sports saloons," was the British magazine's verdict. The American publication was more enthusiastic, giving the HK-500 "a full quota of gold stars as one of the world's finest automobiles."

Another Facel Vega fan was Mechanix Illustrated magazine's Tom McCahill, who boasted the largest following of any road test writer in America.

In typical fashion, he called the HK-500 "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 ... a car to be appreciated as a remarkable and wonderfully satisfying road companion."

Next came the four-door. We cover it on the next page.

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Appearing in 1959 was Daninos' first production Facel Vega four-door, based on the HK-500 platform but built on a 20-inch longer wheelbase. Its name was the Facel Vega Excellence four-door.

A hardtop sedan sans B-pillars; it was novel in-having center-opening doors that latched on only two small lugs built into the sills. There is a debate over the merits of this arrangement. Some say the long, heavy, pillarless structure tended to flex, with embarrassing results for door alignment.

Facel Vega Excellence
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Full pillarless construction on a long, chassis gave the Excellence a lot of body flex, according to some. Others say there's none.

Others insist that there was no flex at all. Perhaps it is significant that Ford studied the Excellence and elected to use a semi-pillar type of construction for its Lincoln Continental sedan and convertible sedan, introduced for 1961.

Despite being more than two feet longer than the HK-500, the Excellence was small by American standards at 206.5 inches long overall, though its 125-inch wheelbase made it comparable to U.S. full-size models. The impression inside was of a standard Facel Vega, with the same dummy-walnut dash, plentiful gauges, and aromatic leather upholstery.

But the Excellence also provided a complete make-up kit for milady. Mounted on the back of the center armrest, it contained a chrome-handled brush and comb plus two perfume bottles. The latter were not filled, no doubt just an oversight.

Facel Vega Excellence
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Facel Excellence doors latched on small built-in sill lugs.

Priced at a towering $12,800, the Excellence could hardly be expected to sell in hefty quantity, and it didn't. Production was just 60, 62, and 34 units for 1960, 1961, and 1962, respectively. Even so, it received a lot of good press.

Comparisons were usually made with Cadillac's Eldorado Brougham -- quite apt, that -- as well as the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud and Mercedes-Benz 300d, though the Excellence had the legs of any of them.

While the contemporary Chrysler 300F was superior in speed and acceleration -- it had 413 cid to the Facel's 383 -- it lacked the French car's outstanding finish and more restrained styling. Later, the Excellence came in for disc brakes and, following the American trend, less pronounced tailfins.

It cost the world -- particularly with optional power brakes and steering, air conditioning, power windows, and what-not -- but low sales were not necessarily a handicap in this rarified price sector.

Facel Vega Excellence
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
A beautifully maintained Excellence shows off the model's formal front and long, low profile.

The Excellence nearly spun off one very interesting derivative: a revival of the grand luxe Packard. Proposed by a New York conglomerate in 1959, it was, of course, nothing more than a piece of badge engineering, with Packard nameplates and emblems, "ox-yoke" radiator and pelican mascot, and red-painted wheel hubs (the Facel's already had the required hexagonal shape).

The idea was pitched simultaneously to Daninos and the Studebaker-Packard board and envisioned a "caretaker" operation under the Packard name. The cars were to be sold only through the more "exclusive" S-P dealers at an anticipated price of about $15,000.

Daninos was agreeable, and S-P president Harold Churchill, a traditionalist and a car lover, was allegedly delighted. The project actually got as far as the planning stage when opposition arose from Daimler-Benz, which was then marketing its Mercedes cars in North America through S-P and didn't take kindly to the notion of an "in-house" French competitor by any name.

Churchill, realizing that the Facel-Packard would sell in much smaller quantity than the Mercedes, shelved the proposal. It was probably as close as S-P ever came to resurrecting the big luxury Packard after 1956.

On the next page, we consider the Facel Vega V-8.

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Best of the V-8 Facel Vegas was the Facel II V-8, introduced for model year 1962. Essentially, it was a reskinned HK-500 on the same wheelbase and powered by the same Chrysler 383, but the deft and elegant styling changes make it perhaps the most desirable of all Jean Daninos' creations.

This new 2+2 did away with clichés like the wrapped windshield, and looked more impressive because it was six inches longer overall than the HK-500. Light-alloy knock-off disc wheels or Borrani-Rudge wires were offered.

1962 Facel II V-8
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Facel II (1962 shown) was the last and best of the firm's Franco-American V-8 GTs.

At only 3,400-3,600 pounds, the Facel II was lighter than its predecessors and thus the quickest Facel in history. Road tester Bernard Cahier, for example, achieved a true 140 mph and clocked 0-100 mph at 17 seconds.

Daninos was a small man physically, and the Facel II cockpit reflected his personal considerations. The steering wheel sits in one's lap, pedals and controls are within reach of anyone, and the upright front seats have fixed backrests.

(On the Excellence, foot-rests were built into the rear of the front seat cushions for short people to brace themselves -- no doubt Daninos found himself back there on occasion, behind an enthusiastic French test driver.)

You face the usual large tachometer and speedometer and can consult five additional instruments -- fuel level, coolant temperature, oil pressure, amps, and oil temperature -- plus a clock, in the center of the dash per previous practice.

1962 Facel II interior cabin.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
The 1962 Facel II cabin was jazzier but still understated.

All gauges have straightforward white-on-black markings, and there are little hoods on the small ones to forestall reflections. The rear seat was strictly "occasional" on all Facel Vegas, but it folds down on the Facel II to make a platform for luggage.

The front compartment is spacious, however, and the glassy superstructure makes for excellent visibility in every direction. It isn't very hard to imagine putting in many long, effortless miles behind the wheel of a Facel II.

On the road, the Facel II feels incongruously like a big American sedan. The Chrysler engine grumbles softly, and the car's smoothness and relative heft are readily apparent. Definite oversteer reinforces this impression, though owners say this can be corrected by varying tire pressures.

With its quick and precise power steering, the Facel II handles well, tracking smoothly through high-speed turns and sticking ably in tight corners. Certainly it was the best of the breed. Alas, it would be the last of the V-8 Facel GTs, and only 182 were built for model years 1962-1964.

And with that, we consider the last Facel Vega, on the next page.

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What killed Facel Vega? To some extent, at least in Europe, it was high price. The contemporary Jensen CV8, Aston Martin DB5, Bristol 407, and Maserati 3500 all cost much less. This is part of the story of the last Facel Vegas.

In addition, lack of real financial depth prevented a complete redesign, which could have eliminated the traditional front-end problems, the somewhat heavy controls, and the lack of genuine four-passenger accommodation. But the deciding factor was the company's attempt at a smaller, all-French product, the 1959-1963 Facellia.

Facel III Coupe
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Had Facel S.A. not been in such financial hot water, it's possible the Facel III would have sold even better. As it is, only 1,500 were built. Here, the coupe.

A scaled-down HK-500 convertible on a 96.5-inch wheelbase, the Facellia looked smart and seemed saleable. But its engine was a disaster. Sized at 1647cc -- Daninos pointedly avoided competition and saw no need to duck under the 1.6-liter tax limit -- it was a 115-bhp double-overhead-cam four supplied by Pont-à-Mousson, which had never built an engine before. It showed.

The twincam was not only noisy, it burned piston rings at an incredible rate. Such difficulties played hell in markets like America, where the typical buyer didn't expect to have to heave to with wrenches or attend to major engine work every 40,000 miles.

Parts and dealers were never plentiful, and the service situation wreaked havoc with sales. As a result, only 500 Facellias were called for. It was a major setback for Daninos, who had contemplated building 5,000 a year once production hit full stride.

Facel consequently slipped into receivership at the end of 1962. The following spring, the receivers attempted a comeback with the Volvo-powered Facel III. Though it was little more than a Facellia with the Swedish firm's far more reliable 1.8-liter overhead-valve four, it sold 1,500 copies.

That was mildly encouraging, because at least it kept the company functioning, with the receivers in charge, through the end of the year. Then hope for a rescue appeared. The SFERMA subsidiary of Sud-Aviation contracted to manage Facel for the next 12 months.

SFERMA briefly considered Facel's own engine, an aluminum twincam four with up to 200 bhp, but that only implied more of the same problems that had plagued the Facellia. Ultimately, it chose the ohv 3.0-liter BMC six familiar from the Austin-Healey 3000 for yet another Facellia-clone called Facel 6.

To get under the French 15 chevaux tax limit, the engine was debored to 2.8 liters, in which form it developed 150 bhp. But in the end, the Facel 6 could not counter the Facellia's reputation for poor reliability, and production amounted to only 23 coupes and just three convertibles.

Negotiations for BMW's 2.0-liter sohc six proved fruitless, and SFERMA refused to renew its management contract at the end of 1964. Facel S.A. thus went into final liquidation in early 1965.

SFERMA kept the rights to the name, however, and the Facel parts depot operated a few years longer. Remaining inventory gradually shifted to former distributors and, fortunately, much of it has survived. The Pont-à-Mousson gearboxes are literally irreplaceable, though.

It's probably just as well that Facel died when it did. It is difficult to imagine what its cars would have been like in the age of emission controls and 5-mph bumpers that began in the U.S. with model year 1968. As it stands, the Facel record isn't bad for a firm of its size.

As Bernard Cahier put it, the Facel Vega was part of "that elite group of classic high-powered touring machines which were immortalized in prewar days by such as the 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."

A worthy tribute, that, and a fitting one.

On the next page we list the 1954-1964 Facel Vega specifications.

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The 1954-1964 Facel Vega is a handsome, haute couture collectible coveted for its rarity, French-American breeding, and sophisticated sass. Find specification, pricing, and production information for the 1954-1964 Facel Vega in the following chart.

1954-1964 Facel Vega Specifications

V-8 Grand Touring

Year Model WB (in.) Length (in.) Weight (lbs.) Engine/Cid bhp@rpm Price (U.S.) Production
1954-1955 Vega 103.5 174.0 4,060 V-8/276 175 @ 4500 $7,000 46
1956-1957 FVS 103.5 174.0 3,735 V-8/330 255 @ 4400 $7,500 227
1958 FVS 105.0 180.0 3,885 V-8/354 345 @ 4600 $9,750 130
1959 HK-500 105.0 181.0 3,900 V-8/354 345 @ 4600 $9,750
1960 HK-500 105.0 181.0 4,008 V-8/383 330 @ 5200* $9,795 439
1961 HK-500 105.0 181.0 4,170 V-8/383 330 @ 5200* $9,795
1962-1964 Facel II 105.0 187.0 3,500 V-8/383 390 @ 5400 $12,160 182

Hardtop Sedan

Year Model WB (in.) Length (in.) Weight (lbs.) Engine/Cid bhp@
Price (U.S.) Production
1959-1960 Excellence 125.0 206.5 4,300 V-8/354** 345 @ 4600 $12,800 156

330 @ 5200*

Small Sports Cars

Year Model WB (in.) Length (in.) Weight (lbs.) Engine/Cid bhp@rpm Price (U.S.) Production
1959-1960 Facellia Fl 96.5 164.0 2,465 dohc I-4/100 115 @ 6400 $3,995
1961-1963 Facellia F2 96.5 164.0 2,465 dohc I-4/100 115 @ 6400 $3,995 500
1961-1963 Facellia F2S 96.5 164.0 2,470 dohc I-4/100 131 @ 6400 $4,295
1964 Facel III 96.5 163.5 2,600 ohv I-4/108 108 @ 5000 $5,395 1500
1965 Facel 6 96.5 163.5 2,667 ohv I-6/172 150 @ 5250 $6,000 26

* With automatic, 325 bhp at 5200 rpm.
** Early 1959 models only.

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