The Facel Vega — a premier car with customers including Albert Camus, Danny Kaye, Ringo Star, and Ava Gardner — had the heart of a Chrysler.
In the early history of the automobile, France played a surprisingly large role. In the luxury/performance end, Bugatti was justifiably famous; but other companies, including Talbot, Hotchkiss, Delahaye, Peugeot, Citroën, and Renault, gained names for themselves. SIMCA, which started out with Fiat designs, would end up contributing greatly to Volkswagen’s success and changing the nature of the world’s most popular automobiles for a time, with its revolutionary front wheel drive four-cylinder hatchback, copied so well as the Volkswagen Golf and Rabbit.
Before World War II, France was known for both cheap, economical cars and luxury cars with light weight, excellent handling, and high speeds. After the war, to conserve expensive resources, the French government stepped in with high taxes on powerful cars, and many of the big names of French luxury faded — though, in fairness, many of the big names of American and British luxury also faded, without any help. Companies like Chrysler had blurred the lines and luxury cars often did not confer enough (if any) day-to-day advantages to be worth the cash and trouble.
In the 1950s, Bugatti, Hotchkiss, Delahaye-Delage, and Talbot-Lago were all barely alive. At that point, Jean Daninos entered the picture.
Daninos had founded Forges et Ateliers de Construction d'Eure et de Loire (FACEL), a metal stamping company, in 1938; business boomed with wartime orders. After the war (during which the Nazis controlled its production), Facel built civilian items such as combustion chambers for airplane turbines, scooter chassis, kitchen cabinets, and office furniture. Facel then diversified into specialty car bodies, including the bodies for a SIMCA coupe (the 8 Sport) and the Panhard Dyana. The final step on the way to building their own cars was the Ford Comete, whose body was designed by Facel.
In 1954, Daninos launched the Facel Vega, named after the star. The stylist, Jacques Brasseur, made a sleek elegant design, whose cabin used thin pillars for a lighter look; there was little brightwork, and most of those pieces were stainless steel, not chrome-plated. Seats were comfortable and well upholstered; drivers got a full set of gauges and intelligent controls.
Daninos needed an engine for the new car, and chose the 276 cubic inch (4.5 liter) De Soto Firedome V-8. This was a reliable, if small, engine, with a 7.5:1 compression ratio and pushrod-operated overhead valves, pushing out 170 horsepower at 4,500 rpm. The top speed was 130 mph, aided by the moderately aerodynamic design.
As with American Hemis, drivers could get the then-new and advanced Chrysler Torqueflite three-speed automatic (with push-button controls); or they could get a fully synchronized Pont-a-Mousson four-speed manual transmission, with a stiff Borg and Beck clutch. That transmission would end up being used in the United States, in small numbers, including on the Chrysler 300F (where fewer than a dozen appear to have been ordered along with the 400-horse engine).
The Facel Vega was moderately heavy, but had a stiff frame, with steel tube side members and both tubes and channel cross section pieces. The first Facel Vega was small for a luxury car, with a wheelbase of 103.5 inches and a length of 180 inches. The front suspension used independent coils and wishbones; the rear was, like contemporary Chryslers, a live axle held in place by longitudinal semi-elliptic springs. Competent suspension tuning minimized body roll and reviewers praised the nimble feel, though not the drum brakes.
The cost was high, $7,000 at launch, but orders still came in. In 1956, the first revision was made, resulting in the Facel Vega FVS. The main difference was the newer, larger, Chrysler 331 cubic inch Hemi engine; horsepower jumped from 170 to 300 (gross). In 1959, the engine was again swapped, so that the Facel Vega HK 500 used the famous 392 Hemi; that belted out 375 horsepower.
A four door was launched shortly after the Facel Vega HK 500, using a stretched body and named the Excellence; the $12,800 car competed with Rolls Royce and Mercedes, but the rear suicide door latches tended to give way on turns, and the chassis was not stiff enough to support the “pillar-free” design. Only 152 were made.
Finally, in 1960, Facel Vega made the final step to being a full-fledged automaker, introducing a new two-seater, the Facellia, using a 1.6 engine designed by Carlo Marchetti, formerly of Talbot, and Paul Cavalier, of Pont-a-Mousson. The car, intended to be a mass produced success story, was a failure, even after Daninos swapped in a Volvo P1800 engine, and only 1,500 were made. The investment made in that car was hefty, compared with its sales, and that overshadowed the launch of the Facel Vega II.
Sleek and trim, the Facel Vega II used the same 392 Hemi engine as the HK500; as with the 300C with optional high compression heads, it pumped out 390 horsepower, and 0-60 times were reported to be as low as 7 seconds flat, with a top speed of 140 mph. The TorqueFlite automatic version had a somewhat detuned engine, capable of 355 horsepower.
Facel Vega’s mis-step pushed the company into bankruptcy; it closed in 1964.
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