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The Facel Vega, a premier car purchased by Albert Camus, Danny Kaye, Pablo Picasso, Tony Curtis, Max Factor (Jr.), the President of Monaco, Princess Grace, Frank Sinatra, Stirling Moss, Ringo Star, and Ava Gardner, ... had the heart of a Chrysler.
As many of the big names of French luxury faded, Jean Daninos made his move.
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, freed from Nazi control, Facel built civilian items such as airplane turbine parts, scooter chassis, kitchen cabinets, and office furniture. Facel diversified into specialty car bodies, including the bodies for a SIMCA coupe (the 8 Sport) and the Panhard Dyna. The final step on the way to building their own cars was the Ford Comète, whose body was designed by Facel.
In 1954, Daninos launched the Facel Vega, named after one of the brightest stars in the night sky. Stylist Jacques Brasseur’s sleek elegant design used thin pillars for a lighter look; there was little brightwork, and most of those pieces were stainless steel, rather than chrome plated pot metal. Seats were comfortable and well upholstered; drivers got a full set of gauges and intelligent controls.
Daninos chose the 276 cubic inch (4.5 liter) De Soto Firedome V-8 engine, a first generation Hemi. This reliable powerplant, with a 7.5:1 compression ratio and pushrod-operated overhead valves, generated out 170 horsepower at 4,500 rpm, good power for the time. The top speed was 123 mph, aided by the moderately aerodynamic design (with the 3.31:1 ratio, the top speed was just 109 mph).
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, wide-range 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). As with American Chryslers, Facel Vega used a hypoid rear axle and 15 inch wheels.
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 body had a stiff frame with steel tube side members and both tube and channel cross section pieces.
Despite a cost of $7,000 at launch, orders came in. In 1956, the first revision was made, resulting in the Facel Vega FVS; the FV2, FV3, FV3B, and FV4 would quickly follow. The main difference between the FV and FVS was the newer, larger, Chrysler 331 cubic inch Hemi engine; horsepower jumped from 170 to 300 (gross).
The FV3 used the Plymouth polyspherical-head 277-cubic-inch V8, while the FV3B used the 301 cubic inch version of that engine. The FV4 went with 354 Hemi engine from the Chrysler 300B, moving to the Chrysler Hemi 392 for the FV4 Series Two. Starting with the FV3B, the company started using a wider body.
In 1959, the Facel Vega HK500 was created by hooking up the famous 392 Hemi; that belted out up to 375 horsepower with the two four-barrel carburetors (300 hp with a single carburetor).
One source claims the HK500 used a Wedge 361 with one or two four-barrel carbs at first, moving in its second series to the 383 Wedge with one or two four-barrel carburetors.
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, making them quite rare. The Excellence was reported to have used 392 Hemi, 361 Wedge, and 383 Wedge engines, after using the Chrysler 300B engine for the prototype.
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 II.
Sleek and trim, the Facel II used the Chrysler 383 V8 engine with the 300C’s optional high compression heads; it pumped out 390 horsepower with the four-speed, and 0-60 times were reported to be as low as 7 seconds flat, with a top speed of 150 mph. The TorqueFlite automatic version had a somewhat detuned engine, capable of 355 horsepower. Jean Daninos called the car “totally elegant,” while the HK 500 was “the most interesting car we ever made.” The Facel II was advertised as being the fastest four-seat coupe in the world, outrunning the Aston Martin DB4, Ferrari 250GT, and Mercedes 300SL from 0-60 mph; and that was before the company set up an optional 413 V8 with the manual transmission.
Still, Facel Vega’s mis-step pushed the company into bankruptcy; it closed in 1964, suffering from extensive warranty claims on their home-grown engines.
Chrysler 1904-2018 •
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