Facel Vega: France’s unique and fabulous postwar GT
One of the first things that struck me during my research on the fabulous Facel Vega was the number of world-class racing drivers of the 1950s and 1960s whose names crop up in contemporaneous road tests. This is largely due to the key role played by Lance Macklin (the unfortunate Austin Healey driver whose car was struck by Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes-Benz in the tragic 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans). Macklin was appointed by Facel Vega owner, Jean C. Daninos, to run the new business in Paris.
A March 1957 road test in Autocourse carries Roy Salvadori’s byline along with much mention of Lance Macklin’s energetic promotion of the new marque. Customers famously included Stirling Moss – whose Facel Vega was his preferred car to drive between racing events throughout Europe – and French Formula One ace Maurice Trintignant.
Facel Vega is at once a marque and Super Model. Daninos created the brand in 1954 as essentially a new subdivision of Compagnie Facel-Metallon, a French company (founded in 1938) which embraced ‘automobile, aviation, métallurgie’. At the 1950 Paris Salon, the company showed a prototype of its own creation, having previously designed and supplied automotive bodies for special Simca coupes (about 5000) and some 2000 for the Ford Comete. (When the first Facel Vega was being readied for its debut, Compagni Facel-Metallon was busily producing light alloy bodies for the Panhard Dyno.)
The 11 August 1954 edition of The Motor introduced the new Facel Vega, which would go into production the following year, thus:
Under the enterprising leadership of Daninos, this company has now marketed a complete car powered with a 4528cc 175-horsepower V8 engine from the Chrysler range. This is connected optionally to a Chrysler automatic transmission but normally to a four-speed all-synchro gearbox built by Pont-à-Mousson.
At first, there was just one car called a Facel Vega, a gorgeous and intensely sybaritic close-coupled coupe. Other models followed, notably the Facel Vega Excellence saloon, and the smaller Facellia coupe.
Essentially, Facel Vega was the first successful European-American V8 hybrid, paving the bitumen for Bristol, Iso, Jensen, et al, in the following decade.
John Bolster’s Autosport road test of 19 October 1956 starts with a hymn of praise for ‘those big American V8 engines’, noting that
many attempts have been made…to put an American engine into our sort of car. The results have been curiously disappointing, and obviously the job is not as simple as it looks.
Now, the great French industrial empire of Facel have tackled the problem from first principles. Their intention, quite simply, is to produce the finest luxury coupe that has yet been made. It is emphatically not a competition car, but a superbly finished ultra-high speed touring machine to please the connoisseur who is already familiar with the world’s best automobiles.
Thus, Facel have set themselves quite a task…Visiting their Paris headquarters in the Avenue George V, I found that the man in charge was none other than racing driver Lance Macklin.
Even in 1954 when the Facel Vega made its Paris Salon debut, the term Gran Turismo was not in common usage and the cognoscenti mostly agree that the 1950 Lancia Aurelia B20 GT was the first example of this new type.
In the 1930s era of the great marques, the French produced many of the most elegant and desirable. Automotive historian, Michael Sedgwick, notes of postwar France:
The specialists were doomed. Delahaye-Delage, Hotchkiss, Salmson, Talbot, and even Bugatti were still quoted in 1951, but their home sales were sabotaged by a tax watershed that descended above 15CV, or approximately 2.9 litres …Thus they could scarcely sell at home, while small runs and uncompetitive prices pushed export prices to unacceptable limits … which left the Chrysler-engined Facel Vega as the sole upholder of a once-great tradition.
It is fair to say that there was no other car in the world like the original Facel Vega. The kind of high performance it offered was very different from that of a Ferrari, Maserati or Aston Martin or even from the Bentley Continental and Ford’s Continental Mark II, with which it was compared by some, including Road & Track. Although similar in size to the first three, it was much heavier, largely due to the use of heavy-gauge steel for the body and a frame comprised of four-inch welded steel tubes.
The Facel Vega was physically not all that much larger than one of France’s most celebrated early postwar models, the brilliant Peugeot 203. But it weighed 50 per cent more and had a power to weight ratio almost triple that of the lively Peugeot. Parked alongside the relatively streamlined 203, the Vega looks remarkably low-slung and poised. Remarkably, the coupe was just four feet two inches tall, so it was considerably lower than such sleek machines as the Jaguar XK140 and Mercedes-Benz 300SL ‘Gullwing’.
Perhaps the XK140 that was closest to the formula arrived at by Jean Daninos. Overall performance was similar with nought to 100 miles per hour taking about 25 seconds and top speeds approaching 130. The Jaguar was quite luxurious in its appointments, albeit not lavish in the superbly French style of the Facel Vega.
The very first cars used a 4.5-litre De Soto Firedome V8 but this was soon upgraded to a 5.0-litre engine. In his March 1957 report, Roy Salvadori reports:
Lance Macklin has just telephoned from Paris to say that a new Chrysler V8 power unit with a bore and stroke of 99.5mm and 79.1mm respectively, giving a capacity of 4940cc, is to be fitted in future Facel Vegas.
The December 1956 issue of Road & Track carried a twin test, an earlier Vega equipped with the 4786cc engine and ‘the wonderful Pont-à-Mousson four-speed, all-synchro gearbox’ (a development of the racing Gordini unit and available in the US only on special order) and the newly introduced quad-headlight version with ‘Typhoon’ 5410cc V8 and Chrysler’s Powerflite automatic transmission. Michelin X radial tyres were to both.
Clearly the Road & Track testers preferred the manual, as no doubt John Bolster of Autosport did in referring comfortably to ‘our sort of car’! In its 25 April 1956, The Autocar observed:
Most European owner-drivers are more likely to consider the beautiful Pont-à-Mousson box, as fitted to the test car, worth the additional outlay…A feature of the box is its unusual silence on each ratio, suggesting a quality of engineering in keeping with the rest of the car.
Summing up, Road & Track said:
All things considered, it would seem that the Facel Vega fits into a market slot about midway between the Mercedes-Benz 300SL and FoMoCo’s Continental Mark II. The former gives a margin of performance and the latter a margin of space and comfort over the Vega, but neither offers quite so much of both qualities as this French-American offering from Paris.
The only fly in the anointment of this superlative Gran Turismo was the drum brakes. These were criticised by both The Autocar and Road & Track and more severely in Motor Sport as ‘quite inadequate ... after one stop from 90 or 100mph they disappear completely’.
The latest English Dunlop disc brakes were soon slipped behind those stylish wheels!
Throughout the late 1950s and until its demise in the early 1960s the Facel Vega range was constantly expanded and upgraded.
The gloriously imposing Excellence saloon, which made its debut at the 1956 Paris Salon (and would go into production in 1958), is best understood as a model that in some ways anticipated the 1960s Maserati Quattroporte and Lagonda Rapide, while offering similar bespoke plushness to the imminent (model year 1957) Cadillac Eldorado Brougham.
The Excellence and the HK500 (an upgrade of the Vega coupe) were equipped with a 5.9-litre Chrysler V8. For 1960, they acquired the 6.3-litre unit and the coupe could exceed 140 miles per hour.
Facel Vega introduced the smaller 1.6-litre four-cylinder Facellia with a removeable hardtop in 1960, while the HK500 was superseded by the Facel II in 1962.
Shortly thereafter, the Facel Vega marque would follow its grand French predecessors into oblivion but Jean Daninos’s vision not only gave the French automotive industry its flagship supercars for the 1950s and 1960s but provided a blueprint for marrying European style, subtlety and bespoke luxury with American V8 muscle.