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The Facel Vega 1954 - 1964
by Michael Sedgwick

France is traditionally the home of the grand' routier. The first recognised sports cars were the superannuated Panhard and Mors racers of the early 1900s, and up to 1914 many a French firm's catalogue contained a thunderous chaindriven brute, usually made to special order, alongside an array of sophisticated L-head monobloc fours. The most unlikely makers explored the elephantine, even de Dion-Bouton essaying nearly fifteen litres of vee-eight in 1914, though they were far too canny to put it into production. The 1920's were, of course, the golden years of Ballot and Bugatti, Delage, Hispano-Suiza, Farman, and the rest. Even the last pre-Hitler war decade - a sad one for France, reflected in some appalling travesties of Detroit at its worst - bred a splendid generation of fast tourers. The Type 57 Bugatti, the Type 135 Delahaye, the 4-litre Lago-Talbot and the indestructible "Paris - Nice" Hotchkiss stood out as safe and civilised long-range transportation. Sadly, however, these grand' routiers withered and died after the war. In 1946, the world's most potent off-the-peg machinery hailed from France, and even in 1950 Lago's 4.5 litre GS Talbot had 210 b.h.p. under its bonnet, as against the 160 of Cadillac and Jaguar. Ferrari's formidable "Americas" had yet to reach the public, and a resuscitated Mercedes-Benz was still concentrating on the stodgy, side-valve 170 saloon. Yet by 1954 Antoine Lago was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, Hotchkiss and Delahaye were making only trucks, and Bugatti had abandoned all pretense of manufacture. The wealthy enthusiast shopped elsewhere.

Why? France's industry was by no means a war casualty; it suffered less than its opposite numbers in Italy or Germany, even if Allied air raids, Nazi looting, and " resistance management's" (which killed what was left of Voisin and threatened Berliet) took their toll. The fatal blow was struck by the French Government. Horse-power taxes are inevitably a drag on technical progress, as Britons discovered to their cost between the wars. The late unlamented Treasury Rating was, however, a pin-prick compared with a system which ordained that anything with puissance fiscale in excess of 15 chevaux (roughly 2.9 litres) paid tax at an inflated rate. On one side of this man-made abyss lay an impost of Sterling 23, but once across it could mean anything between Sterling 75 and 100. The latter, of course, applied to all the grand' routiers of the immediate post-war era. The 3.3 litre Bugatti owned to 17 CV, the Hotchkiss and Delahaye to twenty, and the magnificent, race-bred Lago-Talbots to a swinging twenty-six.

This shattered any hopes of a healthy home market; and without these home sales the small specialist manufacturer could only keep his prices competitive by pegging away with obsolescent models. As these progressively lost their appeal, production fell, thus forcing prices up again. As for a competition program to improve the breed , this was out of the question, though Lago soldiered on bravely with his works 4.5 litre monoplaces until 1952. Raw materials were in short supply, and France's custom coach -builders were hamstrung by having to pay for their English leather in dollars which they could not earn. Aging bread-and-butter models like Hotchkiss's indestructible 13CV four were too old-fashioned for the customers, who could in any case buy the finest in sophisticated 1934 fashions from Citroen. The traction did everything a small Hotchkiss or a Lago "Baby" could do for half the money. Thus when Jean Danino's Facel Metallon concern irrupted upon the scene in 1954, a once-proud industry was dead. Ten years later, it seemed that the French were quite happy to let it die.

That shrewd observer Gerard Rossini, writing in L'Album du Fanatique de l'Automobile (March 1969) observed sadly that "nobody in France had the faintest understanding of the FACEL which was only appreciated on the other side of the Channel". He refrained from carrying his irony to its logical conclusion by pointing out that one of the architects of the car's brief glory was none other than the British racing driver Lance Macklin, son of that same Sir Noel Macklin who had pioneered the sporting Euro-American hybrid with his Hudson-based straight-eight Railton of 1933.

Not that the Railton and the FACEL were exact parallels. British hybrids of the middle 'thirties were designed to give sports-car performance for Sterling 500 - 600, at a time when Lagondas, Alvises and Roesch Talbots cost at least Sterling 200 more. Economically speaking, however, the FACEL Vega's true ancestors were the Continental- or Lycoming-engined eight-in-line sponsored by firms like Delaunay-Belleville as a short cut to a big, luxurious carriage which would eliminate tooling bills calculated to reduce the shareholders to apoplexy.

Admittedly things were different in 1954. America was the creditor nation par excellence. A big European touring car was unsaleable anywhere, and one with a significant American content would have to pay for itself in exports. And any Frenchman with aspirations towards the grand' routier stakes would have to shop for his engine in America, simply because nothing both native and modern was available. The biggest power unit in volume production was the 2,866 c.c. six-cylinder Citroen, designed specifically for front-wheel drive, and not particularly efficient; it had, after all, been around with little change since 1938. Ford-France's 3.9 -litre flathead V-8, the Vendome, was already on its way out, and in any case it offered only a miserable 100 b.h.p.

Further, Facel Metallon were not car manufacturers, a factor that was to weight heavily against them when they took the plunge with the all-French Facellia in 1959. Undoubtedly Daninos tried to learn from the past mistakes of the grand' routier industry - the sad end of Talbot must surely have influenced his decision to eschew competition-work - but both George Abecassis, FACEL's British concessionaire, and Paul Badre, who masterminded the final rescue bid of 1963, opine that the marque would have survived had Daninos stuck to Franco-American hybrids.

Jet Engines and Kitchen Sinks

The Facel Vega FVS coupe unveiled at the 1954 Paris Salon was certainly a new shape as well as a new make, but already at least fifty thousand Frenchmen were driving cars with a sizeable Facel content. This, however, was not of a mechanical nature, as the company's name implied. Facel stood for Forges et Ateliers de Construction d'Eure et de Loire. The company was founded a few years before World War II by Jean Daninos, brother of the well-known writer

The Forges et Ateliers produced large tools and dies for the aircraft industry, working in close collaboration with Bronzavia (pumps, exhaust systems, and engine cowlings). During the German occupation they turned to wood-gas generators for cars and lorries, and by the 1950s their repertoire embraced combustion chambers for license-built Rolls-Royce and de Havilland gas turbines, scooter "chassis", kitchen cabinets, and office furniture. Facel's domestic ironmongery was made of stainless steel, which explains the liberal use of this metal on their cars - for bumpers, rubbing strips, window frames, and lamp shrouds. On early Facel Vegas only the wire wheels were chromium-plated.

From high-grade metalwork it is an easy step to motor bodies, and by 1952 they had four regular customers whose daily demand added up to some 105 units - Panhard, Simca, Ford-France and Delahaye. Of this last little need be said, for Facel's contribution was destined for the VRL, a light, jeep-type vehicle which proved too complex and unreliable for the army, and deprived its creators of their bread and butter at a psychological moment. Nor are the Panhards truly relevant to the story; they were the ugly little Dyana four-door saloons. Suffice it to say that they represented some 70 per cent of total output, with the consequence that when Panhard redesigned their cars from scratch in 1953 and took over their own body production, Facel Matellon were left with plenty of surplus capacity.

Manufacturing arrangements were somewhat complex, four factories being involved. Of these, Courbevoie was an experimental shop, responsible for prototypes and pre-series runs; the first 50 Cometes were built there in their entirety, Amboise handled the pressings, which were transported to Colombes to be welded together. At this juncture the Dyana bodies went straight on, in the white, to Panhard's Ivry plant. The Fords and Simcas were, however, offered up to their chassis on the spot, before continuing to Dreux for paint and trim. The Simcas were even road-tested at this final stage.

In these two models one can see the genesis of the Facel Vega shape. The Simcas were, of course , fixed-head coupes on the Fiat-based 8 Sport chassis, and owed their inspiration in the first instance to Pininfarina, but the Ford was a Facel design, in the shape of an elegant 2+2 coupe incorporating such latter-day features as the wrap-round rear window, the legendary roly-poly seats, and a proper facia with circular dials. The chassis, of course, was unworthy of such a theme, being the unloved 2.2-litre Vedette V-8. On 63 b.h.p., this voiture du nouveau riche, as the French scathingly dismissed it, was hard put to it to reach 80 m.p.h. It also cost over a millions francs (more with the optional Cotal electric gearbox, a sop to the grand' routier tradition), and was never a best-seller for all its 13CV. Even in 1954 form with the big Vendome engine and a four-speed all-synchromesh gearbox by Pont-a-Mousson it failed to qualify as a grand' routier, and when Simca took over Ford-France the Comete was dropped.

Simca, however, were to remain in the fold. By 1952 the 8CV had given way to the all-French Aronde, but two years later Facel came up with a sports coupe version of this. A convertible, the "Week-End", followed in 1956, and 1958 editions with their wrap-around screens resembled baby Facel Vegas. These "Oceane" and "Plein Ciel" models were catalogued as late as 1962, but production was always modest, and faded away altogether when later Simcas (the rear-engined 1000 and the conventional 1300 and 1500 saloons) relegated the faithful Aronde to the role of bargain-basement family transportation.

The First Grand' Routier

Daninos had however set his sights higher, and at the 1949 Salon he exhibited a curvaceous sports saloon on the Mk.VI Bentley chassis.

This bore a certain resemblance to the later R-type Continental, though its slab sides gave it a heavier look, and as yet the radiator was left in-violate; its shell disappeared into the wing line and the vertical lamp clusters of the Facel Vega were already in evidence. The four headlamps were, however, separate. Six or seven of these Bentleys were made, their main faults being a complete lack of legroom in the rear seats, and a welded-up body platform which rendered the fuel pump quite inaccessible.

The last Facel-Bentley of 1951 was a different kettle of fish, and must be regarded as the true prototype of the Chrysler-engined FVS. Mounted on the 4.6-litre chassis, it did not pretend to be anything more than a two-and-a-half seater, while a good many liberties had been taken, among them a special radiator matrix permitting a lower bonnet line. The vertical headlamp clusters, horizontal barred grilles flanking the abbreviated radiator, and the wrap-round rear window heightened the resemblance to later Facels. The sumptuous interior attracted high praise from British critics, who were even willing to overlook the fact that some bits of trim that resembled burr walnut were in fact painted metal. Weight, at 32 cwt., came out lighter than on the H.J.Mulliner strain, but this Facel remained a one-off. Rumour said that Rolls-Royce objected to the sacrilegious front-end treatment.

Facel Vega - the beginnings

Logically a complete car was the next step, since the group was capable of making everything save engines and gearboxes. The first prototype appeared in 1953; it was a retrograde step in the shape of a lumpy and uninspired four-door saloon, which looked what it was, a Ford Vendome with notch back. The heavy grill was matched by massive overriders, and the headlamp layout was conventional. The public never saw this one; but in any case they were scarcely prepared for the elegant 1954 show car, styled by M. Brasseur. This owed a great deal to the Bentley and the latest Simca coupe; there was also a family resemblance to the later Comete.

The frame was entirely new, consisting of two steel-tube side-members of 3.5 in. outside diameter, reinforced by channel-section members on the inside. Cross-bracing was a mixture of tubular and channel-section types, and the addition of robust diagonals added up to a cruciform layout. Suspension was conventional enough, with an independent coil-and-wishbone arrangement at the front, and longitudinal semi-elliptics at the rear, assisted by Allinquant telescopic dampers all round. The steering was of Gemmer cam and roller type, and the drive was transmitted by a Glaenzer tubular propeller shaft to a Salisbury hypnoid bevel back axle. The bolt-on wire wheels wore 7.10 X 15 tyres. Brakes were hydraulic, with two leading shoes at the front, and leading and trailing shoes at the rear, though a drum diameter of only eleven inches seemed a trifle niggardly on a 32 cwt. Car designed for fast touring. For all its sweeping lines, this first Facel Vega was fairly compact, with a wheelbase of 8 ft. and 7.5 in., and an overall length of only fifteen feet.

To power their grand' routier Daninos and Brasseur had chosen one of the best American o.h.v.vee-eights of the period. Chrysler's 4.5 litre hemi-head De Soto Firedome - the more compact Chevrolet later favoured by Iso and Gordon-Keeble had yet to appear. This oversquare unit gave a respectable 180 b.p.h. at 4,500 r.p.m. on a compression ratio of 7.5:1. It was said to be "special" to Facel, but in fact similar units wre available in 1955 De Sotos, and M.Badre has confirmed that it was largely stock. A single dual-chocke Ball and Ball carburettor was fed by mechanical pump from a 22-gallon tank placed well over the rear axle. Weight distribution was thus unaffected by the amount of fuel on board, while there was also room for the spare wheel in the boot. In accordance with contemporary American practice, 6-volt electrics sufficed, and buyers had the choice of two transmissions: Chrysler's three-speed Torqueflite automatic with push-button control, or a four-speed all-synchromesh affair with floor change, made specially for Facel by Pont-a-Mousson, or so it was said. In fact it had originally been designed for commercial vehicle use, and had already been seen in 3.9-litre Cometes; a good many of its internals were allegedly of Ford origin. It was mounted in unit with a single dry-plate clutch of Borg and Beck manufacture. Automatic was always the cheaper option ( the price differential in England was Sterling 255 ) since it came as part of the Chrysler package. In the best grand' routier tradition, the manual box had high and close ratios - 2.93,4,5.7 and 10.1 to 1 - though a lower 3.3:1 back end was optional on the coupes and standard on the later "Excellence" four-door saloons.

The full-width body with its wrap-round windscreen was an improvement on the Bentley's, if only because the Facel grille was an entity, instead of a traditional British radiator jazzed up with the aid of some local trimmings. The thin pillars made for good visibility without the unhappy dog's leg effect of contemporary American cars, while the air intake on the bonnet top helped to break up the masses of sheet metal. Driving and fog lamps were incorporated in the vertical clusters, and other ingenious features were a counterbalanced bonnet which needed no stay, inspection lamps in the engine room, press-button door locks, and what appeared to be twin matching radio aerials in the rear wings - one was, however, a dummy ! On the Salon prototype the roof was painted in a contrasting shade; this dual-toning was also applied to the first production models which made their appearance during 1955, but was dropped soon afterward. Ronald Baker has likened the car's interior to that of "a classy private aeroplane", a resemblance heightened by the use of levers for ancillary controls, which was to remain a Facel characteristic until the end in 1964. Brasseur certainly set the fashion for consoles, with the instrumental overspill housed neatly on the transmission tunnel. Though some of the traditional grand' routiers were austerely appointed ( a Type 57 Bugatti's facia is strictly functional ). Facel did their clientele proud, with large dials for speedometer and rev.counter in front of the driver, and smaller ones for the thermometer and petrol and oil gauges. The console housed aircraft-type switches for the lights and the two-speed wipers as well as a glove box and a clock, while even patriotism did not prevent the adoption of Chrysler's effective Mo-Par heating and ventilation system. Electric window lifts were offered, though not in fact standardised until the introduction of the "Excellence" in 1957. The switch on the driver's side controlled both units. Each of the two wide doors accomodated two extra glove boxes, a cigar lighter and an ashtray. Unlike the traditional grand' routier, the Facel came with l.h.d. as standard; right-hand steering was not offered before 1957.

The result was a formidable, even if the exhaust note was a trifle out of character, "Scarcely a whisper", commented an early critic, "betrayed the mighty Typhoon", though a "healthy crackle, slightly reminiscent of the 4.5-litre Lago-Talbot racers of a few years ago"', made itself felt when the taps were turned up. According to Autosport's John Bolster, the first journalist to try the Facel, wheelspin was possible in second as well as in bottom. Flexibility was commensurate with the use of a big, lazy engine. "it does not seem a heavy car to handle", Bolster wrote, "and one feels at all times completely safe. It takes fast, open bends at almost racing speeds, and it is only in the sharpest curves that one might have to give best to a light sports car. The ride is fairly firm, and there is little roll on bends". Even those meagre two hundred square inches of brake lining gave little rise for concern, seeming "to have the situation well in hand", despite frequent application from three-figure speeds. As a four-seater, however, the Vega ( the FVS designation did not appear until 1956 ) was just as uncomfortable as the Bentley. The Motor was later to observe wryly that "when carrying four adults it is preferable that both the journey and the driver be fairly short"!

The only immediate trouble, in fact, concerned the front suspension, which was not as robust as it might have been, and demanded frequent overhaul. Unfortunately, though, the Facel was hardly a viable proposition on the home market - it was far too expensive. Lance Macklin, who became responsible for development testing in 1956, recalls that the native reaction was almost invariably "Est-ce serieux ?", and precious few of its compatriots could afford to take it seriously, even without the attendant fiscal burden. An export price of "about Sterling 2000" sounds modest enough, but in France a Facel retailed at around the three millions franc mark at a time when a typical middle-class saloon, the Peugeot 403, cost 780,000fr., the 2-litre Renault Fregate 929,000 and Citroen's "Deesse", hydro-pneumatics and all, 1,109,000. A 3.4-litre Jaguar was actually cheaper than the FVS at 2,555,000. Thus exports were vital: in 1959 77 per cent of production was being sold abroad, though France boated some six main dealerships, none of them exclusive. Service and parts were "reasonable", except in the case of the American-made elements, which cost a lot of money and took a long time to arrive. Latterly, in Facel II days, all sales were controlled from the company's Paris showrooms by former rally driver Norbert Mahe'.

FVS developments

By 1956 the cars had the more powerful 4,768 c.c. Typhoon engine and servo brakes, while screens were given a more pronounced wrap­round.1957s were even hairier, thanks to a 5.4­litre unit and a Carter four­barrel carburettor, which gave a driver 250 b.h.p. under his right foot. At the same time de Carbon dampers of similar type replaced the Allin-quants, radial­ply tyres were standardised, and automatic Facels could be supplied with British­made Hydrosteer power steering. External differences were the four driving lamps and the two­piece lateral grilles

Inevitably the Facel benefited from Detroit's horse­power race. In this respect it was more fortunate than the Railton and its contemporaries, which had always had to make do with what was going. In those days, too, the emphasis was on lebensraum and painless shifting rather than on the traffic­light Grand Prix. Thus 1958 editions of the FVS came with 5.8 litres and 325 b.h.p. Other improvements were revised ventilation, some extra stainless steel trim, and a radio as standard. Disc brakes made their first appearance, though these Dunlop hydrastatics (on which the pads were in constant contact with the disc faces) were as yet only an optional extra. Buyers could specify steel disc, bolt­on wire, or centre­lock wheels: these last only became standard equipment with the advent of the Facel II.

There were also two attempts to widen the range. A convertible was seen as early as 1955, its lines suggesting a scaled­up Simca "WeekEnd", but it suffered from a lack of rigidity, and only about four were made. Lance Macklin recalls that the factory always found some excuse to fob off prospective customers. A solitary convertible H K500 made its appearance in 1960.

More serious was the ''Excellence", a fourdoor berline ministeriale for the prestige market. It was basically an FVS with an extra nineteen inches of wheelbase, adding up to a glamorous seventeen­footer which turned the scales at over 37 cwt. An automatic gearbox was standard, though some cars were fitted with Pont-a­Moussons.

Alas!, Daninos had insisted on pillarless doors, with the inevitable and embarrassing consequences that these flexed on the long frame, and either refused to open or to shut! ( Even the two ­door cars suffered from this affliction at times). Contrary to general belief, the company persevered with this exotic lemon to the bitter end, though it was seldom publicised after 1961. The last "Excellence" ­ with 390 b.h.p. engine, revised windscreen treatment, and manual gearbox-was delivered in May 1964. Sales, however, amounted to only 230 cars out of some two thousand Chrysler-Facels all told, and only thirteen found buyers in Britain. Not that this was surprising in an era when both Rolls­Royce and Daimler were offering eight­cylinder formal carriages with motorway cruising speeds of around the 100 mark.

According to Richard Langworth, the ''Excel fence" a I most became the focal point for a limited Packard revival. In 1960 a group of enthusiasts suggested to Studebaker­ Packard President Harold Churchill that he should buy between 100 and 130 "Excellences" less engines. These would be reworked with leftover Packard vee­eight units, Packard grilles, and red hub caps (the Facel's were already the correct hexagonal shape). It was planned to market this prestige offering at $14,000 (a "genuine'' ''Excellence" sold for $13,317 in the USA), but unfortunately Studebaker­ Packard had already signed an agreement with Daimler-Benz to distribute the German firm's cars in the USA. And Stuttgart, understandably, objected to this potentially competitive piece of cross-pollination....

Splendours and Miseries

With its bigger engine, the Facel would really move. A 5.8 ­litre example tried by The Autocar in 1958 attained 134 m.p.h. in direct drive and 107 in third. More was available in good conditions. Maurice Trintignant was timed at 141 m.p.h. on the Jabbeke Straight, in 1960 another Facel had recorded 147 m:p.h. over the flying kilometre on the same course, and Lance Macklin managed 152 m.p.h. on the Autoroute du Sud. The manual Facel's acceleration figures could match hose of such formidable opponents as the XK1 50S Jaguar and Aston Martin's new DB4, as witness 0­30 m.p.h. in 3.5 seconds, 0 ­ 60 in 9.6 seconds, and 0 ­ 100 m.p.h. in less than 24. The Chrysler unit was devoid of temperament, only becoming spluttery if too much power was fed in suddenly at tick­over revs ­though some owners complained that it was prone to catch fire. Thanks to the high gearing, fuel consumption was a reasonable 14 m.p.g. Admittedly an overdrive-equipped Jaguar recorded nearly 19 m.p.g. overall, and would better 21 with considerate driving, but Facel­owning tycoons seldom bothered much about their fuel bills.

Handling, likewise, was very good. Ronald Barker, writing in TheAutocar, found that the car would "sit down with a firm determination not to disgrace itself with roll, rear axle hop, or any loss of its sense of direction". Unlike the "Excellence", the coupe did not flex uncomfortably, and its firm ride as yet attracted no adverse criticism. The magazine regarded the five days spent with its road­test specimen as "memorable and exciting'', even black ice failing to disturb the machine's equilibrium. Another critic summarised the Facel's behaviour as "motoring in the Dornford Yates manner", and it is easy to visualise latter­day Mansels and Chandos pursuing the Ungodly down the autoroutes n their HK500s.

One wonders, though, if Mr. Yates's ladies would have been so happy. The roly­poly seats, though luxurious, gave little lateral support, and, as Detroit had already discovered, a clutch man enough to transmit over three hundred mettlesome horses demands either lots of hydraulics ore stout left leg. Manual Facels were always hard on les girls, and this went for the gear­change as well-no wonder that in later years a good 80 per cent of British customers specified Torqueflite. In Macklin's opinion, the Pont­a­Mousson box was not really happy with the biggest Chrysler engines. Steering was low­geared (five turns from lock to lock), but even this could be tough work in traffic. and Hydrosteer was not offered with manual transmission.

There was also the vexed question of anchors. High gear ratios make for a lightly stressed engine, long life, and a low noise level: our hero could have kept the radio on at 90 m.p.h. They also demand good brakes, for the downward shift from a 4.01 third to a 5.75 second gear will only, as Motor Sport pointed out, slow the car mildly.

And the Facel's drum brakes were awful. They were its Achilles' Heel, and those "memorable and exciting days" were rendered more so by a constant need to pump the pedal, and pump it hard. Even with discs, it was still a man's job; and these were not standardised on the coupes until 1960. Owners of "Excellences" had to wait yet another year. Admittedly, when the new anchors did arrive, they were found to be smooth, progressive, and capable of slowing the car from 120 m.p.h. or, on a tortuous Alpine pass, without recourse to the indirects. (The handbrake, be it said, was useless!) John Bolster opines that these early discs were not up to competition driving, though in all fairness the Facel was never intended for such a purpose. One driver who seems to have tried his luck at sprints with a vee­eight was the Englishman Arnold Burton, whose FVS was a frequent sight in BARC events of the 1958­9 period.

Daninos's reluctance to stretch his always limited funds by plunging into competitions with an unsuitable car is easy to understand. Less easy to comprehend is his reluctance to change the Facel in any way. Macklin remembers the impression created at Geneva in 1960 by John Gordon's prototype GT coupe with Bertone bodywork and Chevrolet Corvette engine. This compact and beautiful car was in fact only five inches shorter than the Facel,but it turned the scales at just over 28 cwt, as against the French car's 36, and could out-accelerate, out­brake, and out­handle anything that Dreux could offer. It also had more room in the back, and Macklin ventured to suggest to Daninos that ''this was the sort of thing we should be making". The suggestion was ignored.

The roots of misfortune, of course, lay in Daninos's desire to produce an all­ French car. As we have seen, America was the only source of engines and automatic gearboxes, while the adoption of disc brakes was delayed because they would have added to an already sizeable British content. This embraced clutch linings, rear axles, and power steering: by 1963 heaters, demisters, and overdrives also came from across the Channel. Ironically, this last item formed part of the Facel III package, a desperate measure that would never have been necessary had the company not insisted on launching its own engine in 1959.

Production was always modest. By 1957 the factory was talking in terms of thirty cars a week, but in Macklin's opinion this was wildly optimistic, and he doubts if annual production ever exceeded 750 units in early days. According to the American writer Richard M. Langworth, even two thousand vee­eights all told is too high: he quotes only 46 of the original Vegas, 357 FVSs and 439 HK500s, a figure which adds up to much less than the two thousand accepted by most students of the marque. Only 344 Facels of all types were delivered in 1960, and of these a good sixty per cent were the four­cylinder Facellias.

The export picture was promising. Facels found their way to the United States. West Germany, Switzerland, Holland and Belgium, while one even ended up in Saudi Arabia. The American importer was the redoubtable Max Hoffmann, who acquired the concession as early as 1957, relinquishing it in 1962. His relations with the factory were, however, anything but happy, and the marque's happiest hunting ground was England, where George Abecassis handled sales. ''Macklin brought me a car to try", he says, ''and I bought the concession with it". He displayed the FVS at Earls Court in 1957, and the association continued until the demise of Facel in 1964. During this period the cars sold quite briskly, ''to Debrett", as Abecassis succinctly puts it. At peak he was taking as many as fifty a year, and around 200 were eventually sold. Only thirty of these were Facellias. The most famous British client was, of course, Stirling Moss, who took delivery of E LHD coupe in Paris in May 1959, using it for long­distance trips on the Continent.

The Facellia debacle

The summer of 1959 saw further improvements to the vee­eight, which was renamed the H K500. Cylinder capacity was up to 6,286 c.c. and manual versions with two four­choke carburettors disposed of 360 b.h.p. Power steering was now standard when automatic was specified, while during 1960 the drum brakes were finally discontinued, except on the ''Excellence'' A new ''prestige'' option was a radio­telephone. Weight stayed at 36 cwt, with the consequence that the Facel became a real ''bomb'', capable of reaching 60 m.p.h. in 10.8 seconds, and the ''ton" in 21.1 seconds.

The Motor rated it ''one of the most untiring machines for completing long road journeys in a short time we have ever encountered'', and with the advent of disc brakes the car's worst shortcoming had been banished. Further, the Facel was still unique: the Allard, last of the older generation of Euro­Americans, had gone, while of Daninos's imitators, Bristol and Jensen were not to discover the Chrysler engine until 1962, the first of the Italian­Americans, the Iso Rivolta, appeared a year later, and John Gordon's GT finally reached the production stage as the Gordon­ Keeble in 1964. As for America's own contributions, they were far removed from the plushy individuality of the H K500. The Chevrolet Corvette was strictly a two­seater sports car, while Ford's "personal" two­seater Thunderbird had degenerated into an elephantine and wallowy five­passenger convertible with only straight­line speed to recommend it.

The wind was set fair ­ or so it seemed. The vee­eight's sales might have settled down at a modest two or three hundred a year, but the car had found its niche. Unfortunately the chimera of an all­French grand' routier still haunted Daninos. At the 1958 Salon there was a mournful reminder of the Good Old Days in the shape of the last of the Talbots, now wrested from Lago's control. From the outside it was hard to distinguish from the promising 14CV coupe of 1955, but beneath the bonnet was an old friend, the small Ford V­8, now called a Simca. In twin­carburettor form this developed an uncertain 95 b.h.p., while the catalogue claimed an even less probable 105 m.p.h. This sad object was still nominally available a year later. It was, however, overshadowed by something far more interesting Facel's stand at the 1959 Salon contained an all­ French small sports car, the Facellia.

"For the French industry", proclaimed Facel's press release, ''which has not had a sports car since 1939, due to the disappearance of cars such as the Hispano, Bugatti, Hotchkiss, Salmson, etc., the Facellia 1600 is becoming one of the most talked­about sports cars of ou r time".

The first part of this statement was hardly true. Whatever their financial vicissitudes, pre1958 Talbots were not lacking in either character or performance, while between 1953 and 1957 Salmson had turned out some excellent 2.3­litre GT coupes with twin o.h.c. fourcylinder engines. The second part, however, was only too true, though not in the sense that Facel SA had intended.

On paper the Facellia was an excellent idea. The new car reproduced, in miniature, the elegant proportions of the Chrysler­ Facel. The shorter wheelbase enabled the firm to fit convertible coachwork without losing overmuch rigidity. A 1.6­litre engine placed the car on the safe side of the fiscal abyss, while a weight of one ton proved that its makers had not fallen into the trap of incorporating too many veeeight bits, in an attempt to "save the washing''. ( Britons had not forgotten devices like the 12 45 Invicta and the Alvis Firefly, with chassis designed for large six­cylinder machinery, and 1,500 c.c. engines). But in their desire to give France a sports car again, Facel had landed themselves with an impossible power unit, which they proceeded to make in impossible circumstances.

Obviously they could not build this themselves. The Facel empire could cope with chassis and any class of sheet metal work, but it had never made a power unit, and lacked the funds necessary to tool u p for one from scratch. The proprietary­engine industry, that mainstay of the small French producer in the 'twenties and early 'thirties, was dead and gone: ergo, their only possible source was Pont­a­ Mousson, who had never made an

engine either, and so were in no better case. What is more, life was made impossible for all concerned, since what Pont­a­Mousson manufactured was sent to Facel's Puteaux plant for assembly. The ensuing chaos can be imagined. It made nonsense of the volume production essential to the success of a manufactured product. The vee­eight, with its modest tooling costs and long run, could get by on sales of a few hundred a year, but the price of a stake in the MG/Triumph market was more and more Facellias. Plans called for 1,250 in 1960,3,500 in 1961, and no less than 5,000 in 1962.

Understandably, nothing of the kind happened. Precisely 158 were delivered between March and June,1960, which time the factory was far busier with guarantee repairs, mainly the result of the Facellia's predilection for burning pistons. The "huge orders" taken at the 1959 Salon became an embarrassment. Only about 500 twin­cam. cars were made all told: by contrast, the British Motor Corporation's earlier (and superficially comparable) lemon, the M G ­A Twin Cam, accounted for over two thousand units in two years.

Leaving aside other differences, BMC could afford a mistake, Facel could not. Yet on the face of it, the Facellia was an attractive proposition. In all its essentials, the chassis resembled that of the big cars, with the same tubular frame, welded­on coachwork, Gemmer steering, and hypoid rear axle. Initially ten­inch hydraulic drum brakes were standard, but the optional Dunlop discs were usually specified, and were standardised on 1962 Facellias. The shorter wheelbase offered superior rigidity at the price of even less room in the rear seats.

Visual differences between grand' and petit' routier were a simplified grille, single headlamps, and a facie in imitation wood. Initially only a convertible (with or without detachable hardtop) was listed: the angular "four­seater" coupe came a year later.

The four­cylinder engine, sometimes ascribed to Harry Weslake or Emile Petit, was in fact the work of Carlo Marchetti, formerly of Talbot; he was assisted by Paul Cavalier, the Chairman of Pont­a­Mousson. Dimensions were oversquare, at 82 x78 mm. for a capacity of 1,647 c.c., which surprised some people, since there was now a flourishing 1,600 c.c. competition category. The twin chain­driven overhead camshafts were supported in ball races, and operated inclined valves in hemispherical combustion chambers. The lightalloy head was of eight­port crossflow type, with centrally­mounted sparking plugs. Equally impressive was the bottom end, with its sturdy cast­iron block and five­bearing crankshaft. The alloy sump had a capacity of 8 Z pints. Fuel was fed by a SEV mechanical pump to a dualchoke downdraught Solex carburettor, though the Show engine had twin Solexes, and this alternative set­up was still listed in the 1961 catalogue. As usual, Pont­3­Mousson made the gearbox, a four­speed all­synchromesh affair controlled by a stubby central lever. The gear ratios followed the established Facel pattern, being high and close, at 4.1,5.079, 8.039, and 14 to 1. Early reports claimed that the new engine had given 140 b.h.p. on the bench, though production versions were credited with a more realistic 114 b.h.p. at a high 6,400 r.p.m. "The makers", commented John Bolster in Autosport, "claim that the unit will encompass 7,000 r.p.m.", though he did not explore these dizzy heights for the best of reasons. "I did 114 m.p.h. at Montlhery", he recalls, ''and then broke a piston".

Such weaknesses, however, did not always show themselves in normal road­test conditions. On the open road the Facellia was good for 105 m.p.h., with 90 coming up in third. The combination of high gearing and a power curve which gave of its best in the higher rev. ranges (nothing much happened below 3,000 r.p.m.) did not prove a serious handicap. The car would trickle along at 25­30 m.p.h. in top, and could also be worked up to three figure speeds with surprising ease. Admittedly, its acceleration figures could not match those of either Triumph's TR4 or the twin cam MG, but then these were out­and­out sports cars. A fairer comparison would be Fiat's 1500S cabriolet with Osca­designed d.o.h.c. engine, also an oil­burner with a slightly tarnished reputation. This took 15.2 seconds to reach 60, and 28.4 seconds to attain the 80 mark, the French car's times being 11.9 and 23.3 seconds respectively. It was not until 1966 that Fiat perfected their twin camshaft engine in the delightful 124 Sport Special, a car which the Facellia might have rivalled, and indeed surpassed, had the funds been available. Even this, however, returned performance figures no better than the Facel's. Its fuel consumption of around 23 m.p.g. was much the same. though admittedly it ran to only 1,438 c.c. and 90 b.h.p., and was also a habitable, if not a very comfortable fourseater.

On handling, the Facellia again scored high marks. The disc brakes were more than adequate; a servo was added in 1961, which made for lighter pedal pressures in return for an irritating lag endemic to such devices. Steering on the first cars was described as ''light and rather dead'', but the higher gearing adopted later improved the feel, though testers found the Facellia a little heavy in traffic. Remarkably, too, the car was quiet, like the Fiat, but not the MG ­ at any rate up to the 6,000 r.p.m. which a wise driver would regard as his limit! Opinions differed on the ride; the absence of rear­end hop was praised, but there was the same harshness as afflicted the vee­eights, even cat's eyes making their presence felt. Other faults were (as ever) the ''anonymous" toggle switches for heater, lights and wipers, and a horizontal filler cap concealed behind the rear number plate. From the British viewpoint, of course, the car was much too expensive, at £2,509. At that time the big Austin­ Healey retailed at around the £1,000 mark, and even rival imports were cheaper; those reluctant to part with the £2,000 plus asked for the fiercer versions of Alfa Romeo's Giulietta and could buy a twin­cam Fiat cabriolet for only £1,844.

The Press did not have to live with the Facellia. Its makers did, and no sooner were the first 1600s in private hands than back they came again, usually with holes in their pistons. According to Paul Badre the main troubles were poor water circulation and a lack of rigidity, but it was not until 1962 that he and Ing. Bertin solved these problems on the F2 model . . . and by this time it was too late. ''Perhaps fortunately'', M. Badre remarks, the F2S, a twin­carburettor high­compression development credited with 128 b.h.p. never progressed beyond the mock­up stage, though in this form it appeared at the Shows. Other improvements found on 1962 Facellias were hydraulically­operated clutches, two­speed wipers, and the traditional tour­headlamp configuration.

Owners were unenthusiastic. Lance Mackli n's personal car gave him two years of trouble­free motoring, and he only parted with it when he resigned from Facel in 1962,''but then I nursed it a bit. Parts were a problem, too". Others threw Pont­a­Mousson's masterpiece away in disgust. A Facellia I recall in the New Forest sprouted a bulge on its bonnet top where a 3.8­litre Jaguar unit had been shoehorned in, and a surviving car in Nantes now wears a post­War 3­litre Delage D6 engine.

Facellias were seen in the Monte Carlo Rally, one of the 1961 entries being handled by no less than Maurice Gatsonides. A win in the 2­litre GT class sounds impressive, but even the Dutch ace could manage no better than 80th in general classification. In 1962 Poirot and Hazard improved on this, to the tune of 75th, but Hazard's final effort in 1963 ended ignominiously in a ditch.

By 1962 the Facellia was at least reliable, but the harm had been done, and as early as April there were rumours of impending bankruptcy. The French, however, have a way of circumventing the ultimate disaster, and once again there were Facels at both the Grand Palais and Earls Court in October­though in London, at any rate, the small car was a significant absentee. In 1963 the Swiss buyers' guide still quoted it. at 22,500 fr: as against 14.900 for Fiat's latest 1600S, 20,250 for a convertible version of the Lancia Flavia, and only 11,350 for the simple and well­liked pushrod M.G­B. The patriotic struggle had been fought and lost.

The Facel II

While the Facellia trod the road to ruin, the original eight­cylinder theme had been going from strength to strength, and for 1962 it emerged as the Facel II, with the latest 6.3litre Chrysler engine, available in two stages of tune. On automatic models the standard setup ran to a single carburettor and gave a satisfying 355 b.h.p., but manual cars used an engine built, reputedly, to Californian police specifications (this was before the days of smoke­emission laws, of course!). Output was a fearsome 390 b.h.p., thanks to a 10:1 compression and twin four­barrel carburettors: both Macklin and Badre considered this 'a bit brutish'. The automatic Facel was more popular, especially since Chrysler's infuriating push­buttons had given way to a straightforward illuminated quadrant mounted on the central console. On the Facel II, the Hydrastatic brakes were replaced by an improved type of Dunlop disc, air conditioning was standardised, and on cars sold in Britain (though not elsewhere) an attempt was made to improve the ride by fitting Armstrong Selectaride electrically­controlled dampers at the rear. Single lenses were now used for the twin headlamps clusters, but at long last a serious attempt was made to restyle the car.

Outlines were now more angular, as on the Facellia coupe; the consequences were a lower roof­line, a reduced frontal area, and better all-round vision. One paid for this with shallower seat cushions and an awkward straight­knee driving position. Both boot and spare wheel were moved further aft, which upset the weight distribution somewhat. Neither seat belts nor anchorages were provided.

Both Autocar and Motor tried the automatic Facel II, and had little but praise for it. Though tyres imposed some limitations on out­and­out speed (the standard Michelins were not recommended for use above 120 m.p.h.), the vital statistics were such as to render a manual gearbox superfluous. Top gear gave 132 m.p.h., 84 was obtainable in ''intermediate hold", and the 0 ­ 60 time was down to 8.3 seconds. The ''ton'' could be reached in less than 22 seconds, while the crucial 30­50 m.p.h. gap could be bridged in 5 seconds using drive range, or a mere 3.3 if the kickdown were used. The engine, in Autocar's opinion, could be mistaken for a twelve. The Facel would storm a gradient of 1 ­in­4.8 without a downward change, and use of the indirects was regarded by Motor as "rather painting the lily'', though it was immense fun. The brakes worked admirably, but still called for high pressures, and even with the optional Armstrong dampers there was too much vertical movement at the rear. The wipers were of little use above 70 m.p.h., but 100 m.p.h. at a sedate 3,650 r.p.m. still had its attraction.

Unfortunately, the car was now neither unique nor primus inter pares. An American power unit had merits other than low first cost ­ it was backed by superior service to that offered by the European exotica with their upstairs camshaft engines­and by 1962 others had followed Daninos's lead. Bristol and Jensen opted for the same combination of Chrysler engine and Torqueflite transmission, though the later Gordon­ Keeble and Iso preferred the Chevrolet. For all its bulky appearance, the Facel was still reasonably compact, measuring only 15 ft. 6 in. from stem to stern. It might turn the scales a good 5 cwt. heavier than any of the opposition, but this mattered little with over 350 b.h.p. on tap. Unlike Bristol, the French factory still offered a manual option, and when it came to straight­line speed only the Gordon ­ Keeble stood much chance against the Facel's 390 chevaux.

The Facel II represented a great improvement over previous models, but lack of funds prevented a complete redesign, and the clientele was becoming more critical of continuing weaknesses­the heavy controls, the uncomfortable back­seat ride, and those aeroplane-type switches. Nor was the car competitive. It was certainly not one of the countless victims of Sir William Lyons and his Jaguars, like the Railton, the Brough, and the Lammas­Graham of the 1930s. The owner who forsook his Railton "Cobham" for a 32­litre SS did so because he wanted four forward speeds, because he slashed his annual tax bill, and because he saved himself a good £250 thereby. The Jaguar of 1963 was still a sensational bargain ­ an E­type cost only £1,913-but it sold to a different type of customer.

And even in its own rarefied market the Facel was too expensive. It cost less than an S­type Bentley, but its immediate rivals all undercut it. A Briton paid £3,392 for a CV­8 Jensen, £4,175 for an Aston Martin, and £4,459 for a Bristol. A 3'­litre Maserati could be bought for £4,682. or £212 less than was asked for the Facel II ­ and by this time a Maserati was even more of a status symbol.

Nor was the situation any happier in a free market such as Switzerland. Swiss prices tell their own story: 43,000 francs for a Jensen, 45,300 for a Maserati, 47,500 for the cheapest Ferrari, 48,300 for an Aston, 49,500 for a Bristol, and a swingeing 51,500 for France's sole contender. Further, the American horsepower race was in full swing (aided by a new generation of ''personal" cars typified by Ford's Mustang), and one wonders if the Face!'s existing suspension arrangements could have coped with the fiercest of pre­ Nader Chryslers ­ the 1970 7 ­litre ''street hem)'' with its 425 b.h.p. And would the company have footed Pont­a­ Mousson's bill for a new heavy­duty box? One suspects that Gallic pride would have reluctantly been swallowed, to the tune of "automatic only'', or Chrysler's own proven brand of "four­on­the­floor''.

But for the moment the Facel II filled the bill. It was to continue unchanged until the end, though alternator ignition was adopted for 1963.

The Search for an Engine

Meanwhile the company was reaping the whirlwind. The blood transfusion administered by Pont­a­Mousson, Hispano­Suiza and Mobil­ France in the summer of 1962 proved insufficient, and towards the end of the year M. Bevierre was appointed Receiver, with Ing. Percin as his technical assistant. Already Badre had rectified the failings of the twin­cam unit, but public confidence had been lost, and the management took the wise step of giving the Facellia a safe, well­tried five­bearing pushrod engine, in the shape of the 1,780 c.c. Volvo from Sweden. This came in P1800 sports form with twin carburettors, offering a reliable and adequate 108 b.h.p.; the package also included a four­speed all­synchromesh gearbox and an (optional) Laycock de Normanville overdrive. Announced in April, 1963, this Facel III would comfortably exceed the ''ton" (the factory claimed 112 m.p.h.). John Bolster liked the ''very well­chosen gear ratios, with a close­up third speed", though he found the steering heavy and the suspension hard. There were also traces of rear­end hop, something unknown in twin­cam days­the price of an extra two hundredweight of avoirdupois. But the Volvo­ Facel was appreciably cheaper ­ around £2,200 in England ­ and some 1,500 found buyers in less than eighteen months. in Sentemher 1963, a new management took over under Paul Badre, whose company SFERMA, a subsidiary of Sud­Aviation, signed a contract with the receiver for twelve months " gerance libre'', a period which, it was hoped, would enable them to salvage the Facel Vega.

During the Badre regime, a variety of engines was tried. There was an entirely new twin­cam unit, an all­aluminium affair which gave 150 b.h.p. on the bench, or 200 b.h.p. in alternative 2­litre form. Eight of these engines were built, though only one, a 1600, actually went into a car, the prototype Facellia convertible. M. Badre still owns this machine, which was tested to do 125 m.p.h.

Such a proposition would, however, have landed Facel once more with the headaches of engine manufacture, and an interim model, the Facel 6, appeared in the spring of 1964. In essence the chassis followed regulation practice, though it had in fact been redesigned in detail with stronger suspension. All­disc brakes were, of course, standard, and this time Facel went to England for their engine, installing B M C's twin­carbureltor pushrod six in Austin­ Healey tune. The spectre of the fiscal abyss still loomed, so it was debored from 83.36 to 82.5 mm. to make it a 15CV. The resultant 2.8­litre version gave a satisfactory 150 b.h.p., fuel feed was by electric pump, and the gear ratios (3.04,4,6.01, and 10.59 to 1) were typically Facel. Centre­ lock wheels, twospeed wipers, and reclining seats were standard, and bodies were similar to those of the Facellia and Facel III Top speed was quoted as 120 m.p.h.

Only 26 were made (most of them fixedhead coupes), but one of these was tested with yet another engine, the single o.h.c. fourcylinder B MW 2000 from Germany. M. Badre considers the result "a delightful car, to my mind the best of the Facels", but time was running out, and the company were unable to reach agreement with BMW. The borrowed engine went back to Munich, and the car was sold with an Austin unit in its place.

Came October, 1964, and there were Facel stands at Paris and London alike. Rumour spoke of an even bigger 6.7­litre Chrysler under the bonnet of the Facel II, but such an engine never eventuated. Before Earls Court closed its doors, the period of "gerance libre'' expired. SFERMA decided not to renew their contract, and Facel SA went into liquidation for good, though the Puteaux works continued to function as a service depot for another two years, after which the spares on hand went to M. Duchene, the Paris agent. Daninos, who had stayed on as Technical Director, retired to the Facel Metallon plant at Amboise, which had escaped the collapse, while Badre kept the rights to both name and designs. Anthony Crook of Bristol Cars acquired the remaining stocks of Pont­a­ Mousson gearboxes, just in case any Bristol owners preferred to shift for themselves. None of them, however, did.

Once again France was without a grand' routier, or even a petit routier to replace the Facellia, though small sports cars of a different type were marketed by Alpine and Matra, and the latter restored the blue of France to its former glories in Formula One. It was to take the combined forces of Citroen and Maserati (plus an injection of Fiat money, administered over the protests of General de Gaulle!) to bring back the old days in 1970, with the advanced SM coupe, four­cam V6 engine and all. At the 1972 Salon Citroen's super­car even acquired a rival in the shape of the Monica sports saloon from Balbigny (Loire). This one was unashamedly English in parentage, having been created by Chris Lawrence, while its engine was a Martin vee­eight. It remains to be seen whether the French will take to it.

If they do, M. Rossini will have been proved wrong. And in any case the Facel itself very nearly succeeded. During its ten­year span it became the status symbol of les sportifs. if not of the sporting motorist, and it was frequently seen outside the more exclusive golf clubs. As a motor car the eight­cylinder coupe was basically right: it had looks, performance, and handling and above all it was uncompromisingly individual in an era of standardisation. Maybe it was too flamboyant ­ I am inclined to agree with the present­day owner who has affixed a Delage badge to his car, because he feels that it is the sort of vehicle that Louis Delage would have marketed had he survived the economic upheavals of the mid­thirties.

It died because its sponsors sought to avoid the fate that had engulfed Talbot, by staying out of competitions that would have "improved the breed'': because they lacked the finances to retain the lead they had built up in the later 1950s: and above all because patriotism dictated a petite cylindree made entirely in France at a time when France was no longer in a position to produce any such thing. And at the last, Facel SA found themselves exactly where Antoine Lago had been six years before­with empty coffers, with an obsolescent and overpriced car. and dependent on foreign sources for their mechanical elements. Nobody came to the rescue of the 65­year­old tradition of Darracq: still less would they rescue an upstart of ten summers.

But it was fun while it lasted.

The Author wishes to acknowledge the generous assistance given to him in the preparation of this article by G E. Abecassis. Paul Badre, Martin Banks, John Bolster. Arnold J. Burton, Jeremy Collett, Martin Kent, Lance Macklin. Barry Sanity. and Derek West.

~ from the English Series: Cars in Profile NO7 - March 1973 ~
 
 
 



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