The attraction of large, powerful, American engines
in sporty European, principally British, bodies has produced a variety
of hybrids over the years. In the 1930s there were Hudson-powered
Railtons and Brough Superiors. In the 1950s and '60s came the
Nash-Healey, Cadillac-Allard, Chrysler-powered Jensen Interceptor, and
Ford-powered Sunbeam Tigers and AC Shelby Cobras.
Our subject is Franco-American, not Anglo-American.
In the early 1950s, wealthy motoring enthusiast and industrialist Jean
Daninos decided to enter the car business. His Paris-based company,
Forges et ateliers de construction d'Eure et de Loire, or FACEL, made
everything from kitchen sinks to jet engine combustion chambers. It also
produced car bodies for several companies.
Daninos wanted to build a very special vehicle in the
Grand Touring style, one that would recapture France's pre-war GT
splendour as exemplified by the big Bugattis, Delages and Delahayes that
swiftly and elegantly whisked their well off owners down to a Riviera
week-end. Those grand GTs died out in France after the Second World War
due to the war's devastation, and brutal taxes on engines over 2.8
litres. Daninos sought to recapture that glory by combining luxurious
road travel with prodigious performance, and saw an American engine as
After initially using Bentley chassis to build a few
cars, Daninos started building his own for his Facel Vega, as he named
it. Engineering was pretty straightforward. Its tubular frame was strong
enough to accommodate a big American V-8. Suspension was by coil springs
and A-arms in front and a solid axle with leaf springs in the rear. A
180-horsepower 4.5 litre DeSoto "Hemi" V-8 engine sent its power to the
rear wheels through a Chrysler two-speed "PowerFlite" automatic
transmission, or a Pont-a-Mousson four-speed manual.
These mechanicals were clothed in a low, attractive
coupe (a few convertibles were also made), somewhat reminiscent of the
French Simca. Pillarless design gave a hardtop convertible look. A steel
body with stainless steel exterior trim, plus the rugged construction,
resulted in a weight close to 1,814 kg (4,000 lb). It was introduced in
The interior, as befitted the GT genre, was
luxurious. Simulated wood, deep carpets and leather abounded, and a full
set of instruments and deeply dished steering wheel gave it an air of
sumptuousness. All of this did not come cheap; Facel Vega prices, in the
$8,000 to $10,000 range, were close to some Rolls-Royce models.
With its big V-8, the Facel Vega was fast. Road &
Track magazine (12/56) recorded zero a to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 9.3
seconds, and a top speed average of 195 km/h (121 mph). This was
excellent performance for that era, especially for such a heavy car.
The Facel Vega received mechanical upgrades along the
way, such as Chrysler's 3-speed "TorqueFlite" automatic transmission,
and power steering and brakes.
For 1956 the Facel Vega Sport was powered by a more
potent 5.4 litre, 325 horsepower Chrysler engine. The Facel Vega
Excellence, a formal long-wheelbase four-door, pillarless, hardtop
version launched in 1957, was continued until 1964. It suffered from
lack of body rigidity and sold in limited numbers.
In 1959 the Facel Vega Sport became the Facel Vega
HK500, first with the 5.8 litre Chrysler V-8, then switching to the even
larger Chrysler 6.3-litre V-8 pumping out 360 horsepower. Road & Track
(7/60) tested one fitted with an automatic transmission and found it
faster than the original in top speed, now 210 km/h (130 mph), but at
9.7 seconds, a little slower in acceleration to 96 (60), due no doubt to
its now almost 1,905 kg (4,200 lb) weight. They estimated a top speed of
227 km/h (140 mph) for the four-speed model.
The last of Facel Vega's large cars, the Facel II,
came in 1962. It was a beautiful design, with more glass than
previously, and although about the same size as the HK500, it somehow
seemed lower and sleeker. The windshield was less severely wrapped, and
stacked quad headlamps gave the front end a distinctive and purposeful
Thanks to lower weight at 1,633 kg (3,600 lb), the
Facel II was even faster, estimates putting the top speed near 242 km/h
(150 mph), with zero to 96 (60) about a second faster than the HK500.
Many consider the Facel II to be the best Facel Vega of all.
In 1959 Daninos had also moved into the popular
sports car market with the smaller Facellia to compete with the likes of
MG and Triumph. Although an attractive convertible, its 1.6 litre
4-cylinder, twin cam engine proved unreliable. Replacing it with a 1.8
litre Volvo four and a new Facel III name helped. Facel 6 with an
Austin-Healey 3000 six, reduced to 2.8 litres for tax reasons, was even
tried, but it was too late to recover from the Facellia's tarnished
Heavy small-car losses, and strong competition from
such large sports cars as Bristol, Aston Martin and Ferrari, resulted in
the liquidation of Facel Vega's automotive enterprise in 1964. Over a
decade, more than 1,000 of the big Facel Vegas had been built. They are
now sought-after collectibles.