Automotive History: French Deadly Sins (Sports/Luxury Edition, Part 2) – Facel-Vega Facellia

Welcome to part two of this new round of French Deadly Sins. As we saw yesterday, Bugatti was an old marque at the end of its rope, but by the late ‘50s, French luxury and sports cars were limited to one name: Facel-Vega. The marque was launched in 1954 and produced minute quantities of extremely high-end cars (mostly for export) with considerable success. But when Facel-Vega tried to move slightly downmarket and launch a 4-cyl. model, they committed a very Deadly Sin…

 

La Facellia Fatale: A Gripping Drama In Four Cylinders

A young Jean Daninos poses with a Citroën C6 roadster he designed in 1931.

 

The brains behind Facel (Forges et ateliers de construction d’Eure-et-Loir) was Jean Daninos (1906-2001), a man who made a name for himself as an automotive stylist early on. He was notably in charge of Citroën’s special coachwork department in the early ‘30s, when it is alleged he helped design the two-door Traction Avant coupé and cabriolet.

Facel was a leading producer of gas generators for cars and trucks during the war.

 

After a stint in the aircraft industry, he became one of the directors of the newly-founded Facel in 1939, focusing on gas generators and aircraft parts. Daninos went to the USA in early 1941 and worked in the aviation industry there, coming back to France after it was liberated in late 1944. All the Facel executives were purged and Daninos ended up as the company’s CEO in 1945. Facel soon merged with another similar firm, Metallon, and started to broaden its product range.

Facel-made, clockwise from top left: Delahaye VLR, Bentley Cresta, Simca 8 Sport, Ford Comète.

 

Facel-Metallon had three factories to keep busy, so Daninos began to offer his services to the car-making industry. Not only could Facel-Metallon build trim pieces, hubcaps and bumpers, it could produce complete bodies. Panhard’s all-alloy Dyna X body shells were all made by Facel, as were the Delahaye VLR 4X4s used by the French army. Daninos remained a gifted stylist: when Simca asked him to produce their Farina-designed Simca 8 Sport convertible, he designed a hardtop for the coupé version – even the Italians thought it very attractive. Facel ended up styling and producing all subsequent iterations of the Simca Sport, which sold over 25,000 units until 1962. The Farina connection led to Facel producing the Ford Comète and the Bentley Cresta. Facel-Metallon became a leader in a specific niche – the production of stylish, low-volume all-metal bodies and/or finished cars – that was in high demand and were there was virtually no domestic competition.

1954 prototype “Vega by Facel” with DeSoto Firedome V8.

 

It did not escape Jean Daninos that, by the early ‘50s, high-end French car-makers were moribund, stuck as they were with outdated designs and production methods. The time was right for a new car in that segment, one that would appeal to export markets and the glitterati. Pierre Daninos, Jean’s brother and a famous writer, suggested using the name Vega for the new car. The styling was no issue – that was Facel’s strong suit – but the choice of engine was thornier. Something powerful, reliable and available was needed, but nothing was available domestically. So Daninos turned to Chrysler’s Hemi V8 and never looked back. From the first FV coupé of 1954 to the final Facel II a decade later, all big Facel-Vegas would employ Chrysler V8s.

Facel V8 owners included Sinatra, Picasso, Ava Gardner, Dean Martin, Ringo Starr, Stirling Moss, Tony Curtis…

…as well as Robert Wagner, pictured here with an ultra-rare 1955 FV1 cabriolet.

 

The V8 Facel-Vegas became status symbols of the late ‘50s. They were beautiful, very fast, superbly built and rare. But to enable the car-making side of the business to flourish, Daninos figured by 1957 that a higher production rate was necessary. This meant designing a smaller car aimed at the sporty 4-cyl. niche of the market – something more European. Facel-Vega were about to take on Alfa-Romeo, MG, Porsche and Triumph. But the same issue remained: what to do for an engine? There were no suitable French engines in the late ‘50s to take on these formidable opponents. And now that volume production was on the cards, the French government would not allow Facel to use imported engines.

The Facellia’s infamous engine and a 1959 prototype.

Facel-Vega’s gearbox and drum brake supplier, Pont-à-Mousson, had been toying with an interesting 6-cyl. engine design since the early ‘50s. Out of options, Daninos contracted Pont-à-Mousson to finalize and produce a related engine, a 1.6 litre hemi head DOHC 4-cyl. plant that seemed ideal for his purposes. The engine, designed by Jean Cavallier, was refined and perfected throughout 1958-59. It delivered 115 hp (gross) @ 6400 rpm with a single double-barrel Solex carb and was mated to a (no points for guessing) Pont-à-Mousson 4-speed gearbox. Top speed was around 180 kph (110 mph). The Facellia’s tubular chassis was basically a smaller and lighter version of the V8 coupés’: independent coil-sprung front suspension, leaf-sprung solid rear axle and optional Dunlop disc brakes. Protoype testing was unusually short, especially for a completely new car with an unproven engine from a novice manufacturer.

The star of the 1959 Paris Motor Show…

The Facellia was launched in October 1959 at the Paris Motor Show. The car caused quite a sensation: it was like a mini Facel, albeit with a leather-covered dash instead of the V8 models’ trademark painted wood. And it was available as a convertible. There had been very few V8 drop-tops, as Daninos thought the cars’ structural rigidity mandated a metal roof. But the Facellia had been specifically engineered with convertibles in mind.

The two-seater hardtop was the least popular variant; pre-production “small” roof 2+2 coupé below.

Two coupés were also available: a two-seater (essentially a convertible with a welded hardtop) and a 2+2, whose roofline was soon revised to improve headroom. The first cars were delivered to their beaming owners in early 1960; over 1000 Facellias were on the order books.

Jean Daninos and his latest creation in 1960.

 

Dark clouds gathered over the new car very soon indeed. The engine was at issue. One of the quirks that the Pont-à-Mousson engineers had included was chromed cylinder liners. This feature meant that the engine’s running-in period was not the usual 500 km, but nearer to 5000 km. Many new Facellia owners did not heed the factory’s recommendations and began to drive their cars fast before they should have. There were other issues too, including overheating, fragile camshafts and valvetrains, etc., all pointing to an underdeveloped motor. Most of the first batch of 350 Facellias broke their engines within six months of purchase.

Very few Facellias made it to the States, compared to the V8 models.

 

It was a disaster. Facel did the only thing they could to salvage the Facellia: quietly replacing the engines under warranty as quickly and as quietly as possible. But the replacement engines had the same problems. Even though fewer cars came back for another round of new motors, the little Facel’s reputation was soon tarnished and many orders cancelled.

Coincidentally, the V8 range was affected in January 1960 by the death of publisher Michel Gallimard and his passenger, Nobel laureate writer Albert Camus, in the former’s FV3 coupé. This led to the issuing of a rather disingenuous note from Facel-Vega to their élite clientele, telling them to mind their car’s tyre pressure and to avoid smoking, turning on the radio or talking while driving fast. Sales plummeted, dealers fled and the business was in a sea of red ink.

Facellias could be ordered with optional headlamp covers that improved the car’s aerodynamics.

 

Facel-Vega called upon the engineers of Moteur Moderne to address the engine’s most pressing issues: the wet liners, pistons, valves and cams were all revised; a brake servo was also added. The much-improved 1961 Facellia F2 was the result, though the engines still had overheating issues. A twin-carb F2S was also proposed, which produced 126 hp and allowed the car to reach over 190 kph.

Facellia assembly line in Dreux, a dozen miles west of Paris.

 

Daninos himself was in a precarious position: he was demoted from CEO to Technical Director in mid-1961 as Facel-Vega became part-owned by MobilOil, Pont-à-Mousson and Hispano-Suiza so that additional investment could be obtained. In January 1962, Facel-Vega issued a communiqué acknowledging the Facellia’s engine issues. While this may have been true, it was unprecedented and led to another tidal wave of engine replacements under warranty, which drained the company’s finances just as they were being restored.

Facellia F2B at the 1962 Paris Motor Show. New headlamps and dash did little to improve sales.

Against Daninos’ wishes, Facel-Vega went into voluntary liquidation in July 1962, but the industrial tribunal gave the automaker a stay of execution. Production was allowed to continue under a court-appointed administrator and another round of modifications was ordered for the Facellia, which became the F2B. It now featured Marchal Megalux headlight clusters like the new Facel II, as well as the large cars’ beautiful painted dash – and further engine improvements. Alas, it was too little, too late. A more drastic solution for the Facellia problem was being mooted for the middle of the 1963 model year.

The Facellia name and the ill-fated Pont-à-Mousson motor were finally abandoned. The car became the Facel III and the French authorities allowed a foreign engine to replace the dreaded French four. The Volvo B18 (the P1800 S engine) was now under the Facel’s hood; disc brakes became standard and the car’s front and rear styling were mildly updated. Power was down to 108 hp, but at least that engine had a favourable reputation.

Sales increased noticeably, but never approached the 5000 units per year that Daninos had envisaged back in 1959. After a year of temporary administration, the firm was put up for a “location-gérance” contract in mid-1963: another company would manage Facel in exchange for paying rent to Facel’s shareholders.

Automobiles Facel-Vega was now run by Paul Badré, the director of SFERMA (Société française d’entretien et de réparation de matériel aéronautique), a branch of Sud-Aviation, the makers of the Caravelle aircraft. Things were not as bad as before, but still far from rosy. The Volvo-powered Facel III was given a new stable-mate in the spring of 1964: the Facel 6. Based on the Facellia’s underpinnings but featuring a slightly longer wheelbase and wire wheels, the new car was an attempt at bridging the gap between the 4-cyl. range and the V8s. It sported a BMC 6-cyl. plant (as seen on Austin-Healeys) brought down to 2.8 liters so that it could be in a more palatable tax band.

Daninos and de Gaulle at the Paris Motor Show. The body language is quite telling…

 

Then, in September 1964, a bolt came down form the blue. The Ministry of Finance, who owned Sud-Aviation, wanted to reconfigure SFERMA in view of the aerospace industry’s consolidation. The Minister, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, ordered SFERMA to cease all non-aircraft-related activities at once. Did he know this would put Facel-Vega’s future in jeopardy? Perhaps not, but then Daninos’ foreign-powered cars were never popular with the man who mattered most in France at the time, Charles de Gaulle. No Facel-Vega was ever graced by the general’s derrière, nor were any ordered by officials (except a few Excellence saloons discounted to some French ambassadors). Jean Daninos frantically tried to find a new partner to buy out Facel-Vega. Rover showed interest and initial talks began, only for Daninos to learn that the French government would veto any foreign takeover.

Facel’s last stand in October 1964, opposite another zombie marque, Panhard.

 

There was no time to look for another solution: Facel-Vega would cease production and be dissolved before the year’s end. The marque was still present at the October 1964 Paris Motor Show, but was forbidden from taking in any new orders. The final cars were assembled by November 1964. Jean Daninos went back to being a sought-after consultant for various industries and witnessed the revival of interest in Facel-Vega that took place in the ‘80s and ‘90s with great pride.

The Facellia was a clear-cut Deadly Sin: rushed into production when it merited at least another year in development, it destabilized its maker and sent it into a tailspin of unforced errors, even as the market was hungry for more Facel-Vegas, big or small. In ten years, Facel-Vega produced a grand total of about 3000 automobiles, including about 1900 Facellia/Facel III/Facel 6 models – in a singular twist of fate, the Deadly Sins therefore represented a majority of the marque’s output.

 

We will move on to the next decade tomorrow and examine the last French attempt (to date) at a large V8-powered luxury-sports saloon, the Monica 560.