The great thing about concours-type classic car shows is one can usually find great CCs in the visitor car park. The Concours d’Élégance Suisse I attended recently had plenty – I’ve already done a post on a selection of car park CCs I found there. But when you encounter a Facel-Vega in the wild, it warrants its own kind of attention.
Is there anything more appealing than the marriage of a European chassis and body with a big American V8? The concept was pioneered in the ‘30s by British makers such as Jensen, Railton and a little later Allard. The baton was taken over in the ‘50s by French industrialist Jean Daninos. He turned his Forges et Ateliers de Constructions d’Eure-et-Loir from a parts manufacturer into an independent car body supplier (working with Bentley, Ford SAF, Panhard and Simca). Finally, Daninos launched the Facel-Vega, a high-end sports coupé with a Chrysler V8, in the summer of 1954.
It was fascinating to encounter the HK 500 mere minutes after admiring the 1951 Bentley Mk VI Cresta II that was at the concours. Designed by Daninos for his personal use, this one-off Bentley was a sort of trial run for the Facel-Vega, at least in terms of front-end styling. The design matured very nicely and lasted well into the ‘60s – a testament to Jean Daninos’ talent and knack for improving his designs by incremental touches.
Facel-Vega immediately took the top spot as France’s most exclusive automobile, just as the country’s old luxury marques were disappearing. There were several iterations of the Facel V8 coupé from 1955 to 1958 – FV1, FVS, FV2, FV2b, FV3, FV3b, FV4 – including a few convertibles (which Daninos disapproved of for fast cars) and the Excellence four-door hardtop. The engines were all Mopar-sourced, but a wide variety were used, from 4.5 to 6.3 litres. This confusion of model names and engine specs was finally clarified with the HK 500, launched in May 1958 with Chrysler’s 5.9 litre (361 ci) V8.
Business was good up until Facel committed the Deadly Sin of trying to make their own engine (read this for more details on that sorry affair). But when this HK 500 came out of the Dreux factory in 1960, things were still looking rosy. The HK 500, by this point, received Borani steel wheels and Dunlop disc brakes, hitherto optional, were fitted as standard. This was due in no small part to the fatal crash of famed author Albert Camus and publisher Michel Gallimard in the latter’s FV3 in January 1960.
The HK 500 switched to Chrysler’s 6.3 litre (383 ci) V8 in mid-1959, with slight modifications (courtesy of Chrysler) to increase performance. With that colossal motor, the Facel could reach between 205 and 235 kph (125-145 mph). Top speed was a function of the transmission: with the Torqueflite automatic, the V8 had just one 4-bbl carburetor, limiting it to 330 hp (gross). Our CC has the Pont-à-Mousson 4-speed manual, so it also has a twin Carter carb V8 producing 360 hp. Facel marketed the HK 500 as the “fastest four-seater in the world.” I’m not sure about this claim, but let’s just say its oomph was roughly equivalent to its panache.
Designed by racing driver Lance Macklin, Facel’s tubular chassis was otherwise pretty conservative, with a leaf-sprung live axle and coil-sprung double-wishbone IFS, like all of the era’s big performance cars not called Mercedes-Benz or Lancia. The car’s moniker comes from its power-to-weight ratio of five kilo per HP – compared to American cars, the Facel was a real lightweight. But in terms of luxury, it was up there with Bentley.
The interior of a well-maintained V8 Facel is always a delight to behold. Connolly leather, electric everything, central console and the best imitation burr walnut money could buy. Those dashes were painstakingly painted, heat treated and given multiple coats of varnish by a specialized team within Facel – the result is pretty impressive.
As expected, things are far less idyllic in the back. Anyone over 6 feet tall better wear support stockings and pop an aspirin before heading out on a long journey. But then Facels were not meant to be enjoyed from the rear seat – even the Excellence’s was rather cramped, apparently.
Only 490 Facel-Vega HK 500s were made from 1958 to 1961, about 75% of which were exported. In France, the HK 500 was the most expensive domestic coupé by quite a margin, but it was half the price of the cheapest Ferrari. Import duties, shipping and the like made it even more expensive in foreign markets. The 1963 Volvo advert above should be taken with a hefty helping of sodium chloride (why is that BMW 507 in there?), but it does show the kind of ball park the big Facels were playing in.
Facel-Vega closed down, somewhat abruptly, in late 1964. It’s a great pity that Jean Daninos’ creation disappeared before its time (which should have been in the mid-‘70s, like most hybrids). Neat tricks like this “V” in the taillamps show an originality and attention to detail that would have made for some very interesting ‘70s Facels. Certainly more stimulating than Triumph roadsters, to be sure.
I tend to think that the HK 500’s successor, the Facel II, was the marque’s most beautiful design. The Excellence is sometimes part of my fantasy garage as well. After seeing this black HK 500, I’ll have to add this model – if possible this very car, which ticks all the boxes – to my shopping list, just in case those lottery tickets come through.
Curbside Classique: 1958-1961 Facel Vega Excellence, by Imperialist