(first posted 9/25/2014) At about 6:30 Saturday night, I looked up from resetting the trip odometer after filling the gas tank. And this grill was coming toward me. Stacked headlamps and spare lines. Way too much grill for a Mercedes 250SE coupe, but even farther from Lincoln, once champion of the chrome grid face. It kept moving, sleek and tailored. Then I remembered reading about the Facel Vega. I think I’ve seen one or two in pictures, never at a show or a museum. Or a gas station.
So I hop out of my car with my phone, and ask the kindly owner if I can take a few pictures. After all, I never expected to see a Facel anywhere, let alone getting gas at Beverly and LaBrea. He was surprised I knew what his car was—although, at the time, I hadn’t really thought about the difference between the first Facel Vega of the late 50s, and this car, the Facel II of the early 60s. Of course, once you’ve read about a Chrysler Hemi in a hand-built French touring coupe, you’re not likely to forget what it is.
Unfortunately, the gas station didn’t combine well with the natural light; and I was already late for something, and a gentleman refueling a Facel II at 6:30 on Saturday can only be on the way to dinner at 7. So these pictures don’t live up to this well-kept example, not at all.
The Vega II has a swooping windshield, and as you go backwards the car looks more and more like our host’s beloved, influential Pininfarina Florida. The main difference is that the Vega II has a vanishingly small chrome c-pillar and a curving backlight. This goes with the fast front. With a roof that seems substantially lower than the Florida’s, the Vega II passenger cabin still looks like a greenhouse instead of a bunker. The view from the rear is especially Floridian.
Unfortunately, my photo of the beautiful interior, which looks like the best of later Jaguars and Maseratis combined, didn’t come out at all, but here’s one from the web. Delicious.
By way of background, there’s no automaker I’ve had less contact with than Facel. The Facel Club reports that they made 184 Facel IIs between 1961 and 1964. The first Facel Vega (FV,FVS, HK500) was relatively common in comparison, with almost a thousand made.
The company’s downfall was a smaller car, the Facellia, a twin-cam 4-cylinder convertible intended to be affordable, maybe something like an Alfa Giulietta Spider in price and character. The engine, chosen because it was designed and manufactured by the French Pont-à-Mousson company, was so bad that Facel had to replace all of them under warranty, the blow that finished the company. Total Facel Vega production was roughly 10 years, 1954-1964, and probably fewer than 5000 all-in.
Jean Daninos revived “Forges et Ateliers de Construction d’Eure et de Loire,” a concern started in the 1930s to provide tooling to the aircraft industry, by providing manufacturing capacity to others, including Panhard, after WWII. Facel’s biggest success in this regard was the Ford Comète, a hardtop coupe of the early 1950s, ultimately derived from a Pininfarina design. The first Facel Vega prototype was designed in 1951, and the Chrysler Hemi arrived from the U.S. in May of 1952, with assistance of Edwinston Robbins, an Army Air Force colonel stationed in France.
The car had a tubular frame chassis, with diagonal bracing and two cross members between the engine and the center of the car, intended to provide rigidity, road holding and balance. Ultimately, the leaf-sprung solid axle in the back would condemn the big Vega and Facel II to mixed reviews for handling.
The Facel II, now powered by a Chrysler 383 wedge-head V8, would have a top speed of 130-140 mph, but other than the new body the basic car was not substantially changed from the early 50s prototype. Here, losses from the Facellia engine disaster left no resources for substantial engineering changes to the later big cars.
The big cars certainly had their admirers, Stirling Moss had a ’59 Vega, Ringo Starr had a Facel II. For pure power, you couldn’t do much, or any, better than a healthy 383 and Torqueflite in those days. And the styling is, if not to every taste, somewhat timeless. The Facel II seems like a worthy rival to today’s Bentleywagen Continental, not so much outdated as unlucky not still to be in the game. It seems like Facel is another reminder that being an automaker is hard: no matter whether you build Hemis and Torqueflites by the million, or you put the best hardware in a car fit for the most beautiful people, you’re probably going to experience bankruptcy, some time or other.