Vintage Motor Trend Comparison Test: 1962 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, Mercedes 300, Facel Vega Excellence – Europe’s Top Luxury Cars

European luxury cars had a special niche in the US ever since the beginning of the automobile era; Rolls-Royce even had an assembly plant in Springfield, CT back in the 1920s. The Depression killed that as well as most imports generally, but after WW2, the interest greatly increased and of course has not ended yet.

M/T tested three top European luxury cars of 1962; the R-R Silver Cloud, generally considered the most prestigious car in the world back then; the Mercedes 300-D (the “D” does not stand for “diesel”), an aging car whose chassis dated to the pre-war era but was still held in high regard; and the Facel-Vega Excellence, a brash Franco-American hybrid with Chrysler power under its low hood.

Of course the R-R was getting on in years a bit too, given that it first arrived trailing clouds of silver in 1955. But the new aluminum 380 cubic inch (6.2 L) V8 that arrived in 1959 brought out a dimension in the Silver Cloud that had not been present before: speed. It may have looked sedate, “but sparkling off-the-line acceleration, high available cruising speeds, and excellent passing ability in the upper speed ranges permits it to stay ahead of nearly anything on the road“. Nice to know performance was finally a part of the expensive equation (just under $17k, $168k adjusted), which did include some optional luxuries like air conditioning and electric windows. It cruised happily at 90, and would hit 110, if asked politely, or requested to do so. Faster, James!

The automatic was a Rolls-built (and modified) four-speed Hydramatic.

The engine was exceptionally smooth, contributing to the R-R’s famed low noise level, finally beaten by the 1965 Ford LTD. Despite its name, the suspension was not cloud-soft, and that could be changed on the go by the remotely-adjustable shock absorbers. ”

Although interior room was not all that ample, due to its narrow body, the seating for four was eminently comfortable, due to the tall, chair-height seats covered in Connolly hides.

And it’s suitable for driving by the owner! “The company claims a chauffeur is no longer required.” Nice to know. M/T points out that in Beverly Hills “a surprising number of Rolls will be found under the control of local matrons“.

There was “a considerable amount of body roll coupled with understeer during hard cornering but it was never enough to make anyone feel unsafe“. Are we sure it’s suitable for driving by the owner?

The braking system was praised, including the “feather-light pedal pressures” required on the unusual mechanical servo system used by R-R from 1919 all the way to 1978 (on the Phantom VI).

In conclusion, “anyone seeking instantly recognizable prestige, price no object, must chose Rolls-Royce“.

Although the Mercedes 300, with its 180 hp 3.0 L six was well down on raw horsepower compared to the two V8s, both more than twice as large in displacement, M/T found that it had many very compelling qualities, enough for them to answer “the Mercedes” if forced to answer the question as to which of these three cars was “the best”.

Obviously, it was underpowered; the fuel injected six, a detuned version of the one used in the legendary 300SL, was just overworked in this 4400 lb large luxury sedan. Its performance stats tell the story in black and white: 0-60 in 16.9 sec., compared to 12.5 for the R-R and 9.8 for the Excellence. But; and it’s an important but, once “above 50 the car comes alive, moving to its 102 top speed with amazing ease. At this speed it felt solid, stable, utterly safe.” Classic Mercedes-Benz.

We tossed the 300 around a series of mountain curves and sat back in amazement at the car’s response…cornering was quite flat…it all felt very sporting and the car goes around a great deal faster than a sedan this size has any right to go.” More classic Mercedes-Benz, and this from a chassis that dates back to the pre-war 230.

The brakes were called “superb”. The automatic transmission in the tested car was the three-speed Detroit Gear (DG) torque converter unit originally developed for the 1950 Studebaker. But Mercedes had just introduced its first own automatic, a four-speed unit using a fluid coupling, and subsequent 300s were being built with that unit.

The ride was of course on the firm side. The front seats were “downright hard” but give good support and kept fatigue at bay on long drives. The rear seat was quite the opposite, being soft and very commodious. Let’s not forget that the 300 was called “Adenauer” for a reason: to haul the chancellor by that name, among other heads of state and royalty.

The 300 was the roomiest of the three. And it was a true hardtop; even the rear quarter windows could be removed for the ultimate open-air hardtop experience. Quality everywhere was superb; doors and panels fit “with unbelievable accuracy“. The woodwork was superb. “Mercedes is fighting a close race for finest finish in the world.” But the windows were manual, as were the seats. The tested price, $11,000 ($110k adjusted) was of course high, but 35% less than the Silver Cloud. And the 300 didn’t scream “ostentatious” like the Roller.

This 300 was the end of the road, with production ending in 1962. It would eventually be replaced by the “Grosser” 600 in a couple of years, but meanwhile Mercedes tried to fill the gap with the extended-wheelbase 300SE “fintail”.

The Facel-Vega Excellence tested here was not the revised version that had first appeared in the summer of 1961; apparently the new version was slow arriving in the US. These were very limited production cars; some 60 per year. The version tested was the EX1, built from 1958-1961, and had the Chrysler 383 cubic inch wedge engine instead of the 392 hemi of the original 1957 version. This must have been a late change, as the 361 wedge V8 is generally listed as the engine in the EX1. The 325 hp 383-powered cars were fast (factory top speed: 125 mph), but not quite as fast as the 360 hp hemi version.

An unusual aspect of the Excellence was the lack of any center pillar at all. Thanks to its sturdy frame, there was no apparent loss of rigidity.

The Excellence was a big car, but due to it being low, interior room was not as ample as the two tall-boys, especially in the back seat. It was essentially a four-door coupe, and was of course based on the HK-500 coupe. I suspect there was a certain degree of influence on the 1961 Continental.

The 0-60 time of 9.8 seconds and the 1/4 mile in 18.3 @83 mph put it in the quicker than average category, but certainly not in the league of the many big American cars with hot V8s at the time. Its “dry weight” of 4230 lbs undoubtedly played a part in that.

The power-assisted steering was heavy at ow speeds, but lightened up at higher speeds; this was attributed to the mounted Michelin X radial tires.

The Excellence’s interior sound levels were not quite as excellent as the other two, but still good. The ride was “firm, comfortable, pleasing and free of fatigue-inducing elements.” The brakes performed flawlessly.

The dash, which was made of wood-grained metal panels (IIRC) had a rather unusual arrangement. There was also a version with the Pont-a-Mousson four speed manual available, but that was a truck transmission with gear ratios that made first gear (3.35:1) essentially useless. The Torqueflite was a better choice.

As to its price, with essential options like a/c and such, it was $13,317 (multiply by 10 for 2022 adjusted value), or right between the Mercedes and R-R. The Excellence certainly had even greater exclusivity than the Rolls, and its performance was in a different league.

We have some excellent coverage of both the Excellence and the 300 here, but not much of anything comprehensive CC of the Silver Ghost yet:

Curbside Classique: 1958-1961 Facel Vega Excellence

Curbside Classic: 1951-1962 Mercedes 300 (W186&189) – The Adenauer Mercedes; A Timeless Classic

And there’s this sort-of update from 1966:

Vintage Review: Six Luxury Cars – A Car And Driver Comparison Test From 1965