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
Being a fan of traditional American Luxury automobiles, I often found the Facel to be attractive. My late brother had several ROLLS-ROYCE automobiles, including a 62 Cloud II. The only negative I can say is his car had fixed front seat with divider. Air conditioning was only good for rear seat passengers. One of the most beautiful foreign Luxury vehicles ever. While keeping the Cloud, he also had a Silver Shadow and subsequently a Corniche. Both were great cars. While keeping the Cloud, he suddenly went to Mercedes. Never could understand that switch. Mercedes vehicles were stiff, harsh riding and to me ugly. The Mercedes vehicles were always in repair shop. His wife was driving on interstate when hood latch failed, sending hood up blocking vision. Kind people helped her to safety. ROLLS-ROYCE is the choice for me of these. BUT none can match the GREAT AMERICAN LAND YACHTS of the past. My 2007 Town Car Signature Limited is the last of the line. A recent article referred to these last Lincolns as the American ROLLS-ROYCE. I will take my Lincoln over any of these.
Which recent article referred to the last Lincolns as the American RR? I’d like to read that. I’m curious which RR they were possibly referring to and the context.
I remember reading this when I was in about 6th grade in 1962! I started picking up MT when they had an article on Dad’s new ’62 Fairlane and my Grandfather’s ’62 Polara.
RR had a factory in Springfield Mass, they are generally recognizable from their horizontal, not vertical, grille bars in the famous radiator.
IIRC MT or someone did a comparison between a RR and Olds 98 in the early ’70s (?) where they concluded that the Olds was in most respects the functionally superior car in performance and ride, the RR of course in materials, fit & finish. I’d love to see that test again if it can be found.
Evidently the early ~’22 to 25 Springfield RRs had the horizontal radiator shutters, later they reverted to vertical, but I’m no RR expert!
The most prestigious car in the world in 1962 was a Cadillac.
I drove a new ’61 Cadillac convertible and a new 63 CDV (also an older 56 Sedan), but in my opinion the most luxurious car I ever drove (admittedly perhaps different from prestigious) was a new, black, 1962 Buick Electra 225 (6 window) beauty.
No tail fins and no crest on the bonnet, but it was solid, quiet, quick when pushed, and very conservative (in the non-political manner of that term).
Springfield, MA, not CT.
The LWB Mercedes-Benz W112 was a 300 SE; the SEL designation wasn’t picked up until the W109. Some of the early long W112s had an additional metal surround above and to the side of the characters.
Quite right; I’ve amended the text.
Did the Excellence tested really have a 33 gallon fuel tank, as implied in the review? Some Googling produces lower figures on various sites. This one says 26.4 which sounds more plausible.
I may well be the only person to have owned all 3 types at the same time in the late 1980s into the early 1990s. I owned a Silver Cloud II saloon, a Mercedes-Benz 300 4-door, and a Facel-Vega Excellence [chassis EX1-101].
My Facel-Vega Excellence was medium gray with a matching gray leather interior, and sold new by Peter Satori in L.A., just like the one in the MT article. I have been unable to confirm it, but I’ve been told by the former owner, my car was indeed the car in the magazine. As they were [and are] so damn rare in any color, it’s very possible it’s the same, but I’ll probably never know for sure.
I also owned an original black & black 1957 Silver Cloud I saloon, and I prefer that 6 over the later V8. Also owned a 1964 M-B 300se, light blue with gray leather and Kuhlmeister A/C from west Texas – no rust. Gave it away due to the high cost of all the suspension parts it needed.
Sadly, after a devastating fire where I lost 18 other vehicles, I had to sell off all 3 MT test examples for some much needed cash.
So cool – why did you like the RR six over the V8?
The Facel-Vega Excellence nearly became the basis for a new 1959 Packard Patrician. Studebaker-Packard Corporation wanted to use the Facel body, add the nearly new Packard V8, add Packard trademark grill, red hexagon wheels, hood ornament to continue the Packard line from 58. BUT, the idea failed because Marcedes-Benz objected. They didn’t want the showroom competition with their old hat 300. SPC and MB were then in partnership. MB helped to kill off the great American Packard brand.