A-Z of Car Stuff
This is one in a series of posts on cars, drivers, designers etc. that have interested me over the years. I’ve bored my family and friends with this stuff for years – now it’s your turn!
See A-Z of Car Stuff page for more posts in this series.
So – whats so special about Facel?
Facel or Forges et Ateliers de Constructions d’Eure-et-Loir (Facel S.A. for short) traces its roots back to 1939 when it was established by parent company Bronzavia – a manufacturer of military aircraft.
The company eventually shifted from manufacturing steel components and furniture to building special edition cars for large manufacturers and finally to building their own Facel-badged luxury GT and sports cars.
Establishment & Early History
Facel owes its existence to Jean Daninos, who at the time of Facel’s establishment was a technical director at Bronzavia but who had, during his previous employment with Citroen, helped design the revolutionary Traction Avant coupes and cabriolets.
His valuable experience at Citroen followed by secondment to the USA during WWII working with General Aircraft to oversee their use of Bronzavia patents provided Daninos with a fabulous opportunity to extend his engineering and commercial experience. This acted as a springboard for him to take-on full management responsibility for Facel when he returned to France in 1945.
Facel Bodied Specials
A merger between Facel and Metallon presented Daninon with the opportunity to move Facel into what was in effect post-war coach-building. Facel began building special limited edition bodywork in steel and aluminium for various French car manufacturers including Simca, Ford, Panhard, Delahaye and even one rather grand British manufacturer – Bentley!
For Panhard – Facel designed built the aluminium bodied Panhard Dyna X model in quite large numbers (around 45,000 in total) and this experience must have contributed to their confidence to later switch to building their own Facel-badged cars.
Other notable Facel designed/built cars included the Simca Sport, Bentley Cresta and Ford Comete.
During this same period the Facel-Metallon partnership also churned out body panels and components for trucks, military jeeps, scooters and tractors. With a nod back to Facel’s aviation roots – they also built some specialised components for the aero industry.
Facel Badged Cars
As the post war automotive industry gradually embraced unitary bodywork construction – Facel’s coach building commissions from the larger car manufacturers dried-up. After the partnership with Metallon came to an end, Facel took the bold decision to use their experience of building cars for others to build their own Facel-badged cars starting with the Vega.
Facel Vega, Vega FVS, HK500 and Vega II
The Facel Vega was created in 1954 to be followed later by Facel Vega Sport (FVS), HK500 and Vega II variants.
Facel Vega (FV1)
Cars initially utilised a 4.5L Chrysler V8 engine – actually a DeSoto Fire Dome Hemi, housed within a Lance Macklin designed tubular chassis with double wishbone coil spring suspension up-front and a leaf-spring live axle arrangement at the rear.
Lance Macklin is probably best knows as a former racing driver and for his unfortunate involvement in the horrendous crash during the 1955 running of the Le Mans 24 Hour Race in which 83 spectators and driver Pierre Levegh were killed. What is less well known is that Lance Macklin had an amazing automotive pedigree thanks to his father Noel Macklin who had been a founder of both Invicta and Railton car companies and Fairmile Marine who built Torpedo Boats that were used to great effect during WWII.
Transmission for the Facel Vega was either a Chrysler Powerflite two-speed auto box or a special four-speed manual box manufactured in France by the Pont-a-Mousson company.
The bodywork design of the Facel Vega by Jean Daninos was essentially an up-scaled version of his earlier design for the Simca/Ford Comete but there are also some strong similarities with the Facal built Bentley Cresta. The overall bulk of the car in conjunction with its detailed styling features gave it a very transatlantic look. Hardly surprising given the time that Daninos had spent in the USA during WWII.
Facel’s experience in building special models for other manufacturers stood them in good stead to create a fabulous luxury interior for the Facel Vega. The stunning interior combined with stylish bodywork – undoubtedly helped attract a host of discerning and style-conscious customers.
One year into Facel Vega production – an engine upgrade was provided through fitting a larger capacity and more powerful engine in the form of the Chrysler 4.8L 200hp engine and this was superseded by a 250hp Chrysler engine.
Of the 47 cars built in 1954 and 1955 – all bar six were two-door pillarless coupes. The six convertibles were something of a disaster due to poor rigidity.
Facel Vega Sport
The FVS appeared in 1956 and could most easily be distinguished from the earlier model by its wrap-around front windscreen which gave it a more purposeful and aggressive look with perhaps even more of an American look to it due to similarities with US coupes such as the Chevy Belair and Ford Thunderbird.
The roof looked less bulbous than that of the FV1 and the combined effect of the wrap-around screen, flatter roof line and forward angled nose gave the car quite and aggressive stance which was wholly appropriate give the meaty V8 engine under the bonnet.
The 250hp Chrysler engine was initially carried over from the earlier model but this was then replaced with a 5.4L 255hp Chrysler engine and later still with a 5.8L 325hp engine. A three-speed auto transmission was offered and drum brakes could be replaced with powered disk brakes and power steering which must have radically improved manoeuverability and stopping power for these relatively powerful and heavy cars.
Styling of the the front end of the car was tidied-up to give the car a more modern and sporting appearance and a four-door variant was introduced in the form of the Excellence.
Introduction of the HK500 in 1959 did not deliver any massive changes other than revised badging and yet more engine upgrades with the 5.8L 335hp V8 Chrysler engine followed by the 6.3L 360hp Chrysler engine.
Gradual roll-out of more powerful engines resulted in the HK500 eventually being able to boast a top speed of 147mph with a 0 to 60 time of just 8.5 seconds. This was a very quick car!
With this sort of performance – Facel wisely made disk brakes a standard feature rather than an extra cost option.
In 1962 – the HK500 was replaced by the Facel II – Facel’s final attempt at creating a fashionable, high performance luxury grand tourer.
Although the Facel II maintained similar overall dimensions to its predecessors – it had a greater styling resemblance to the Facellia and Facel III than to the HK500.
The overall bodywork design of the car had the effect of making it look lighter and more elegant which belied what had been a steadily increasing weight of the big V8 engined Facel over the course of time.
It featured a non-wrap-around front windscreen and had more squared-off lines similar to the Facellia. Also like the Facellia – the car had twin equally sized headlights/auxilliary lights mounted one above the other in each front wing. These were sometimes covered by somewhat bulbous glad covers (similar to those on the 300SL Roadster) and in other cases they were mounted in a chrome bezel.
From the side aspect the flatter roof-line and flatter front and rear panel profile gave the Facel II a much more hunkered-down look which suggested better handling than its predecessors. The car still retained a luxury interior and the customer list continued to include film stars, artists, racing drivers, politicians, ambassadors and royalty.
Stirling Moss famously drove his HK500 around Europe to get to his racing engagements rather than fly!
The car was powered by a 6.3L Chrysler Typhoon V8 engine which boasted 355hp for auto versions of the car and 390hp for manual versions. Later versions of the Facel II had the 6.7L Chrysler RB Wedge engine.
Automatic cars used a three-speed Chrysler Torqueflite unit and had a 135mph top speed whilst the manual cars could reach 150mph. Performance of the manual cars equalled or exceeded that of such supercars of the period as the Aston Martin DB4, Ferrari 250GT and the Mercedes 300SL.
Other mechanical features included all round disk brakes and Armstrong Selecta-Ride suspension which could be adjusted by the driver from a dashboard mounted controller. Selecta-Ride suspension was also used by Aston Martin.
The Facellia came about in 1960 as a bid to move Facel more firmly into the lucrative sports car market rather than rely purely on its luxury GT/Saloon models.
It was set to compete with other sports cars of the period from manufacturers such as Alfa Romeo, Mercedes, MG and Triumph. It offered a wide range of bodywork options ranging from 2 + 2 coupe, 4-seater coupe and a cabriolet version.
The big difference between the Facellia and it’s bigger Facel Vega brother was its use of a smaller capacity French built engine rather than the a thumping great V8. The engine in question was a 1.6L 4-cylinder DOHC engine.
The Facellia engine was initially designed by built by Weslake Engineering but further design work was carried out by former Talbot engineer Carlo Marchetti before manufacturing was handed over to Paul Cavalier at Point-a-Mousson – a company that Facel had used to supply manual gearboxes for some of its Vega cars. Interestingly – Pont-a-Mouson had not previously built any engines!
The engine only delivered 115bhp which wasn’t terribly impressive when compared to the competition even when downdraught Solex carburettors were replaced by twin-choke Webers. The engine proved to extremely unreliable – probably due to design limitations and lack of development.
One major issue was that the camshafts only had two bearings each rather than the more conventional four or five bearings per camshaft. The net result was that many engines suffered from timing issues and burnt pistons.
Experts such as Charles Deutsch and Jean Bertin were called in to try to resolve the mechanical shortcomings of the engines but the damage was done as far as customers were concerned. The company was swamped with warranty repairs and Facel’s reputation was in tatters. Jean Daninos had to take the blame and he was forced to resign from the company in 1961.
With Facel under new management (Andre Belin) – it was decided to ditch the Pont-a-Mousson built engine and replace it with a proven production unit. The engine of choice was the bulletproof Volvo B18 unit and this was fitted into the newly named Facel III. This model naming convention attempted to lose any association with the troublesome Facellia and also aligned with the name of the bigger engined Facel II.
Around 1,100 Facel III’s were built but Facel were no longer making any profit on these cars and production inevitably ceased in 1963.
A last ditch attempt to save the company was made through the short lived launch of the Facel 6. This was essentially a Facellia/Facel III with a more sporty 2.8L Austin Healey six-cylinder engine inserted in it. Whilst this body/chassis combination did deliver a much improved sports car experience – it wasn’t enough to save the company and only thirty examples of the Facel 6 were built before Facel finally closed down in 1964.
This was terribly sad on many levels. The Facel Vega/HK500/Facel II experiment in building a powerful luxury GT was a success. Jean Daninos took the same approach of many other contemporary designers by combining a powerful American V8 engine with an elegant and sophisticated European body/chassis fitted out with a luxury interior.
Other examples of the Euro/US Hybrid include cars from Jensen, Bristol, Gordon Keeble, Allard, AC, Sunbeam, TVR, Ginetta, Rover, Morgan, Bizzarrini, De Tomaso and Monteverdi.
See A-Z Of Car Stuff: H is for Hybrids (the Euro/US Variety) for more on this!
In contrast to the success of building a luxury GT, the experiment to build an entirely French built luxury sports car was a failure primarily due to the the flawed design of the Pont-a-Mouson four-cylinder engine and lack of development. Failure of the Facellia, Facel II and Facel 6 (despite the better engines of the latter two models) was probably also down to the highly competitive sports car market in which Facel simply could not compete on price .
Had Facel launched the Facellia with a better more proven engine – it might have been a different story but the economics of making a profit on such cars were stacked against them. Given the number of notable engineers involved in the design of the initial engine – it’s odd that it was so flawed. Maybe the number of engineers involved was the issue i.e. it lacked the single minded vision and design of just one engineer. It really needed a Harry Mundy, a Keith Duckworth or a Colin Chapman rather than design by committee!
Producing a fully French built sports car was a laudable goal but unfortunately Jean Daninos couldn’t quite pull it off and we are now left with his legacy of rather beautiful and rare cars which have risen quite dramatically in value over recent years as more people have begun to appreciate them.
I remember vividly – attending a classic car auction many years ago with my mate Pete where we saw a Facel Vega in the flesh for the very first time. It was jaw-droppingly beautiful and the guide price was a very reasonable £25,000. If only I could have afforded to buy it at that time as the value of similar cars now is between £100,000 to £200,000!
With the exception the light blue metallic HK500 which was photographed at Chelsea Auto Legends in 2011 – most of the photos used in this post came from a visit to Le Mans Classic in July 2018. This gathering of Facels inside the circuit was presumably organised by the Facel Owners club (or clubs) to ensure a fantastic turn-out of these rare cars.
It was fantastic to see such a good turn-out of these rare cars which filled a number of gaps in my knowledge of them. It’s a shame that I didn’t manage to see an example of a Facel II but I’ll just need to keep looking!
The motorway drive from Le Mans Classic back to Calais was enlivened by driving past the two-tone grey/silver British registered HK500 pictured above. Good to see it doing what Facels were built for – stylish continental touring!