Facel Vega FV2 Convertible
It’s big, black and unique. The wind is cold enough to chill my bones but I don’t care. Roof-down it has to be, for what is the point of driving the only Facel Vega FV2 Convertible ever to have existed if the roof is closed? Some help from the heater would have been nice, though. For all the machined- metal precision of the promising-looking controls, including a setting marked – in English, oddly – ‘Winter’, there’s not much warm wafting that I can detect.
Too bad. At least the sun is out. I’d like to say it’s glinting off the mirror-smooth paintwork of the long bonnet with its proud but purely ornamental airscoop, but the paint is actually more of a textured satin with the odd crack. Clearly, this Facel has not had the treat of a restoration in its 56 years.
That makes it, neatly, a 1956 car (as far as registration is concerned, anyway, which happened on April 1 that year with the Paris number 32 EX 75). The public saw it first a few months earlier, at the 1955 Paris show in October. Back then it was extremely shiny, and had black Robergel wire wheels with whitewall tyres. The wheels have changed since then, but otherwise the only changes seem to have been the gradual chemical ones caused by time and the odd signs of vital maintenance.
So the mellowed, lightly cracked, reddish leather on which Jam sitting is the same as that sat upon by Facel founder Jean Daninos himself, by his wife Andree for whom the open FV2 was built, and by actress Olivia de Havilland who was the ambassador’s daughter in the eponymous 1956 film in which the Facel appeared. In 1962 a new owner took it to the Gard region: ‘It’s the boss’s car, with very low miles,’ said the salesman at Garage Duchene, which sold him the FV2. Then in May 1966 it found its third owner, a gentleman in the Cher departement half way between Le Mans and Geneva.
He kept it until 2008; registered 449 FZ 18 (it had been 82 GD 30 during its Gard sojourn), but now its current owner has had to get yet another new number for it. Under France’s new system, numbers stay with the car, which means BR-140-QW will stay as the FV2’s moniker – unless, of course, it emigrates. Which, as I am driving it in the Cotswolds, far away from Eure-et-Loir where the Facel was born more than half a century ago, is what it seems to have done.
That département’s two initial letters form the last two of the FACEL acronym, the first three coming from Forges et Ateliers de Construction. This reveals what the company originally did: make metal stampings and fabrications for the motor industry and elsewhere (including kitchen sinks), later progressing to complete bodies and even final assembly of glamorous, low- volume derivatives – the sort of operation a company such as Heuliez might do today.
By comparison with the workaday business of pressing panels for Ford France, Simca, Delahaye and Panhard, Facel’s new luxury car venture was a project fuelled by idealism. The postwar tax regime in France didn’t exactly favour 4.8-litre V8 engines, and the grand old French makers – Bugatti, Delage, Talbot-Lago and the like – had gone to the wall. Daninos wanted to rekindle that tradition of grande routiere, eyeing the American market as much as Europe, and he no doubt
The Facel Vegas were aimed at the wealthiest clientele’ reasoned that if people could afford to buy his cars, they could afford the punitive road tax they might attract. Facel Vegas were aimed at the wealthiest, most fashionable clientele, and gained a reputation for being impressively rapid. Later V8 cars were claimed to be good for 150mph, and this very car adorned the February 1956 cover of L’Action Automobile et Tourisme with the coverline TOO km/h a l’heure en silence’. That’s 124mph (never mind, then, about the all-drum brakes that don’t even have cooling fins…).
This fact is starting to concentrate my mind as I burble onwards down a long hill, because the idle speed has crept too high and the Vega wants to go rather faster than is currently prudent, even with my foot off the accelerator. The Chrysler Typhoon Hemi V8 may not be in peak health – in fact it currently feels more like a V7 and one tailpipe is smoking rather more than the other – but it’s still a torquey, insistent thing. What’s more, it’s producing a force that the burgeoning smell of hot brake linings tells me may soon be irresistible. Something needs to be done.
Some measure of the engine’s torque potential is that Chrysler deemed just two gears to be sufficient in the Powerflite gearbox that came with the engine package. That means the torque converter has a lot of gap-filling to do. The later Chrysler autobox was less demanding of torque because it had three ratios; maybe that’s why it was called Torqueflite. Anyway, I’m going to flick the tiny selector on the broad transmission tunnel into neutral – there’s no Park, incidentally – coast to a halt and lower that idle speed from its current 2000rpm.
With the bonnet open, a four-barrel Carter carburettor – or CARbureTER, as the float chamber cover proclaims in its American spelling – is revealed beneath the black-and-rust ducting that joins the two giant air-filter canisters. And there’s the idle adjuster, which I duly unwind until a sensible idle is obtained. This is the longest, most vigorous run the FV2 has had in years, and clearly things have been loosening up.
I switch the engine off for a few minutes while the brakes cool down. Will it re-start? Along with the Fifties American power package came a Fifties American electrical system with just six volts to powerit. Why that was ever thought a good idea is hard to understand, given that everything has to run at twice the amperage, and despite the monstrously thick battery cables there’s little enthusiasm from the starter.
The engine turns lazily, skipping over one cylinder’s compression less indolently than the other seven, I notice, and after various experiments with throttle position and just as the battery sounds near death, it fires miraculously. We’re in business again; and with the revs under control no longer does the entire car suffer a torque-induced structural corkscrew as I select Drive.
Until today, I have never driven a Facel Vega. I have long wanted to, intrigued by the brutally flamboyant styling (Daninos’s own work), the associations of glamour and that famous Facel party piece, the painted- metal dashboard that looks like walnut veneer. I remember being blown away, as a not-quite-five-year¬old, by the FV Excellence at the 1959 Earls Court Motor Show (the four-door coupe version with no centre pillar), my father having mentioned that industrial magnate John Bloom, one of whose companies had made our brand-new Prestcold refrigerator, owned a Facel Vega. Even at that young age, it stuck.
Is this, though, the car in which to break my Vega duck? Clearly it is not as it was when it left Eure-et-Loir for the Paris Salon. Its heavy patina is both its salvation and its downfall. As a piece of automotive archaeology it’s intriguing, the more so given that valuable maxim of the classic car world, ‘it’s only original once’. That it actually works makes it all the better. But what I’m experiencing now isn’t quite what Mme Daninos, John Bloom, Stirling Moss and other FV luminaries experienced. At what point does patina become decrepitude? Time to resume the drive and see how close we’re travelling to that line.
The paint, I have to tell you, is not original. It’s a poor, but old, respray with a lot of orange peel such as no show car could ever have worn. There’s probably too much —-. paint on there, which is why it has cracked. On that basis, I’d have no qualms about stripping it off and starting again, perhaps dulling down the result to age it up a bit. The original surface has gone, and there’s no going back there now.
The interior is more straightforward. It, too, is untid. and careworn in places but a sympathetic hand could bring it back to glamorous, luxurious life while replacing little more than the broken-off leather tags – that would, if present, open the door pockets and console tray. (A centre console in 1955! Very aviatic, very advanced.) Some hide food and localised dye here, some seams tidied there, a thorough but gentle polish of the many pieces of machined metal in which a Facel’s cabin abounds, and you’d have a fabulous period piece of preserved, matured opulence.
For this is an interior like few others. Every switch and handle has been machined with love, including — three rotaries on one side of the centre tunnel and two rockers on the other. More on the doors activate the electric windows. Then there’s that swirly brown dashboard, whose ageing, now-lumpy finish looks either like particularly slow-growing walnut grain or the fires of hell, depending on the light. It contains a built-in His Master’s Voice radio and seven dials, the largest two on a curved panel ahead of the driver.
Nearer the driver is a large, deeply-dished steering wheel whose centre boss screws in on a large thread. A one-piece, two-pronged sprung bar beyond the wheel lets you sound the horn with either hand. It’s a long way from wheel rim to the top column fixing, which has some interesting leverage effects as we shall see.
Received wisdom has it that Facet Vegas are sloppy in their structure, especially open ones. Four of the seven first-series Facel Vegas, the FV1 launched in 1954, were convertibles, but just this one open FV2 was made. Soon after, Daninos decided the separate, tubular chassis just wasn’t rigid enough without the help of a fixed roof.
Open Facels wouldn’t reappear until the early Sixties, in the form of the smaller Facellia.
Jean Daninos was right. The man who went to the US in the Thirties on Citroën’s behalf to learn about the Budd company’s unibodies, and then helped apply the knowledge to the Traction Avant, would not have readily tolerated a sloppy structure. He would have been shocked at the way the steering wheel’s centre shudders laterally a full three inches on an uneven road, and at how the doors fidget in their apertures.
Yet, for all that, the Vega moves with surprising ease and calmness. It needs a smooth road to give its best – a French route nationale would do nicely – but the power steering is surprisingly accurate and the heavyweight feels confidently planted on the road. In full health it would surely feel rapid too, but even in its current state of re-entering the land of the living, it moves with signs of past authority as the 255bhp V8 burbles its asymmetric burble. The optional Pont-h-Mousson four-speed manual would have made it more of a sporting car, but it is what it is. Either way, the blurring of the hedgerows into my peripheral vision, unbroken by the usual windscreen pillars, gives a sensational feeling of airy space as I cruise along the Cotswold lanes.
That wraparound windscreen, new for the FV2, was pure futuristic Americana in 1955. In other ways the FV2 is almost Italian, with a Pininfarina look before Pininfarina himself devised it, or maybe a touch of Touring: look at a Lancia Flaminia, especially a Touring-bodied GT, to see the resemblance. But there are details that are purely Facel Vega, such as the stainless steel bumpers so snug against the body that they and their shark’s-fin overriders are nothing but ornament, and the ribbed aluminium lower flanks.
The Rudge steel wheels, fitted during Mme Daninos’s custody, have been smartly refinished and shod with new Pirelli P4000 tyres of rather modern 205/70 section; in the boot, the spare wheel wears an old 185 R15 Michelin XVS. Also in there is the large petrol tank, upholstered and topped with a giant aluminium flip-up cap. The tool tray, sadly, contains but one ring spanner, ghostly depressions in the plush being all that remain of its past companions’ presence.
It’s these details, as well as the model’s uniqueness, that make the FV2 Convertible special. My encounter with the Facel Vega was like meeting a faded movie star and discovering she’s actually human, making me feel simultaneously starstruck and comforted. Alight makeover and a new dress, and she’ll be ready to tell her life story. And what tales they will be.