The Facel Vega Marque

When recalling the Facel Vega, perhaps the first thing which comes to mind is the long list of celebrities who owned them.

Not only figures from the world of showbusiness — Ringo Starr, Ava Gardner, Tony Curtis, Dean Martin and Fred Astaire — but people who really knew about cars: Stirling Moss used one as his personal transport, as did Maurice Trintignant. Picasso had one, and famously Albert Camus was killed in an accident when travelling in his publisher’s Facel. What was the story behind this Franco-American hybrid, and how did it manage to capture a glamour that was lacking elsewhere?

After an early career in aviation and at Citroen, in 1939 Jean Daninos (1906-2001) established Forges et Ateliers des Constructions d’Eure-et-Loir (FACEL) to manufacture components for the aircraft industry, as well as metal furniture. A company specialism was making things in stainless steel. After WW2, with demand in the aviation business diminished, Daninos began to focus on building bodies for motor manufacturers, having gained experience with pressed steel bodies at CItroën in the 1930s. His mass-market customers included Panhard, Simca and Ford-France, but he also built one- offs and low-volume bodies, such as the Pinin Farina-styled Bentley Cresta of 1948.

By the early 1950s, this involvement in the motor industry gave Daninos the inspiration to design and build his own car. The type of vehicle he had in mind was a grande routiere in the mould of the Bugattis, Delage, Delahayes and Talbots of the 1930s. Post-war, those great names had been all but killed off by the enormous taxes levied by the French government on cars of more than 15 taxable horsepower (about three litres), thus making their products almost unsaleable Daninos felt he could buck the trend with his own design, the inspiration for using an American engine coming from the Ford V3- powered Comète whose bodies he had built for Simca.

The Vega name came from the brightest  star in the constellation Lyra, and Daninos’s new car certainly shone when it was unveiled at the 1954 Paris Salon. This FV model used a 4.5-litre Chrysler V-8 engine, with either a two-speed Chrysler automatic gearbox or a four-speed manual built by Pont-à-Mousson. The chassis, developed with the help of British racing c river Lance Macklin, was a tubular frame with coil springs and double wishbones at the front and a leaf-sprung live rear axle. The body styling was by Daninos himself, and in some respects can be seen as a progression from the Simca-Comète bodies he had previously manufactured. Vestigial tail fins echoed contemporary American car design, while the body was adorned with bumpers and other brightwork made from Facel’s great specialism, stainless steel.

A four-seater coupé, the cramped rear seats could be folded flat for extra luggage space and the wide cockpit was luxuriously appointed. Although the car weighed close to two tonnes, with a top speed approaching 120mph the FV satisfied Daninos’s aim of performance with great comfort.

For 1955 the engine capacity increased to 4.8 and then five litres before the introduction of the FVS in 1956. This revised model featured the wraparound windscreen which was to become such a Facel trademark. Even larger engines, a three-speed automatic, power steering and disc brakes would become FVS features, too. An ambitious four-door saloon of pillarless construction was also added to the range, but relatively few were made. In all, about 350 FV, FV2 and FVS models were built.

In 1959 the FVS was upgraded once more and renamed the HK500. Initially, this new model used the 5.8-litre V-8 from its predecessor, but soon a 360bhp 6.3-litre unit was introduced. This gave the HK500 sensational performance for a large luxury car: 60mph could be reached in a little over eight seconds, and the maximum was now close to 150mph. Disc brakes, which had been an option on the FVS, were standardised on the HK500 in 1960. By the time the IIK500 was replaced by the short-lived Facel II in 1962, 489 examples had left the factory.

In 1960, the company introduced the Facellia, a small sports car with a four-cylinder, 1.6-litre twin cam engine built by Pont-a-Mousson. Camshaft bearing problems resulted in countless engine failures, and the warranty claims worsened Facel’s already perilous finances. Daninos resigned in 1961, although the company managed to keep going until forced to close its doors in 1964, 10 years after it had launched the original Facel Vega. In that time, Daninos’s company almost single-handedly had kept alive the spirit of the pre-war grand tourers.

All the early Facel Vegas had been left-hand drive; right-hand variants weren’t built until the marque was introduced in the UK in 1957. Former racer George Abeccassis at HWM ran the official importers, his quote of “We sold them to Debrett” highlighting the marques appeal to the upper classes. He managed to sell more than 200 coupés and 13 Excellences in all.

Chassis HK1 BY6, with engine TY7 1-29-37 and body 772— the right-hand drive car you see here — is thought to have been manufactured in the final three months of 1960 (the next car, BY7, was the 1960 Earl’s Court Show car). Richard Stevens of the Facel Vega Car Club has kindly provided some details of the car’s subsequent history. It lingered for some time in the UK before it found its first owner. By the time of the introduction of the Facel II in October, 1961, HWM still had five unsold HK500s, and two of these were in customs bond, which avoided the need to pay import duty until a buyer as found. It looks as though HKI BY6 was one of these, along with HK1 BX2. One HK was sold at the time of the 1961 Motor Show; the other  four were advertised in 1962 as for sale at ‘£1500 less than the price of the latest model’. BY6 was eventually first registered, as 3 XPK, on 19th April, 1962, to Dr K Soo, a Chinese dentist from Richmond, Surrey. He claimed to have driven it at 150mph, which perhaps helped to explain why he crashed it twice.

In 1965 it was sold to its second owner  Campbell Palmer of Brompton Business brokers, who later also owned another Facet Vega. At  some point it appears to have been fitted with a new speedometer, as the mileage was recorded as 18904 in July, 1965, but was only 3287 by January, 1966. The next known owner, who had it until the 1980s, was a Mr D Stuart, who lived near Horsham. By now the car was a sad-Iooking non-runner and, superficially at least, very  rusty. It then went through a succession of owners before being offered for sale on eBay in around 2006. It was acquired by Simon Bates and restored over the next five years, but sensibly retaining the original interior and much of the car’s exterior trim.

Last month it came up for sale in the Bonhams auction at the Goodwood Revival and was acquired by dealers Godin Banks of Mereworth, Kent. Justin Banks of that firm is a noted Facel Vega aficionado and has owned and sold dozens of them over the years. He currently owns several himself, including a four-door Excellence and the ex-Ringo Starr Facel  II. We caught up with the HK500 at his premises before it was delivered to its new owner Stefan Ittner, who has lusted after a Facel Vega since he was a schoolboy. This writer has also admired the marque since his youth, when he first rode in an HK500 as a car-mad teenager. That car, 5 PPF, belonged to Charlie Todd in Gloucestershire, and subsequently it has passed through the hands of Justin Banks. So we were anxious to know if the HK500 really lives up to its glamorous looks and reputation.

This particular car is in, to our mind, almost perfect condition. Although the body has been repainted, the original trim and fittings have been re-used wherever possible and the mechanical restoration, while thorough, has not been carried out to better-than-new standards. The stacked headlamps, egg-crate grille and wraparound windscreen are the most obvious styling features, but there are many details which reward close study. For example, the way the door windows overlap the rear quarter windows, the top-mounted catches on the quarterlights, the subtle rear fins and the stainless brightwork are all touches of a thoughtful and inventive hand. The Facel’s bright red interior is one of the most sumptuous we have encountered. The apparently wood dashboard is in fact intricately painted metal. The array of dials, gauges and switchgear is reminiscent of an aircraft cockpit— albeit a lavishly-appointed aircraft cockpit. This British-supplied car has an original His Master’s Voice radio. Narrow pillars give the cabin a light and airy feel. Enormous electric window switches are mounted on the thick and heavy doors. Everything about the car exudes quality. The heavily stuffed (and supremely comfortable) seat squab and backrest mean the driver sits high and forward, close to the large two-spoke steering wheel. This proximity is useful not only for handling that heavy, non-power-assisted wheel, but also for seeing better the front corners of the car when negotiating narrow roads and when parking.

It’s also useful for the driver’s left foot to be as close as possible to the clutch pedal, because its action must he one of the heaviest of a car of this — or any— period. It works smoothly enough, though, so long as plenty of revs are used when pulling away from rest. The Pont-a-Mousson gearbox, with its stubby, cranked-over lever, is precise and easy. Although the manual transmission detracts a little from the luxury car theme, it does allow the driver to make the most of the power available. It seems that, when ordering a new HK500, the prospective owner could specify an automatic gearbox and power steering or a manual gearbox and no power  assistance, but not any other combination Therefore the original owner of HKI BY6 must have been a strong man, because the latter option can leave the driver tired if travelling along twisty country roads or around town. With a car of such size and weight — the HK500 tips the scales at 1800kg— good brakes are always a priority and the Dunlop discs do their job well. That big V-8 is fairly flexible , as one would expect. The car will trickle happily through town in third but, once you’ve reached the de-restriction signs, as you put your foot  to the floor the enormous expanse of bonne lifts, you are pushed back into the soft leather and your speed rises decidedly quickly. It is obvious that the HK500 would be happy cruising speeds well in excess of the legal limit with a minimum of fuss. The solid body construction keeps wind noise to very low levels and, on appropriate roads, driving the Facel is a relaxing experience — thereby meeting Jean Daninos’s original aim of producing a true grande routière. There is also some satisfaction to be gained in driving something that looks so special, yet which few other road users today can identify.

We can end with a tantalising prospect. At the Paris Salon last month, 48 years after the original Facel Vega was launched there, a new Facel was announced. Named the HK Coupé, details are sketchy at the moment hut, if the car does reach production, perhaps today’s celebrities will have an alternative to the ubiquitous Rolls-Royce or Bentley for touring in the grand manner.

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