Mention French cars in America and get ready for five minutes of snickering. In the land of the free and the home of the brave, cars with a French pedigree have a reputation just slightly north of that reserved for French postcards, but while the postcards do deliver their own particular entertainment value, the cars seem to bring their owners little but grief.
Peugeot was the last French brand to attempt to survive in the caldron of the American market, but it was finally drummed out of the country with the same lack of remorse that had followed the demise of Citroen's American adventure and the disastrous tenure of Renault on these shores. Given that proven track record of failure in the low and medium-priced fields the thought of a successful French luxury marque will create fits of hilarity akin to that accompanying a Jerry Lewis movie playing a theater on the Champs Elysées.
The fact remains, however, that the French have a legacy of luxury automobiles that dates from before the dawn of the Twentieth Century. Prior to Charles Rolls teaming up with Henry Royce, Panhard et Levassor was widely regarded as the premier luxury car builder in the world. When you add to that legacy the likes of Delahaye, Delage, Talbot-Lago and, of course, Bugatti, there can be little argument that France has a claim to a rich luxury car history, a history that seemed to a screeching halt with World War II.
In the 50-plus years since Hitler met his deserved doom, France's sole claim-to-fame in super-luxury car circles came with the unlikely name Facel Vega. Unlike the Talbot-Lagos and Delahayes, the company had no pre-World War II heritage on which to draw sustenance (and customers.) It had no special claim to automotive excellence, because for all intents and purposes, until it started building super-luxury cars of its own, it was barely in the automotive business at all. But in a ten-year span from 1954 to 1964, Facel Vega built cars that were able to attract customers like Ava Gardner, Danny Kaye and even Ringo Starr. Fact is, the great novelist Albert Camus actually died in a Facel Vega crash. Now there is pedigree!
Before one considers what Camus was doing in a Facel Vega, though, one might legitimately, ask, "Why did Facel Vega become the noted French luxury marque of the Fifties and Sixties instead of Bugatti, Delahaye, Hotchkiss or Talbot-Lago?" After all, prior to Hitler's invasion of France the country had been the home of what were referred to as grande routiere, very fast, sharp-handling luxury machines with style that made the Germanic offerings from Mercedes-Benz look, well, positively Germanic. Certainly, the Nazi occupation of France, post-war shortages of materiel and the dislocation of the European markets were partly to blame for the sad fate of so many proud names. One also could point the finger at the post-war French government, which instituted steep taxes on high-horsepower luxury cars, essentially putting a stake in the heart of its own luxury car manufacturers.
By 1952 the most prominent French luxury car builders were staggering. Bugatti was barely in business; Hotchkiss was building just a few antiquated designs; the Delahaye-Delage combine constructed fewer than 100 cars a year; and Talbot-Lago was puttering along at an equally dismal pace. But some can always find hope in adversity, and such a man was Jean Daninos, the brother of a prominent French writer.
Daninos had discovered hope (and commerce) in adversity before. He founded a metal -stamping company called Forges et Ateliers de Construction d'Eure et de Loire (FACEL) in 1938 and immediately profited from the rearmament of Europe that accompanied Hitler's rise to power. During the Nazi occupation of France, Germany had ordered his company to build items like wood-gas generators for cars and trucks, and though working for the Nazis was distasteful, it did guarantee that the FACEL Works would emerge from the war largely unscathed.
After hostilities ended, Facel returned to its aeronautic roots, building combustion chambers for license-built Rolls-Royce and de Havilland gas turbines. In addition, Daninos decided to diversify his production, and soon the company was also fabricating scooter chassis, kitchen cabinets and office furniture. The company's diversification kick brought it into the automobile business as a supplier of specialty bodies, including those for Panhard's Dyana, Delahaye's ill-starred Jeep-imitator, and Simca's 8 Sport two-passenger coupe.
The French-Ford Comete took Facel to the brink of actual automotive manufacture because, unlike the others, the coupe was a Facel design. The Comete, in fact, was an obvious precursor of the Facel Vega with its wrap-round rear window and the legendary "roly-poly" seats. But the chassis and 2.2-liter V-8 engine never lived up to the promise of the bodywork, and the Comete was eventually dropped.
All in all, life as a specialty body builder wasn't a bad business, but Daninos longed to do a bit more than simply build car bodies for auto manufacturers. He wanted to build a car of his own, and he saw an opening in the collapse of the French ultra-luxury industry.
At the 1954 Paris Auto Show, Daninos shocked the press and public with a show car he dubbed the Vega, after the star. Designed by Jacques Brasseur, the show car was sleek, understated and yet brimming with elegance. The grille and headlights combined the modern with the classic, and the thin-pillared greenhouse had an elegant lightness about it. Brightwork was kept to a tasteful minimum, and virtually all the bright pieces on the car were fashioned from stainless steel, not chromium-plated. Inside, the well-tailored seats felt more like thrones, and the full gauges and lever-operated controls showed the company's aeronautic influences.
While the interior and exterior of the first Facel Vega reeked of European sophistication, there was a big hunk of American brute force under the hood. Knowing the building an engine from scratch was a daunting and expensive task, Daninos went shopping and came back with an excellent if somewhat surprising choice: the 4.5 liter (276 cubic inch) De Soto Firedome V-8. With a compression ratio of 7.5:1, hemispherical combustion chambers and pushrods operating its overhead valves, this reliable piece of American cast iron offered 180 horsepower at 4,500 rpm, more than enough for grand touring in the Euro(American) tradition.
Backing up this alien engine were two transmissions. Boulevardiers choose the reliable Chrysler Torqueflite three-speed automatic complete with nifty push-button control. Those of a more hard-charging bent could opt for a Pont-a-Mousson four-speed all-synchromesh manual transmission in tandem with a Borg and Beck clutch that required considerable leg strength.
With its luxury accoutrements and big engine, the Facel Vega was no lightweight, but don't get the impression it lumbered through turns like an American luxoboat. For its day, the Facel Vega had a reasonably stiff frame fashioned of steel tube side-members joined by both tubes and channel-section cross-pieces. The suspension was nothing revolutionary with an independent coil-and-wishbone front suspension and longitudinal semi-elliptic springs locating the live axle at the rear, while tubular shocks did the damping. But the suspension was tuned to minimize body roll, and road testers opined that the Vega actually felt quite nimble.
As was the case with many cars of its era, brakes were a weak point. The hydraulically activated drums were prone to fade, which made driving the car at its 130-mph potential a bit of a thrill ride. Though the coupe had definite presence, the first Facel Vega was fairly compact, with a wheelbase of 103.5 inches and an overall length of just 180 inches.
At a price of some $7,000 in 1954, the first Facel Vega didn't exactly jump off the showroom floor, but it is said some 46 were built in 1954 and 1955. This was encouraging enough to Daninos that he decided to significantly revise the car for 1956. The major change was the shift to the 5.5-liter Chrysler V-8, a direct descendent of the Firedome. Daninos called the new version the FVS, and it continued in production until 1959, when more revisions resulted in the HK 500 complete with a 6.3-liter Chrysler hemi under the hood.
About the same time the company unleashed a four-door model called the Excellence on a stretched HK 500 platform. The car was very pricey at $12,800, aimed at the Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz 300 buyer, and its pillar-less greenhouse gave it a stately look. Unfortunately, the chassis was not properly stiffened, and its aft-hinged "suicide" rear doors had a disturbing habit of swinging open as the car rounded corners. Some 152 of these odd characters were manufactured between 1959-62.
The beginning of the end came for Facel Vega in 1960 with the introduction of a two-seat coupe called the Facellia. In a fit of hubris or nationalism or both, Daninos turned his back on the successful and reliable American engines that had made his previous cars viable and, instead, decided to use a designed-from-scratch French engine. The 1.6-liter powerplant, designed by Carlo Marchetti, formerly of Talbot, and Paul Cavalier of Pont-a-Mousson, was a tragic failure, sending the company hurtling toward bankruptcy. Even the eventual substitution of the Volvo P1800 powerplant could not revive the fortunes of the Facellia. Though envisioned as a "volume" car, only 1,500 were eventually produced and finding one today with the original Pont-a-Mousson engine is the equivalent of finding a Parisian who likes American tourists.
With the company already on its way to receivership, the sleek, sophisticated Facel Vega II was introduced in October 1961. With a heady 390 horsepower streaming from its Chrysler hemi V-8 engine, zero to 60 times were variously reported as 7 to 8.3 seconds. Top speed was said to be 140 mph. Even when equipped with a Chrysler Torqueflite automatic that required the engine to be de-tuned to just (?) 355 horsepower, the Facel Vega II was a force to be reckoned with.
But sadly, despite the excellence of the company's Chrysler-powered cars, the realities of finance and European competition were overtaking Facel Vega. The company slipped into receivership in late 1962, and with Daninos out of the picture the company faded still further. It finally shuttered its doors forever in 1964, leaving us a legacy that included not only its own vehicles but also the European marques that relied on American horsepower like Iso Rivolta, De Tomaso, and Jensen.