Facel Vega of Paris made the first and perhaps the most famous of the post-war V8-engined Euro-American exotics. In a mere decade – 1954 to ’64 – the firm carved a reputation for luxury, speed and glamour that still resonates in a way that is out of all proportion to the handful of cars that it produced. The company only foundered when it became too ambitious and moved out of its comfort zone of exclusive exotica for the rich and famous into the realms of volume sports cars for the merely well off.
Many other American-engined gran turismos followed Facel into oblivion, usurped by a new generation of more frugal and more keenly priced coupés. In the fuel-conscious atmosphere of the mid-’70s, it took a truly dedicated individualist to choose an Iso over a Mercedes SLC, or reject a BMW CSi in favour of a Jensen. Multiple cylinders were no longer an indication of urge as Europe’s technocrats found ingenious ways of making cars go as well on three efficient litres as the hybrids did on six or seven. Under attack from all directions, the American V8 had, in any case, rather lost its mojo and become a low-compression shadow of its former self in the face of power-sapping anti-smog equipment.
By rights Bristol, the last of that once-hopeful and exciting generation of Detroit-engined bruisers, should have ceased to exist in this unhelpful atmosphere, washed away as a dusty irrelevance. Yet it is still very much with us, the current Blenheim 3 being a direct descendent of the first Chrysler V8-powered models of the ’60s. To be honest, I’m not quite sure why Bristol is still alive. I can only surmise that it is the firm’s stubborn refusal to be swayed by fashion that has saved it. Under long-time owner Tony Crook, it was never tempted to become over-ambitious. It was happy to produce a handful of cars a year, charge a lot of money for them and make only infrequent alterations to a formula that inspired great loyalty in its customers, many of whom had supported it since the 1940s and ’50s.
The 408 and HK500 may not have appealed to the same customers, yet there are irresistible parallels to be drawn between Bristol and Facel Vega. Both firms made their money in aviation before diverting into car-building. Both exclusively used Chrysler V8s, but Bristol bought them from Canada as a tax dodge and gently modified them for sustained high speeds, with solid tappets and a high-lift camshaft. Both have strong separate chassis: the Facel’s low-slung and tubular, the Bristol’s a rugged box-section design with its roots in ’30s BMWs. Facel built its steel shells in-house, which was logical because body-making for the likes of Simca was at the heart of its business. Bristol stayed faithful to 16-gauge aluminium for the 408 of ’63, with bodies crafted 100 miles away from its Filton airfield factory by Park Royal Vehicles in West London.
As an exercise in body engineering, the Facel is flawed. The shell twists and squirms to the point that the cars were notorious for cracking their windscreens. As a friend who has owned both marques pointed out, you would be hard-pressed to find a car that is both as heavy as an HK500 yet so structurally weak! The Bristol is better and has a particularly elegant form of rear suspension location by torsion bars and Watt linkage that cleverly alleviates the problems of excessive unsprung weight in the live axle.
In truth, the best things about both of these cars are the engines and automatic ’boxes. While the Facel was conceived around the Chrysler V8 from the start, it was only a happy coincidence that the slightly over-square 5.2-litre unit was fitted into the 406 body in ’61 to become the 407, complete with more modern coil-sprung front suspension and many other minor modifications. By the time the 408 you see here was being built for its first owner in 1965, Facel SA of 19 Avenue George V, Paris had succumbed to the financial crisis that resulted from the Facellia’s engine problems. Yet the relative success of its V8 models, particularly the HK500 as featured here, proved that there was still an appetite for these potent cars. Where Bristol owners were usually quiet types from the business world, HW Motors, the Facel concessionaire in the UK, sold the cars to flamboyant tycoons, TV stars and landed gentry. Anybody, in fact, with the price of a large detached house burning a hole in their pocket who wanted to make a statement with probably the fastest four-seater motor car then produced.
Bristol owners tended to dismiss the HK500 as “flashy” (they still do!) but I think it is a brutally elegant and beautifully detailed car, from its trend-setting stacked lamps and integrated stainless bumpers to its tail-lights so artfully ‘Frenched’ into the sweep of the rear wing. The Facel II is arguably the cleaner shape, but the HK500 is maybe the definitive FV profile. Introduced in June ’58 and made until mid-1961, 490 were built, 107 of them right-hand drive. From mid-1959, the bigger, 360bhp 6.3 V8 became standard.
Squat and muscular on its masculine Borrani centre-lock wheels (the optional Dunlop wires were not really strong enough), the HK500, in the metal, is a smaller car than you imagined.
The cabin smells glorious and has the same sense of drama as the exterior, styled for maximum effect. You slide into commanding leather armchairs to be confronted by a light, aircraft-inspired facia that follows the sweep of the wraparound ’screen. Its airy feel evokes the canopy of a jet fighter, albeit a plush one with thick carpets, fake wood and a decadent quilted headlining. There is generous +2 seating in the rear or you can fold down the backrest to extend the boot, which is mostly fuel tank. Its huge filler can be accessed only by opening the bootlid.
Even before you have turned the key, there is an aura of romance and adventure about this car, with its massively dished wheel on that long column spearing between the 5500rpm rev-counter and 160mph speedo, both by Jaeger.
Bristols only came with Torqueflite autos, but Facel did a healthy trade in four-speed manual HK500s. This car started life with the Pont-à-Mouson manual ’box, but at some point has been converted to auto, though with a non-original centre change. HK500s, like early V8 Bristols, had push-buttons to the right of the dashboard.
The V8 engine starts readily and emits a sinister thrum from its dual tailpipes, exiting at either end of the bumper. It’s a curiously chilling reminder that there’s something slightly demonic and unsettling about these cars. The Facel snaps off the line with a ferociousness that takes you by surprise and would have made almost anything else in the early ’60s feel feeble. It squats heavily on its cart springs as your view of the road in the mirror disappears, the tyres dig in and the car rockets away with an urgent throb. Naturally, you can waft along effortlessly on its gigantic torque out on the motorways and sweeping arterial routes that were the Facel’s domain in its youth. The smooth-shifting gearbox eases unobtrusively into top and you rarely feel the need to kick down: in fact, HWM disconnected the kick-down switch on autos in the name of safety.
As a fast form of travel, the HK500 was a viable alternative to a light aircraft. Even now, it has respectable, surprisingly neutral and pleasingly roll-free handling within the limitations of its chassis and weighty cam-and-roller steering that demands 4½ turns between its modest locks. Without assistance, the steering is formidably heavy at low speeds, reluctant to self-centre and has weight but no feel. Having said that, the Facel is stable and will hold an arrow-straight ton with maybe another 40mph in hand. It stops beautifully, too, with four English Dunlop discs as part of its truly international specification.
Bristols only gained massive Chrysler V8 engines with the 411 in the late 1960s. From 407 to 410, it was felt that a mere 5.2 litres and an alleged 250bhp was sufficient. But Bristol made the point that these substantial cars – providing ‘dignified travel for four people’ – would still hold a Ferrari 250 2+2 over a quarter-mile.
The 408 was a gentle update of the 407, its new modernist rectangular grille finally giving the V8 a separate visual identity from the earlier ‘sixes’. Bristol’s Dudley Hobbs had styled a flatter roof and chrome side mouldings to make the shape look longer and fresher, but it inherited the front wing bays for the spare and electrics pioneered on 1950s models. Mechanical changes were limited to a lighter, alloy-cased auto ’box (with a ‘Park’ facility) and Selectaride electric rear dampers.
Self-effacing as it is, the 408 has a distinguished air that makes people look twice as it wafts by. It’s a handsome car – with well-placed features and little in the way of self-conscious ‘styling’ – but it works in that it could not be mistaken for anything else. It’s more than a foot longer and 6in taller than the Facel but 3in narrower, a point Bristol made a virtue of in terms of the car’s manoeuvrability. It feels slightly more carefully manufactured than the Facel yet less bespoke, with its Hillman Super Minx tail-lights and off-the-shelf bumpers.
Stepping from the Facel to the Bristol is like entering a boardroom after a boudoir. It is much loftier than the low-set HK500 and, once inside, feels more spacious, with adult-sized rear seats and headroom to spare. There is a rational elegance about the instrument nacelle that goes perfectly with the masterful black steering wheel with its lilting, ridged spokes, though the minor switches are scattered and obscure enough for the car’s owner, Patrick Brown, to feel the need to identify them with stick-on labels. The walnut in the Bristol is real and very much the better for it, although I doubt it is of intrinsically higher quality than, say, a Mk2 Jaguar. The scuttle feels quite high, but the views out are good all round thanks to fairly slender pillars. The seats are tall-backed and cosseting, and have the backrest adjustment missing from the Facel Vega.
With ‘D’ engaged, the 408 moves off with a discreetly offbeat burble. Powered by a 318cu in Chrysler lump, it is a litre down on the HK500 and confidently brisk and refined rather than overtly brawny. It would have mastered other traffic in its prime, but it sets out to deliver its occupants to their destination in a relaxed frame of mind. It is a much quieter car than the Facel in terms of engine noise, wind roar and road-excited rumble from the tyres, which, on this car, are the correct and preposterously tall and narrow-looking 16in Avons. Later Bristols, with the engine further back in the chassis, probably feel nimbler. The disc brakes are as strong as the Facel’s, the ride much quieter and more supple, but nowhere near as good as a MkX Jag, for example.
The Bristol handles more predictably than the Facel Vega, but there is less of an invitation to treat it roughly. Push it hard and the car feels as if the front will run wide before the rear unless you provoke it, but there is ample torque to balance it instantly and, like the HK500, the 408 is very stable when you want to blast along a motorway. On balance it has better steering than the Facel Vega – with more consistent feel and willingness to self-centre – but later, ZF power-steered Bristols are better still.
It’s a good car, the 408, undoubtedly better than the Facel in terms of overall competence. It is a more accomplished piece of engineering, too, but I’m wary of bow-tie wearing eccentrics who talk about ‘aircraft standards’ of quality. I wouldn’t want to fly in a plane built like a Bristol, or perpetuate the myth that they are the best-kept secret in the motoring world that instantly conveys innate good taste on their owners.
The Facel is so ravishingly glamorous, so instantly exciting that you forgive its flaws. The Bristol, sensible and soothing as it is, just seems pedestrian alongside. Even a trip to the tobacconist is an adventure in an HK500. You feel part cad, part hero behind the wheel – a man with an appointment with destiny, but hopefully without involving an impact with a tree or some other solid object. Facels have been implicated in more than their fair share of high-speed crashes, yet somehow that only adds to their aura.
This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images.
Words: Martin Buckley; pictures: Tony Baker