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Beer is a wonderful substance. On 3 August 1962, Autocar stated: ‘To step down into a Facel II and go motoring must be the ambition of many who can never fulfil it.’
Yet here I am, with big eyes and small pockets, on a grand Parisian boulevard about to get the keys to one of only 26 right-hand-drive models built.
Over a pint, Justin Banks – one half of Kent-based specialist Godin Banks – let it slip that this car’s slow-burning, five-year restoration would shortly be complete, after which it would immediately be sold. I’d asked if I could have a go first: “Sure, I’m not precious,” he replied. Enter the aforementioned tipple.
Come morning, a two-minute Kentish cruise had been transformed. Now, standing outside 19 Avenue George V, I wonder if he’ll show. My contract – albeit written on the back of a beer mat – indicates that he will.
After 15 minutes I’m about to leave, but then I spot the unmistakable three-section grille and Marchal Megalux headlights powering towards me. Blessed is the brewer: London here we come.
Pop the door, step over the stainless-steel kick-plate and you enter a cabin of sublime opulence.
It’s as if the preceding half-century never happened as your surroundings thrust you back to an era of jet-set glamour.
Torch Red Connolly leather abounds, complemented by thick Wilton carpets and a black, leather-topped, faux-wooden dashboard, in which elegant Jaeger instruments are set.
The driving position, although not uncomfortable, is extraordinarily low, with your legs almost horizontal.
A large, deeply dished, wood-rimmed steering wheel dominates the space in front, but it’s the five identical heating-control levers on the centre console that prove a real visual delight.
A quick blip of the throttle primes the Carter four-barrel downdraught carburettor, while a turn of the key has all 383 cubic inches of V8 firing dramatically into life.
Despite a kerbweight just shy of two tonnes, swinging the big beast into the rush-hour traffic is surprisingly easy thanks to its Hydrosteer power-assisted steering.
The engine responds instantly, with a thunderous wave of torque propelling you forward. In the rear-view mirror, the former headquarters of France’s last luxury car-maker quickly recedes into the distance.
Autocar praised the 6286cc Chrysler Corporation ‘Wedge’ design powerplant as ‘undoubtedly the most outstanding feature of the Facel’ for the level of power available from low revs and its unobtrusive nature, but that accolade should instead have gone to its Chrysler Torqueflite automatic transmission.
Its torque converter ensures that the delivery of power to the rear wheels – in this urban environment, at least – is wonderfully progressive, and the shifts are barely perceptible.
No mean feat, with 355 North American horses champing at the bit.
Approaching the automotive free-for-all that is the Champs-Élysées, a deep breath is needed.
Preparing to enter this precious classic motoring icon into a game of vehicular roulette requires nerves of stainless steel.
As you enter battle, all sense of time and space is suspended. The traffic on this central confluence of 12 major arterial routes ebbs and flows, but somehow it seems to fall into place. Working furiously to avoid my fellow competitors, traffic gridlock seems inevitable.
Then something magical happens. A young man with fervour in his eyes brings his beat-up Renault 5 to a stop and gestures for us to go through the gap.
One by one, the drivers of the other cars follow suit, opening up a clear route for us to imperiously power through. In period, the Facel Vega brand met with a certain sang-froid from the average Frenchman, but the times they have a-changed, and today it’s Gallic motoring royalty.
Respected as the foremost supplier of automobile panels in the country, the Forges et Ateliers de Construction d’Eure-et-Lior (FACEL) concern provided bodies for manufacturers as diverse as Simca, Panhard and Delahaye.
But proprietor Jean Daninos – a sophisticated and cultured man with a penchant for fast machinery – lamented the loss of France’s high-end automotive manufacturers, marques such as Talbot-Lago, Bugatti and Hotchkiss.
He’d already rebodied several Bentleys with his own custom coachwork, but when Panhard switched contracts to a competitor in ’53, the concept of Facel cars began.
Its first model, the FV, appeared at the 1954 Paris Salon, featuring elegant bodywork by Daninos himself over a tubular chassis designed by Jacques Brasseur
Unable to source a suitable engine in Europe, however, Daninos looked west, and persuaded Chrysler to provide its DeSoto V8 and running gear.
Underneath that debonair French exterior beat a decidedly American heart; the result was a high-quality and beautifully smooth 130mph Grand Tourer.
The HK500 appeared five years later, using the same chassis and bodywork but incorporating a larger, 335bhp powerplant.
This ensured devastating acceleration and, in a little under five years, Facel Vega had performed the astonishing feat of establishing itself as one of the world’s elite car makers. Its automobile par excellence was still to arrive, however.
Making slow, serene progress through the busy Paris streets it’s clear that, in town, this is not a car in which you would do anything as uncouth as nailing the accelerator; this is a machine to see, and be seen in.
Confirmation of its hard-won place in the hearts of the Parisian populace comes at a pedestrian crossing, where the female half of a beautiful young couple sees it and almost knocks her beau off his feet as she drags him back.
Looking down at the bonnet badge, she mouths the words ‘Facel Vega’ before giving me an approving look. This is why people bought one. Its decadent individuality provided its owners with the status they demanded.
Unfortunately, someone who looks a bit more down on their luck immediately follows her and spits on the bonnet. It seems that now, as then, conspicuous excess has its detractors; still, I suppose it’s a compliment of sorts.
The Boulevard Périphérique ring road is a similar stop-start affair, and it isn’t until we hit the A1 l’autoroute du Nord that I’m able to floor the throttle.
Doing so opens all four of the carburettor’s chokes for the first time; the acceleration is shattering, with 0-60mph chalked up in just 7.8 secs – fast now, never mind in 1961.
At high speed, the car is extremely stable, with little correction of the steering wheel necessary around the straight-ahead.
Despite the thin A-pillars, wind noise is kept to a minimum; even under full load, all that’s perceptible is an extra droning at the air intakes and the soothing metronomic valve chatter from the engine.
The amount of power that’s always in reserve ensures that the overtaking of mere mortals is carried out with consummate ease, and in no time at all this Grande Routier is devouring mile after mile of French countryside, as it streaks northwards towards the Channel – something that this particular car has done before.
“My business partner George Abecassis used to race Aston Martins with Lance Macklin,” says Mike Harting, proprietor of HWM. So, when the veteran Le Mans racer – and then Facel Vega sales director – rang, offering the UK sales rights, it seemed perfect: “As a specialist in high-performance sports cars, we felt that it fitted in with our psyche.”
A subsidiary, Intercontinental Cars Ltd, was created to deal specifically with the marque, with a showroom in Staines.
There, the standard car cost £5570, and a number of tasteful upgrades were offered, including Armstrong Selectaride rear dampers for the suspension; a special ash dashboard to replace the painted metal, which no-one wanted because they liked the original; plus chrome-plated wheels.
In addition, the company disconnected the kickdown function on all cars that were sold with automatic gearboxes.
“Why would you need a kickdown?” asks Harting. “With all that power, keeping it on the road and in a straight line was the trick.”
The best part of the deal, however, was reserved for the vendors: “When we sold a car, either George Abecassis, Fred Hobbs or myself would fly over, collect it from Avenue George V, and drive it back to the UK. Although it was primarily business, I suppose some of the glamour must have rubbed off on us.” One can only imagine today’s supercars being delivered thus.
At Calais, we’re shepherded on to the next available ferry and park below deck, getting out to properly savour the exterior for the first time.
Daninos gauged the mood of the time perfectly, for tastes were changing. Although it was mechanically identical to the HK500, the era of the overlarge, haughty saloon was coming to an end.
The Facel II’s all-new stamped and welded steel body is 4in lower and 5in longer than its predecessor’s, with a rakish roofline that gives it a much sleeker, less bulky profile.
Whichever part of it you look at, there is evidence of Daninos’ reputation – gained when learning his craft at Citroën in the 1930s – as an expert in the welding of exotic metals.
From the swooping wheelarches that, at first glance, make the car appear over-bodied – as if the chassis requires an extra six inches of track – to the sharply creased wings of that scintillating Art Deco rear end, and the profusion of skilfully worked stainless-steel brightwork that wraps around its form.
These changes transformed it from a high-class saloon in the Rolls-Royce/Bentley fashion to a raffish European sporting coupé, and implanted it in the consciousness of the glitterati.
“People were ready for a change,” states Harting. “They wanted an alternative to the established order of Aston Martin, Rolls-Royce and Ferrari. The Facel Vega II was different. It had effortless high performance, an air of glamour and instant status.”
And how the UK’s high rollers stepped up: Lionel Bart insisted on buying the 1961 Earls Court show car, even though it was left-hand drive.
Rob Walker used his to journey between the race tracks of Europe. Television comedian Charlie Drake bought one, as did as a cross-section of the goodly and well-to-do, including tycoons, peers and other celebrities. This particular car (chassis B155) went north to a successful businessman, Mr Gee of Gee Advertising in Leicester. Across the globe, Facel’s clientele read like a 1960s edition of Who’s Who.
“Daninos set out to create a car of exceptional performance from the best components of the time, and that’s exactly what he did,” acknowledges Harting. Indeed, it’s arguably the most glamorous French car of the post-war period.
But the good times weren’t to last; midway through the 1964 Earls Court Motor Show, newspapers reported that Facel Vega had hit trouble. The mammoth losses caused by the ill-fated Facellia model’s engine problems forced the French Government to apply the coup de grace.
With two Facel IIs on the Intercontinental stand at the time, Harting admits he was a little worried: “There was no sense of dread as such, but would you want to buy a car made by a company that had just gone bust?”
In fact, that concern was unnecessary; by lunchtime, both cars had been sold – the final one to Ringo Starr. If anything, their allure had increased.
Once we reach England, we’re soon through Customs and on our way.
The Facel II is a consummate straight-line missile, but we momentarily duck off the main route to the capital to see how it handles on Kent’s twisty country lanes. Interestingly, is the answer.
The conventionally sprung suspension provides a comfortable ride, and adjustable rear dampers help to counteract variations in load.
Yet, although it doesn’t roll as much as it looks as if it might, handling isn’t its strongest suit. There’s a tendency to understeer but it is predictable, and there’s plenty of power on tap to aid corrections. The manual, twin-carburettor option released an additional 45bhp from the V8 – what a raging beast that must have been.
In town, we take the A2 through the Blackwall Tunnel and then burble quietly through a deserted City of London.
On the Embankment there’s gridlock, and the heat-soak from the tight-fitting engine is incredible; thankfully air conditioning came as standard in all models, so we turn it on to regain some cool.
When we stop to refuel, the sloping forecourt really accentuates the beauty of the Facel II’s low-slung rear end and we stand staring in awe.
A Porsche 911 turbo sits at the next pump, and as the owner returns he eyes the Facel. I can see his mind frantically turning over, trying to work out if it usurps his own steed. His eyes move down to the bonnet. I don’t wait for the question: “6.3 litres,” I say.
In the game of engine Top Trumps, mine’s bigger than his. He disappears in an irate cloud of wheelspin and accompanying Teutonic exhaust bark.
Two minutes later, we arrive at our final destination. The doorman at The Dorchester approaches.
“Magnifique, monsieur. Magnifique,” he says, opening my door. I couldn’t agree more. But while the Facel II looks comfortably at home in these swanky surroundings, I’m unsure as to why we’ve ended up here.
As he exits, Banks reaches into the glove compartment and I see he’s retrieved our beer-mat contract. On the front is the original agreement. He flips it over to reveal the costs of the journey to me, written and signed in my own hand: ‘lunch at The Dorchester’. How did I miss that?
I give a wry smile as I hand the keys back to their rightful owner. It’s been an epic journey but there’s a nagging sense of regret.
Production of all the company’s models lasted but one single decade. As I stare at the majestic Facel II, however, I realise that its Franco-American legacy is proof indeed that the brightest stars burn fastest and most furiously.
Images: James Mann
This was originally in our April 2012 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication
Facel Vega Facel II
- Sold/number built 1961-’64/182
- Construction steel tubular chassis, welded pressed-steel body
- Engine all-iron, ohv 6286cc 90° V8, with single four-barrel Carter downdraught carburettor
- Max power 355bhp @ 4800rpm
- Max torque 440lb ft @ 3300rpm
- Transmission Chrysler Torqueflite three-speed automatic, driving rear wheels via (optional) limited-slip differential
- Suspension: front independent, by coil springs and wishbones, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar rear live axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs and Armstrong Selectaride adjustable lever-arm dampers
- Steering Hydrosteer power-assisted worm and roller
- Brakes 12in (305mm) front, 11½in (292mm) rear Dunlop discs, with servo
- Length 15ft 1in (4750mm)
- Width 5ft 11in (1760mm)
- Height 4ft 5in (1280mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 9in (2667mm)
- Weight 4060lb (1841kg)
- 0-60mph 7.8 secs
- Top speed 133mph
- Mpg 14-17
- Price new £5570