History

Facel II

The Facel Record
Michael Lamm teams with company founder Jean Daninos to unravel the saga of Facel Vega, France’s favorite hybrid. Photos supplied by Henry Rasmussen and the Winston Goodfellow Archives.

Maurice Trintignant owned a Facel Vega. So did Rob Walker, Ringo Starr, Tony Curtis, Danny Kaye, Joan Fontaine, the King of Morocco, the President of Mexico and a host of Saudi princes. Ava Gardner owned three, and Stirling Moss was given one by the factory—an HK-500 with automatic transmission and power steering. He drove it from race to race "not only in silence and comfort but also in safety."
Not so fortunate was existentialist author Albert Camus. Camus was killed in a Facel Vega in January of 1960 while riding as passenger with his publisher between Sens and Paris. Police estimated the car was doing 112 mph—not unduly fast, considering the place and time—when it went out of control and hit a tree. In Camus’ pocket was an unused Sens-to-Paris train ticket.
Facel Vega creator Jean C. Daninos, now 89, lives near Cannes, though he spent World War II in North America and can still recall the minutest details of Facel Vega history in impeccable English. Daninos was born in Paris in December of 1906 to a family which had emigrated from Greece in 1750 and was by that time highly respected in France. Jean’s younger brother, Pierre Daninos, is now a famous writer of detective novels: His main character is an English amateur sleuth named Major Thompson, who takes good-natured jabs at the foibles of French society while solving crimes in the deductive style of Sherlock Holmes. The books have been translated into 28 languages and sold in the millions.
Jean and Pierre Daninos were always close. Now 83, the younger brother enjoys relating that when Jean was young, their parents told friends that he’d never amount to anything. "All he ever does in school," they’d say, "is draw cars." Many years later, Jean Daninos was famous throughout France as one of the country’s largest suppliers of automobile bodies and it sole manufacturer of high-performance luxury cars. "No surprise in that," Daninos’ parents said then. "All he ever did in school was draw cars."
Jean Daninos studied engineering and, after receiving his degree and serving in the French military, joined Citroen in 1930. The French automaker was working with Philadelphia’s Edward G. Budd Co. at the time, and part of Daninos’ job was helping to get the latest Budd-engineered, Citroen-built bodies into mass production.
Through his work at Citroen, Daninos became an expert in the science of electrical welding, particularly the welding of lightweight, exotic sheetmetals such as stainless steel and aluminum—rare skills then and now. Daninos’ time at Citroen involved him in the design and manufacture of the 6CV, the 15CV and the early Traction Avant, especially in 2-door form.
In time, however, Daninos became fed up with the car business and left to find his fortune in the design and manufacture of aircraft parts. In the second half of the 1930s he held several positions in the French aircraft industry, and by 1938 had built himself an aircraft-component fabrication plant in Somerset, England. Remember that factory’s location, because it will shortly prove important.
A short while later, Jean Daninos also founded a metal-stamping company at Dreux, near Paris, called Forges et Ateliers de Construction d’Eure-et-Loir—or Facel S.A., for short. Facel’s Dreux facility quickly became a successful supplier of aluminum and stainless steel stampings, and shortly thereafter Daninos opened a second plant at Amboise.
Of course, just as Facel S.A. became a major industrial force, France fell to the Nazis. Daninos’ Somerset factory was then engaged in building aircraft components for the war effort, and like his friend and fellow industrialist Marc Birkigt of Hispano-Suiza, Daninos fled to England to make war materiel for the Allies. "But the Air Ministry told me ‘We don’t need you here,’" he explains. "They said ‘What we really need is for you to go overseas and build a (similar) factory in Canada or the United States." Daninos chose the US.
The planned American "shadow plant" never came to pass, but Daninos’ expertise in mass-produced aluminum and stainless steel stampings did find him working closely with the US manufacturing community throughout the war. He also developed several non-military inventions while in this country, including the Cuberator—a icemaking machine—and a stainless steel vending machine that dispensed movie tickets. Meanwhile, one of Daninos’ two French plants was completely taken over by the Nazis and the other turned to building charcoal-gas generators for motor fuel.

Jean Daninos returned to France after the war and again took charge of his factories. It wasn’t long before Facel S.A. had four different facilities producing everything from motorscooter body stampings to housings for gas turbines and sheetmetal parts for the reawakening French auto industry. The latter came about not because Daninos was ready to return to the car business, but simply because "I’d been buying presses since 1938, so after the war we were about the only ones—at least the only ones outside of Chausson—who had real presses that could stamp inner doors, outer doors, and so on."

By the beginning of the 1950s, Facel’s automotive customers included Ford-France, Simca, Delahaye and Panhard. Soon the firm was even building complete bodies and doing final assembly for some of these clients. Daninos’ favorite of all was the Ford Vedette Comete coupe—which, the story goes, he designed and his brother Pierre named.
But despite his temporary respite from the automobile business, Jean Daninos seems to have had cars in his blood. And it bothered him that just after WWII, all the great French grandes routieres were going the way of the passenger pigeon. The aftereffects of war, a restrictive automobile taxation system and the increasing sophistication and reliability of more prosaic automobiles found most of France’s once-proud marques—Bugatti, Delage, Hotchkiss and Talbot-Lago—either extinct or in dire straits. Soon there were no French automakers building the sorts of modern, high-speed grand tourers that wealthy continentals had so thoroughly enjoyed in the past.
Daninos mourned this loss, and decided to do something about it. Earlier he’d designed and built a custom Bentley—the Cresta I—for his own pleasure, but exhibiting the car at the Paris salons of 1948, 1949 and 1950 had generated enough demand for 17 copies. The first Cresta I was built by Pinin Farina to Daninos’ designs, while the others were produced by Facel. In 1951, Daninos also designed and built another Bentley special, this time a one-off coupe—the Cresta II. He drove this as his personal car until 1956.
When Panhard left Facel S.A. in 1953 to have its bodies made by Chausson, Daninos looked at his plants and had an idea. Using some of their newfound capacity, Facel could produce a car of its own in the grande routiere tradition and fill the hole left by the other marques’ departure. It was the beginning of the Facel Vega line of automobiles. The Vega name, by the way, was suggested by Pierre Daninos.
The first challenge was to find a suitable engine. There was certainly nothing that fit the bill then being made in France, so Daninos tried Italy and came up empty there, too. He briefly toyed with the idea of having a French company develop an all-new powerplant for him—both for its patriotic appeal and to avoid his government’s prohibitive import duty on parts—but that came to naught as well. Eventually, Daninos thought back to his days in America, and particularly his positive dealings with Chrysler.
Fortuitously, this firm had just introduced its powerful Hemi V8. Daninos contacted Chrysler president Lester Lum (Tex) Colbert through the company’s overseas manager, C.B. Thomas, and worked out a deal to have De Soto V8s shipped to France. Facel Vega had its engine, but it hadn’t been easy: The powerplants themselves weren’t hard to come by, but Daninos’ import license from the French government stipulated that for every dollar’s worth of engines Facel imported, it had to export five dollars’ worth of goods back out of the country.

At this point we need to introduce a man who played a crucial role in the Facel Vega’s engineering: Jacques Brasseur. Daninos had hired Brasseur as a mechanical draftsman back in 1936, and when he went out on his own Daninos brought Brasseur along as his chief engineer. It was Brasseur and two associates, Mssrs. Dumas and Perrone, who truly laid out and developed the model’s first prototype, including the rigid steel frame, double-wishbone front suspension and stamped-steel body structure. The Facel Vega’s quite impressive styling was done by Jean Daninos himself.

The completed Facel Vega took its first bow at the Paris Auto Show of 1954. Its welded steel frame was conventional but stout, using 3.5-inch square-tube siderails connected by a healthy measure of cross-bracing and a rigid central X-member. The wheelbase was pegged at 103.5 inches, and the coupe stood just 54 inches tall. Outsourced parts included the 4.5-liter De Soto V8 (276 cid and 170 horsepower), Chrysler’s 2-speed PowerFlite automatic gearbox, 11-inch Lockheed-Bendix Al-Fin drum brakes and a Salisbury rear axle. The front suspension, designed and fabricated from forgings by Facel, consisted of unequal-length wishbones with coil springs—by then a fairly conventional but quite effective way to go. Rear springing was by semi-elliptic leaves, and the earliest Facel Vegas used Alliquant tubular shocks while later models carried de Carbons.
Once the Facel Vega entered production, buyers could replace the PowerFlite with an optional Pont-a-Mousson 4-speed for about $600. Many Europeans did just that: The smooth-shifting manual was based on an all-synchro unit originally developed for Talbot, and it was a winner. In 1958, Autocar said, "A feature of the gearbox is its unusual silence on each ratio, suggesting a quality of engineering in keeping with the rest of the car." Power brakes and electric windows came standard, as did Connolly leather upholstery and a high-output heater.
The Facel Vega used the same type of high center console and individual front seats one traditionally found in sports cars, but it also carried a luxurious-enough occasional seat in the back. This kiddie-sized bench could be flipped down to accommodate groceries or luggage—specifically an optional $350, 7-piece assemblage of trimmed and fitted bags.
The instrument panel gave "the impression that you’re at the controls of an airplane," wrote Walt Woron in Motor Trend, and the car’s round gauges stood in a hand-painted woodgrain fascia. The usual switches and levers were housed on the console. Daninos, according to Facel Vega enthusiast and historian Hans Ruhe, liked the appearance of wood but considered the material unsafe; he therefore employed an artisan who walnut-burled every dashboard that left the factory. If a customer didn’t like the effect, he could order leather padding.
The earliest Facel Vegas had single headlamps and non-wraparound windshields, and their rooflines looked very much like those of the Simca Sports Coupe and the Ford Comete—two other bodies that Facel S.A. built. The optional Robergel bolt-on wire wheels came with faux knockoff caps and Michelin X radials, and while the rest of the body’s brightwork was almost all stainless steel, the Vega’s prominent, elegant grille was of aluminum. A 22-gallon fuel tank and in-trunk filler stood at the forward end of the boot, and the spare lay snug in a well beneath the trunk floor. Daninos had even decreed that a tool tray should slide out from beneath the parcel shelf.
Performance of these 170-bhp, De Soto-engine Facel Vegas was excellent for their day, providing effortless 100-mph cruising and strong acceleration. The Pont-a-Mousson 4-speed gearbox required a 2.91:1 rear-axle ratio which restrained the top speed to 109 mph, but with the 3.31 rear end of the PowerFlite an easy 125 was possible. Then, from 1955 on, De Soto supplied a 291-cid Hemi good for 180 bhp. Of course, thanks to America’s escalating horsepower race, later Facel Vegas—at least those sold in America—became stronger and faster every year, until by the end of production it had been transformed from a respectable high-speed GT into a virtual supercar. More about that in a moment.


Charles Hornburg, the Hollywood Chrysler-Plymouth dealer, became Facel’s first US distributor in late 1955. But when the first cars arrived in America costing $7500, most Americans—including the motoring press—didn’t know quite what to make of them. There was no similarly luxurious sport/GTs being sold here, especially not in that price range.

A gullwing Mercedes 300SL, for example, cost $200 less, while a 1956 Cadillac Eldorado Seville coupe or Biarritz convertible were both nearly $1000 cheaper. Jaguar’s XK140 convertible went out the door for some $4000 less, and these cars all came from well-established makes, which Facel Vega certainly was not. Additionally, the Facel Vega wasn’t a sports car per se, nor did it purport to be. Hornburg justifiably promised luxury and high-speed touring, but never claimed the car would distinguish itself in racing.
The unavoidable comparisons with more narrowly focused sports and luxury cars made the Facel Vega seem uncommonly expensive—especially since Americans in the know could bring one home from France for a mere $5515. Le Mans veteran Lance Macklin (whose father had founded Invicta) took Yankee tourists for test drives out of Facel’s Parisian facilities in the Avenue George V, and more Americans bought Facel Vegas there than here.
Not knowing that, shortly after Hornburg began bringing Facel Vegas into America, Motor Trend compared one with the recently introduced 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II. This time, at least, the comparison came out in favor of the import: While the limited-production Continental seemed to match the French car in fit, finish, exclusivity and performance, it would set the buyer back some $2500 more. Because of its styling, Motor Trend also mentioned that the Facel Vega looked like what Packard was searching for in its showcars. That statement possibly gave rise to the unfounded rumor that Packard once considered buying and rebadging Facel Vegas. Today, Daninos denies ever being approached by the company. ("Oh, I wish!" he chuckles.)
Since he counted heavily on the lucrative US market, Daninos continually upgraded his car to appeal to rich American motorists. By 1956, the firm had added the ubiquitous wraparound windshield and De Soto’s latest 5.4-liter (330-cid), 255-bhp V8, which was also rated at 285 bhp in Europe. Road & Track used one of these to toss off a 0-60 run in 9.3 seconds, the quarter mile in 17.0 @ 83 mph and a top speed of 121.1 mph, all with the 2-speed PowerFlite. The Pont-a-Mousson 4-speed would have meant even faster acceleration at the price of top speed.


And then, in 1957, a number of interesting things happened. First, Chrysler began supplying Facel with the 5.8-liter (352-cid), dual-quad Hemi from the Chrysler 300-C. Though this engine was officially derated from the 375 bhp it was advertised with in the States, Facel still promised a healthy 325 horses from their hybrid. Hans Ruhe also points out that due to a 1956 oil crunch in Europe, Facel started putting smaller V8s into cars sold on the continent while continuing to use the largest engines available in those bound for America. The 2-speed PowerFlite also became a 3-speed TorqueFlite in 1957, and the Facel Vega coupe took on quad headlights and England’s Hydrosteer power steering unit as standard equipment.

Nineteen-fifty-seven was also the year that Daninos released a 4-door sedan, the Facel Vega Excellence, at the Paris salon. The Excellence amounted basically to a stretched, 4-door version of the coupe, which was simultaneously renamed FVS (for Facel Vega Sport). Nineteen inches were added to the wheelbase, and the sedan’s rear body styling looked very much like the 1958 Cadillac’s (or vice-versa). The totally pillarless Excellence, whose door strikers mounted at the rocker sills, was often accused of being structurally flexible, but at least one tester, Motor Trend’s Wayne Thoms, disagreed. "We found no twist within the long, open-box body," he wrote, "the result of a rigid, tubular frame that shows some forward thinking at the design level." In 1959, Facel advertised the Excellence as the fastest production 4-door on the road, mentioning a top speed of 140-150 mph.

At about the same time as the arrival of the sedan, American distribution of the Facel Vega marque was taken up by Max G. Hoffman and the colorful George Abecassis got the franchise for England. By now, Facel Vegas had gained a very international flavor: They originated in France but used American engines and (automatic) transmissions, British brakes and axles, and a selection of Italian wheels.

Again, Chrysler’s newest, most potent V8 was always made available in the latest Facel Vega. The renamed and restyled HK-500 made its debut in 1958, and Daninos gave one of the first examples to Stirling Moss. (Ruhe notes that "...Daninos told me once, quite proudly, that it seemed one of the better publicity ideas to lend a car to Moss.... And Moss gladly accepted it!")
With the change to the HK-500, wheelbase grew to 104.7 inches, the frame got beefed up, and Borrani knockoff alloys became standard, Borrani wires optional. Dunlop disc brakes (an option on the earlier FVS) were also part of the HK package: Facel’s previous 11-inch drums hadn’t kept up with the big coupe’s acceleration and top speed, and reviewers let the factory know it.
The HK-500 also incorporated several powertrain upgrades beyond the FVS, the most noticeable again being Chrysler’s new engines. The series started with a 361-cid "Wedge" V8 carrying a single 4-barrel when used with the manual and a 2x4 paired to the automatic.
The 361 grew into a 383 from mid-1959 on, and it was this engine—rated at a staggering 360 bhp and 425 lbs.-ft. of torque—that gave the HK-500 all-out supercar status. Britain’s Motor pegged the top speed at 140 mph, got 0-60 in 8.4 seconds and ran the quarter in an impressive 16.3. Complete with disc brakes and the dual-quad 383, Motor called the HK-500 "one of the world’s fastest and most controllable luxury sports saloons." Road & Track also tested the 383-powered HK-500 and called it "a French Thunderbird"—which was actually a bit of a slap, as readers knew the 4-seater T-Bird wasn’t high on the magazine’s list of favorite cars. Even so, the R&T editors praised the HK-500’s quick, agile roadability: "The latest Facel Vega HK-500...can take its place alongside the elite of motordom with justifiable pride."
But while the HK-500 was quite a car, the Facel that outshone them all was the Facel II for 1962. The firm’s ultimate GT combined a more sophisticated bodystyle with the tremendous brute force of the biggest Chrysler V8s. It was a staggering combination: No Facel Vega ever topped it.
But before getting into the tale of the Facel II, we need to step back a bit and mention another car, the diminutive Facellia brought out for 1960. This small sports car was supposed to take Facel into the mass market, or at least a lot closer to it. For the Facellia, Daninos took the basic Facel Vega shape, refined it, miniaturized it, and came up with a very pretty roadster and coupe. Its body was considerably tidier and more finely detailed than the previous FVS and HK-500, and it brought the traditional Facel look immediately up to date.
We’ll visit the Facellia again, but for now it’s important to know that for the Facel II of 1962, Daninos essentially took the lines of the Facellia, blew them up again and gave birth to an all-new flagship. No body panels interchanged with the previous big cars or the Facel II’s baby brother: The new coupe was four inches lower and five inches longer than its predecessors, its roof was thinner, its greenhouse airier, the wheelarches bolder and more windswept, and the overall design looked considerably tidier than before.
The result was an extremely light- and wide-looking car, something that appeared much more of a low-slung thoroughbred than before. Again there was very little ornamentation, and to finish it all off the four stacked Marchal headlamps wore glass bubble covers a la the contemporary Mercedes. Under the hood lurked the same 383 Chrysler V8 as in the HK-500, but with dual quads this engine now generated 390 bhp @ 5400 rpm and a monumental 485 lbs.-ft. of torque @ 3600.
The big tourer’s interior remained basically as before, and so did its chassis and suspension—right down to the Dunlop disc brakes and optional Borrani wires. (SCI’s own Harry Newton—then an executive in the import-car biz—recalls personally delivering a Facel Vega to a customer, and of the Borrani wires he says, "I remember it seemed like a lot of car riding on very little wheel. One couldn’t help going a little gingerly, as if thinking ‘just in case!’")
Right from the start you could get two different powertrains in the Facel II, a 4-speed manual coupled to a 390-bhp, dual-quad 383 or a TorqueFlite automatic with one 4-barrel and "only" 355 horses. Later on, Chrysler’s 413-cid Wedge also became available, offering a full 400 bhp @ 5400 rpm. Said Autocar of the 390-horse 383 with 4-speed, "It is marvelously powerful and tractable right from very low revs, extremely quiet mechanically, and so smooth that anyone not knowing its specification might suspect that the bonnet concealed 12 cylinders."
Meanwhile, a 1962 Sports Car Graphic test of an early prototype, conducted at Montlhéry by Bernard Cahier, showed that the Facel II with a Pont-a-Mousson 4-speed would accelerate through the quarter mile in 15.4 seconds at a trap speed of 94 mph. That car also reached 100 mph in 17 seconds flat and recorded a 149-mph flying mile. Pretty heady stuff, then and now.
Additionally, Cahier wrote, "On any type of turn, the car has a tendency to understeer, but with so much power underfoot, you can easily counterbalance this effect and charge out of the turns at what seems like ridiculously high speeds, the main problem being to remain not too heavily on the throttle, otherwise you really burn too much rubber and lose time. I felt there was a need of a self-locking differential, and I was pleased to learn that all of the production Facel II will be available with that unit."


It’s doubtful that any Facel Vega ever turned a profit, but with the big cars that didn’t much matter. Facel S.A. still had Simca as a primary customer and 60 other clients besides, so in the quantities Daninos cranked out—1178 cars in nine years—the profit or loss was rather unimportant. One publication called Daninos’ car venture a "hobby," and while it was certainly more than that, calling it a "passion" may be fairly defensible.

As such, the Facel Vega marque might have carried on indefinitely. But then along came the Facellia—the car that was supposed to be all about business. In the end, the Facellia rocked the boat so hard that it sank the entire operation.
Daninos’ small sportster made its debut at the Paris salon in October of 1959 and showed great early promise. In body, chassis and suspension engineering it followed general Facel Vega practice, but in place of the whopping V8 sat a lightweight DOHC Four by Pont-a-Mousson. Again Daninos had hoped to create an all-French automobile; unfortunately, this time he succeeded. The Pont-a-Mousson engine, quite frankly, proved to be a turkey. It suffered from terrible durability problems, mainly resulting from badly engineered cooling passages. The block retained heat, and instead of distorting the head or blowing off the radiator cap, this condition manifested itself in holed pistons. Pont-a-Mousson went to a heavier piston material, which staved off some failures but didn’t address the basic problem, and soon Facel was putting more effort into honoring Facellia warranties than building new cars.
Creating any new model costs a fair amount of money, so it didn’t take long for the Facellia’s problems to put its parent company in trouble. By 1961, the carmaker needed more cash to survive.
Daninos went to Credit National, one of France’s most prestigious banks. Credit National agreed to lend him six million francs if he could find two industrial partners, so Pont-a-Mousson and Daninos’ old friends at Hispano agreed to participate.
But when the French government insisted on a third partner, Daninos had to reluctantly offer up Mobil Oil of France. Up to this point he’d been Facel’s undisputed boss, but suddenly Jean Daninos found himself a minor shareholder in the company. The partnership had differences, and in June of ’61 Daninos resigned as president and took the title of technical director.
The new president issued a press release stating that, yes, the Facellia engine had some faults, but the new management was prepared to provide replacement engines to any dissatisfied customers. Predictably, dissatisfied customers started coming out of the woodwork after that, and by the time it was over Facel had to eat an additional 300 powerplants. Additionally, this intended gesture of goodwill actually came across as an admission of failure: Sales plummeted, and Facel lost more than 11 million francs between August 1961 and June 1962.
As a result, Credit National refused to ante up the final two million in promised loans. At a general shareholders’ meeting on 10 July 1962, against Daninos’ strong advice Facel decided to declare bankruptcy.
A man named Jean Persin became managing director, and he and Daninos tried to salvage the company. First they raised another million francs in capital. Then they launched the improved Facellia F2, the Facel III (which replaced the Pont-a-Mousson outright with a 1.8-liter Volvo Four) and the Facel 6 (the same, only now with an Austin-Healey 6-banger). Sales rose in response to these changes, but not nearly enough. One handicap was the Facellia’s price, which started around $4100 in America and had risen to $5700 by late 1961. The 1962 MGB, in comparison, came in at about $2500.
In July of 1963, the bankruptcy trustees allowed the SFERMA conglomerate, an offshoot of French aircraft giant Sud-Aviation, one year to try to put Facel back on track. SFERMA president Paul Badre pumped in another two million francs and managed to bring about another uptick in sales, but again it was too little, too late. Toward the end of the same year Daninos felt he’d found an angel in England’s Rover Co., which considered having Facel assemble aluminum Land Rover bodies in France. The DeGaulle government objected, however, and the deal fell through. Facel stopped production on 31 October 1964.
Jean Daninos simply moved on. For a man with his talents and contacts, it didn’t take long to get his affairs in order and return to the life of a successful industrialist. But while his dream had finally ended, it had also lasted a good nine years—much longer than most.
Daninos had never quite managed to create the all-French car he’d hoped for, but he’d come pretty close. And, if the Facellia hadn’t interrupted, it’s possible that Facel Vega might have continued until...well, when? The dream had finally ended, but certainly not for a lack of trying.

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