When Prince Stanislav Poniatowski, administrator of one-time car manufacturer Hispano-Suiza, talked his friend Jean Daninos into entering the suddenly deserted luxury car market in France, the heyday of French motoring was long past. It was the early 1950s, and the country was living out in full the aftermath of a devastating war. But Daninos had a vision, and he pursued it until the troublesome waters of his times proved too tempestuous to navigate.
His idea was to produce a perfect grand tourer, a car that combined speed with comfort, to cater to the wealthiest in the country. A pragmatic man with a penchant for style and taste, Daninos earned his reputation designing some of the most remarkable cars immediately after the war, such as the 1948 Bentley Cresta and the phenomenal Ford Comete from 1951. But by 1954 he was ready to launch the first of his own models, the emblematic Facel Vega.
Built in collaboration with Metallon, the Facel Vega was fitted with the famous American deSoto V8 Firedome engine and a manual four-speed transmission by Pont-a-Mousson. Conceived as a touring car capable of great speed, the Facel not only incorporated technology from the US and France, it actually married two different but compatible ways of looking at motoring. The Facel Vega was conceived with an international and exclusive clientele in mind, which was clearly reflected on its price tag—nearly three million Francs, and approximately six times that of a Renault 4CV!
Facel Vega’s immediate success led to it being redesigned, developed, rebranded and launched anew in 1958 as the HK 500, a powerful specimen equipped with an automatic transmission and a 5900cc Chrsyler Typhoon engine. Sleek, fast and yet tastefully appointed with deep leather seats and wooden console and dashboards, the Facel Vega HK 500 embodied everything Daninos set out to accomplish at the start of his journey, matching the prestige of a powerful American engine with the finesse of French design.
By 1958 Daninos had decided that a smaller, cheaper French sports car could sell as many as 2,500 units per year—a major step up for a company that was already profitable producing a modest 250 cars annually. But at the time the French government would not allow imports of such a vast number of small power units, so a local engine had to be found. Eventually Pont-a-Mousson was commissioned to provide a straight 115hp, 1650cc four-cylinder engine and in the 1960 Geneva Auto Show Daninos launched the new Facellia—a pretty and relatively fast little car which nonetheless was plagued with problems and malfunctions.
None of them were terminal, and in time they would all be addressed, but the enormous amount of capital Facel suddenly was forced to invest in straightening out its foray into full sports car manufacturing overstressed the carmaker’s possibilities. By the end of 1961, dark clouds already loomed large in Facel-Vega’s horizon. Nevertheless, the company still managed to present in the 1961 Paris Salon the most beautiful French car produced after 1945, the Facel II—a milestone in fast and luxurious GT tourers.
Remarkable as it was, however, the Facel II did not make problems disappear. By August 1962 the banks demanded an outside administrator be placed at the helm of Facel-Vega, and though the “engine crisis” was solved in 1963 when the Facellia was replaced with a “new” Facel III, equipped with an 1800cc Volvo engine, the company’s reputation had suffered severely.
Neither the Facel II nor the Facel III were particularly unreliable, and the brand new, mid-sized Facel VI, launched in 1964 with a three-liter, six-cylinder BMC engine, was anything but problematic. Indeed, there is so often talk of “too little, too late” when it comes to solutions but the Facel VI was everything the company could have hoped for: beautiful design, good proportions, gorgeous interior, adequate suspension. And yet, plentiful as it was, it still came too late as public opinion proved hard to sway.
By the end of 1964 Facel had closed its doors to the public. French bureaucracy combined with a total disregard at governmental level for supporting prestige car making had driven the final nail in the coffin of one of the most stylish undertakings of its time. The final balance over the course of its ten-year existence was a total output of close to 3,000 units, including roughly 500 HK 500, under 200 Facel II and 32 Facel VI. Not an industrial production by any stretch of the imagination—and yet, to this day, when you think of the quintessential grand tourer you still think of Facel Vega.
Published in issue number 1 of Patina SXM magazine on January 22 2016.