Facel Vega: French Sensibilities, American Brawn

Our Value Proposition series, authored by Donald Osborne, considers the intrinsic value of the Franco-American Facel Vega
Photo: ©2016 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's

Facel Vega: French Sensibilities, American Brawn

Our Value Proposition series, authored by Donald Osborne, considers the intrinsic value of the Franco-American Facel Vega
Photo: ©2016 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's

As a regular on CNBC’s “Jay Leno’s Garage” and as a columnist in Sports Car Market magazine, Donald Osborne is well known to millions of enthusiasts as an expert on the collector car market.

It is likely no accident that many, if not most, of the cars that become desirable “classics” are those that are the vision of a single person. The person may not be the one who actually sketched, engineered or built the car, but a single-minded, determined, obsessed vision almost always delivers something truly memorable.

Think of Ettore Bugatti, Enzo Ferrari, Ferry Porsche, Carroll Shelby, Alejandro De Tomaso, or Jean Daninos. Jean who? I would certainly argue that Daninos, a Frenchman born in Paris in 1906, deserves to be considered alongside these other giants of the automotive world. It was the unique way Daninos applied a well-known formula to create something nearly perfect.

As an engineer, he had worked in the early ‘30s with André Citroën in the creation of the groundbreaking Traction Avant. Having left Citroën after its takeover by Michelin, he worked as a consultant for a company in the aircraft parts business called Bronzavia. By the start of WWII he had become the company’s technical director.

In 1939, Bronzavia opened a subsidiary specialist machine and stamping company called “Forges et Ateliers des Constructions d’Eure-et-Loir,” or, FACEL, which would become the main player in our story. Jean Daninos managed to leave occupied France in 1941 to go to work in the U.S., and when he returned a new opportunity brought him back into the company and to a new chance to realize his dream.

Hughes Hazard and Christian Poirot drive a Facel Vega Facellia, in the Monte Carlo Rally 1961. (Photo: George Phillips Photo Collection, Revs Digital Library)

Daninos had long harbored the idea of producing cars, and after World War II found himself installed as head of the now totally independent FACEL. His company worked with manufacturers producing bodies for low-production models, which would be uneconomical to build in their main factories, as well as larger runs of sedan bodies in aluminum. Major contracts included the Panhard Dyna X sedan and, more interestingly, the Ford Comète.

The latter was the fruit of collaboration between Stabilimenti Farina and Daninos’ company and would lead to a series of smart, clean, elegant cars that directly presaged the Facel Vega. The most notable of these cars was a custom-bodied Bentley Mark VI called the “Bentley Cresta.” This imposing but sober and stylish big coupe impressed all who saw it and convinced Daninos that there was a market for a car pitched at this audience.

Built by Facel, the Bentley Cresta, pictured here at the 1951 Paris motor show, presaged the Facel Vega. (Photo: Rodolfo Mallander Photograph Collection, Revs Digital Library.)

I have long been a great fan of big, fast, luxurious French cars. The “Grand Routiers” of the ‘30s were the epitome of pre-war continental glamor paired with seemingly effortless performance and incredible style. The people who commissioned and owned these cars could not possibly have had “everyday lives.” These were cars for continent-crossing on a whim — breakfast in Paris, dinner in Milan kind of vehicles.

The Facels that Jean Daninos created were the natural successors to those great French cars that were killed off in the post-war massacre of the nation’s luxury manufacturers. A few years in the late 1940s and the early ‘50s saw Delage, Delahaye, Hotchkiss, Salmson and the already nearly defunct Bugatti disappear. Daninos alone seemed to have hit on the formula that the others failed to discover — that in order to succeed, it pays to go where the money resides.

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It’s no surprise that the Facel Vega found acceptance in the wealthy and eager U.S. market. It was the perfect recipe for a very special car for a buyer who wanted the dash of a low-production European special while avoiding the potential stresses of a complicated engine that few could maintain or repair and for which the wait for parts could stretch into months.

Hollywood embraced the Facel Vega because it was fast, glamorous, comfortable and reliable — assets sorely lacking in some of its more exotic competition from Italy and the UK. Seeing Tony Curtis and Ava Gardner in their Facels certainly helped sales, which were further boosted by seeing genuine race drivers such as Stirling Moss and Lance Macklin behind Facel steering wheels.

Collectors appreciate the Facel Vega’s comfort and roadworthiness. (Photo: Johnny Miles)

Macklin actually consulted with Daninos on the chassis tuning and development, which allowed the Facel to drive as well as it looked, using its prodigious Chrysler V-8 power to full advantage. It is precisely this combination of strength and usability that drew one into the alluring web of the Facel, and does so even today.

Steve Snyder is a lifelong car fanatic, classic car dealer and broker. His enthusiasm is perhaps genetic; his father William is, like Steve, a long-time Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance judge, and he has also been smitten for quite a few years by the Facel bug. Steve bought his first example of the marque in 1985 from his father.

As was not unusual at the time, when few knew and even fewer appreciated these cars, his initial HK500 was pulled, forcibly, out of a nasty outdoor storage lot. Why did it catch his interest? With its Chrysler Hemi engine, for him, it wasn’t a great stretch from the other “Mopar” hot rods his high school and college buddies were street racing in his part of California.

“It needed everything, but once I got it running, wherever I took it I was amazed by the attention it attracted. It blew everyone’s mind!” Steve Snyder said. While he had gotten it to run pretty reliably, he decided, in the end, it was too much of a project, and he sold it. But about 10 years later, he had another — one of what would be eight or nine he would eventually own.

The 1959 HK500 that was Snyder’s second Facel is an absolute keeper. One reason for that is very clear. “I took the woman who is now my wife out in the Facel on our first date. She’s absolutely forbidden me to even think about selling it!” Steve told us. Although he is a very successful classic car dealer, his interest in Facels has been more emotionally rooted.

The Facel Vega Excellence shows American influence in its styling as well as its powerplant. (Photo: Johnny Miles)

Hollywood’s elite, among them Ava Gardner and Tony Curtis, owned Facels. (Photo: Johnny Miles)

“In the period between 2000 and 2004 I probably had the most I ever did at one time,” he said. “But, if you wanted to sell one, you couldn’t if you were trying to get $30,000. The values were generally in the high teens to low twenties.” And that was a problem for a car that was very expensive to restore.

For example, the astonishing hand-painted faux wood grain on the metal dashboard faces of the HK500 and Excellence were frequently covered with leather in the absence of the artists needed to repair or repaint them. It also saved some money.

Facel Vega Facel II on the Silverstone circuit in 1963. (Photo: Karl Ludvigsen Photograph Collection, Revs Digital Library)

“Many cars fell on really hard times,” Snyder told me. “And when they sat, the brakes could be a problem — the disc brakes are Jaguar-based, leading to front-end damage, which was very expensive to repair and restore.”

Approximately 15 years ago Facels followed the rest of the European classic car market up, Snyder thinks in part as an alternative to cars such as Aston Martins. He also feels that it may have been a part of a larger “re-evaluation of the cars of the era” in which their specific character, fast but heavy, made them stand out.

Snyder summarizes his relationship with the Facel as “It’s just nice to drive — if you don’t open the hood, but just step on the gas, it’s great. An engine rebuild is the cost of a Ferrari distributor — how can you beat that?” And, for him, as for me, it’s as he said, “Power, style and proportion. The wraparound windshield, the upright grille, the taillights, the dashboard, I could go on forever.”

1958 Facel Vega FVS Series 4 sport coupe (Photo: Courtesy RM Sotheby’s)

He’s never owned any but the V-8 cars, so his direct experience with the smaller Facellia / Facel III / Facel 6 is limited. But he finds them interesting nonetheless. Snyder does confess to an ultimate fantasy Facel — an amazing “what if” — to be able to experience a Chrysler 426 Hemi Facel, something on the order of the ultra-rare Swiss Monteverdi Hai. You might describe it as taking Jean Daninos’ vision “forward to the jet age.”

Even with the fairly low-volume production of the FV, HK500, Excellence, Facel II, Facellia, Facel III and Facel 6, in 10 years of operation, the company managed to build 3,000 cars, far more than all the former luxury marques of France did combined in their regrettably brief lives after the war.

While a recent market frenzy of the Facels seems to have quieted down, there is still a great deal that remains to appeal to an ever-growing new audience. For those who take the time to consider what they actually want from a car besides its badge, the cars of Facel have a great deal to give.

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