1962 Facel Vega II
Facel Vega II on the road in a Gallic Aristocrat. Vega shines brightest in the firmament, and the Facet Vega II was the favourite of its creator Jean Daninos. Here’s why. Words James Elliott. Photography Tim Scott.
THE BRIGHTEST STAR
Examining Jean Daninos's own favourite
Before writing this feature I spent too much time trying to think of the motor manufacturer that Facel most resembled. Perhaps the very reason for this was to prove to myself that there isn't one, that this French aristocrat is unique. In the end, after seeking the counsel of colleagues, I settled on Bristol. It is still far from a perfect match, but the similarities are myriad: companies equally driven by the vision of one man, carmakers that wilfully and quirkily paddled away from (some might say against) the mainstream, marques that almost uniquely managed to retain such lofty status while employing hefty lumps of blue-collar Yankee iron up front. OK, that opens up the field to Jensen and Iso and more, but I’m sticking with Bristol because of the shape and mien of the cars… and that Svengali element, even if the values and universal appeal of Facels have left the more niche Bristols in their wake in recent years. Both marques made discreet gentlemens expresses of the highest order, if one rather more understatedly than the other.
1962 Facel Vega II
Bristol, of course, had the inimitable — in bad ways as well as good — Tony Crook; Facel had Jean Daninos, engineer, Olympian (in skating), skier, design maven. Born in Paris in 1906, Daninos had already served at Citroen when he esatablished FACEL — Forges et Ateliers de Constructions d’Eure-et-Loir — to serve the aircraft industry in 1939 before spending much of World War Two in the USA. With the hostilities over, he returned and, as well as designing everything from ice dispensers to machine tools, Facels work turned to making car bodies for the likes of Ford, Simca and Panhard plus an awful lot of sub-contracting and fabrication, from trimming to — literally — the kitchen sink.
Daninos had loftier ambitions, however, and when monocoques started to catch on and demand for separately built bodies dwindled, he guided Facel towards building its own cars. His brief but notable dalliance with styling Bentleys clearly influenced his target market, and the Allard chassis he used as an engine testbed helped determine his eventual choice of a Chrysler V8 over homegrown units.
His first car was the self-styled (they all were) Facel Vega — Vega being the brightest star in the sky, the name allegedly coined by Daninoss author brother Pierre. It entered production in 1955 and was followed by the imperious HK500 and pillarless four-door
Excellence. The Excellences spiritual opposite came with the launch of the baby Facel, the Facellia, in 1959. Powered by the Pont-a- Mousson 1647cc four, the shrunken Facel still bore Daninoss trademark styling and was intended to scale the company up into big production numbers. Instead, the motors rapidly earned reputation for unreliability threatened to scupper the entire venture.
Sadly, the swap to a reliable Volvo unit for the Facel III came long after public enthusiasm for the concept had waned. With the HK500 then elegantly refashioned into the lower, sleeker Facel II in 1961 and sales of the big V8s plummeting, Facel was flying towards to the buffers and went into liquidation in 1962, although it limped on until October 1964 before the plug was simultaneously pulled on production and sales.
In a little over a decade the company had built around 3000 cars and the best of them all, according to Daninos himself, was the Facel II: ‘The HK500 was the most interesting car we ever made, but the Facel II was the best — it was totally elegant.’ Only 182 were made, just a handful of those in right-hand drive. It has often been reported that only the final right-hander, Ringo Starrs, has the larger 413ci engine rather than the 383ci, but that isn’t true because this one does, too. And that is not the only reason it is special. It was most recently acquired by Steve Groves at Bonhams’ Goodwood Revival auction in 2019 and, since he already owns a Jensen Interceptor and Iso Grifo, you can see a motor-related theme developing. A quick online search reveals that he paid £184,000 all-in, which seems very cheap’ for something so rare, being not only right-hand drive but also a manual and a former Earl’s Court Motor Show car to boot.
Built in 1962 but registered the following year, chassis HK2AB104 was delivered — driven from France, naturally — to Hersham & Walton Motors with its 6765cc engine and was then red. Very red. Torch red. The first owner was Sir Arthur ‘Derick’ Wheeler, who had it resprayed dark grey and, on his death, passed it to his nephew. He subsequently sold it on to Philip White, who laid the car up in 1967 with only 27,000 miles on the clock, alongside his flat-floor E-type. There it stayed until the late 1990s when a Mark Miller bought it. He had it fully restored — 400 hours on the bodywork alone — and sprayed in its current hue.
Next owner Barry Burnett averaged just 100 miles a year before taking it off the road. After he died it stayed in his family for a decade, still unused, until Groves fell under its spell: ‘I was at the Revival and really liked it. I checked it thoroughly and felt it was far better than described. I left a below-reserve absentee bid and was at the Oval watching The Ashes when I got a message to say I’d won it. A frenetic hour of arranging insurance and transport followed!’
It was cheap’ as it turns out, and Groves was immediately offered a chance to almost double his money by someone who had missed the sale, but he wasn’t letting go. Instead the car went direct from the auction to Lance McCormack’s Romance of Rust in London to be titivated. It was not its first time there, McCormack having restored chassis HK2AB104 for Miller, early in his solo career after leaving Mulliner Park Ward. Fittingly, as Octane visits, McCormack is putting the finishing touches to the Facel almost exactly as his company turns 30, and he turns 60.
Having had the car returned to him after so many years, McCormack is proud of what he has done, but even more proud of what he hasn't had to do. He has been prepping the car with son Algy, who revels in working on his dad’s old projects. Lance says: ‘I remembered it, of course. I recall that it had been a press car and, as I stripped it 20-plus years ago, I found an average workshop repair to the right-hand front wing where one of the press had crashed it. The tubular chassis was in good condition, but it’s a heavy chassis-built car with lots of steel and lots of lead and the body was really suffering from damp in storage.
‘When we take this type of car apart we get to shake hands with the people that have worked there before and if they’re grubby hands it shows, but if it is a real craftsman it sings, and the Facel is a very well-made car indeed.’
First time around they had modified it in some ways, adding body-colour Bridge of Weir piping to Connolly Autolux seats and dashtop, overstuffing the seats for the diminutive owner and, of course, changing the colour. ‘In red it looked silly, like it was wearing a Ferrari racing jacket; it just didn’t suit it/ explains McCormack. ‘It’s a true aristocrat so the Rolls-Royce Dark Peacock Blue really works on it, like a Mason & Sons suit.’
Even more controversially, they covered the famous wood-effect hand-painted dash with a real walnut veneer. And have no regrets: ‘I think Jean Daninos must have had someone who used to usually work in the bars and cafes of Paris come in on a Saturday night and do them with a feather. From a distance and with enough absinthe in your veins, you might think it was wood, but the originals look like a dirty protest compared with the walnut veneer. Purists will crucify me for that, but it was very crude before.’
This time around he has had to rectify rather less than he expected, which must be gratifying: ‘I thought it would need a respray and all sorts, but clearly it had been cherished. There were no holes and no rot, but there was a bit of lead flux on that front right wing.’ McCormack and son also sourced missing trim, fixed some rogue wiring, fitted an EZ power steering system and sorted some other bits and pieces, such as custom speaker grilles, plus had front and rear inertia reel belts fitted. Almost inevitably that job was done by Quickfit SBS and, equally predictably, they blend in perfectly.
The biggest job was creating a fan shroud from scratch. ‘We had another manual right-hand-drive Facel II in — pretty extraordinary because it’s said there were three, though it might be five. It was another HWM-supplied car, and Algy noticed a fan shroud on it so we called Steve and obviously he gave us the nod to make him one. Took me 2½ days using 2mm aluminium in three pieces, butt-welded with a tig, hammered out. I’m so proud of it that I have left the underside bare and signed it!’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, McCormack likes to think that he and the Facel have a connection: 'I feel like all these other guys are really just custodians of «my” car, but I love the fact that the new owner is so fastidious, and that he said yes to the shroud was the icing on the cake. I’m gushing because it is the only car I worked on that I really would have liked to have kept. Well, apart from the John & Yoko white Phantom...’
That Rolls-Royce Peacock Blue certainly does sing in the glaring sunlight. Drinking in the luscious high-waisted, low-roof shape of the Facel II, it is all curves ahead of the A-pillar, and all straight lines behind it. Classy touches abound, such as the indicators frenched into the rear wing-tops, the four pea-shooter exhaust stubs, the chunky branded spinners on the chrome Borranis — the Facel's Gucci loafers. Even with those angular windowframes between the bulbous front and rear screens, thanks to the absence of headrests there is a beautifully unbroken view through the car. And who doesn’t adore clap-hands wipers?
Yet there is some smoke-and-mirrors at play here. The side profile reveals wings and sills that run perhaps just a little too deep, almost slabby, like a flattened Lagonda Rapide. Those huge arches that trail off like a French helmet: do we love them or do they actually leave the poor wheels adrift in such a large space? Is that heavyweight US-influenced door furniture imposing and imperious, or just a bit gauche? Is that boot catch from a Consul Mk2?
What stands out most in the interior is a slender wand of a gearlever steeply raked towards the driver, and a very low dash allowing excellent visibility. The steering column spears through the centre of the dashboard Bugatti-style, midway between the two big Facel-branded Jaeger dials, running to 160mph and 5500rpm. It all just oozes opulent comfort, not least the five sturdy levers that control the heating and ventilation under the gorgeous bank of dials on the centre console. It is a curious mix because, with the piping and deep- dished three-spoke wheel, there is more than a hint of Americana about this narrow yet airy and panoramic cabin, a slight Detroit showcar, Firebirdy feel. And it s only a four-seater as long as no-one is in the front.
The truth will be in the driving, of course.
Fire up the Chrysler Typhoon and, like the appearance of the imposing Marchal Megalux lights, it announces itself as very grand, though it is quite intimate to drive. Also deceptive is that delicate gearlever because the Pont-a-Mousson four-speeder demands slow, deliberate actions and considered placing, with a huge distance between the forward planes and very little between reverse and 1-2. It’s an excellent ’box though, and the clutch is expectedly heavy: not Ferrari 330 heavy, but you know you’ve been in a fight.
On the move, we dial down the EZ to find the steering slightly vague, but the turning circle is excellent. Working up to speed, ease your foot down on the organ throttle pedal and the big Chrysler starts to churn at 2500rpm and, once past 3500rpm, the Facel really starts to gather its skirts. It stops well, too, even though the pedal-feel likes to pretend it wont.
The ride, with the Armstrong Selectarides’ adjustment (naturally) inoperative, is pretty neutral. That said, Jacques Brasseur’s tubular chassis copes surprisingly well with throwing this much weight (almost two tonnes) this way and that, but that is not really this car s metier. The Facel is not a ten-to-two car, but a 20-past-eight one.
Indeed, it is small touches that reveal the quality of this car, such as the powerful action of the powered windows, propelled by Piper motors, which at that time were the best that money could buy. Or the dash-mounted rear-view mirror, not centred but offset closer to the driver and better as a result, its sepia sheen giving it an almost cinematic backdrop, as though you are Jimmy Stewart watching his pursuers in a Hitchcock movie.
‘ONCE ON THE MOVE, THE DRIVER IS ALMOST MAGICALLY TRANSPORTED TO ANOTHER PLANE'
Sadly, at the time of our visit, McCormack had one more job to do, and that was to refit the twin four-barrel Carter AFB carbs that were replaced by a single Holley with vacuum secondaries at the turn of the millennium for maximum smoothness. Even as it is, performance is fearsome — but with the original dual carb set-up that Groves tracked down to a Bristol garage where it used to be serviced, it should be ferocious. Hence why it was ‘detuned’ in the first place.
To be honest, from the spirited GT performance we might never have known, because, as with all grand marques, once on the move the driver is almost magically transported to another plane, some intangible feelgood world where driving is swift and effortless and everything is right with the world. It’s an appealing elixir, and therefore there’s no surprise that the list of celebrity moths drawn to the Facel flame is impressive — Ringo, Tony Curtis, Picasso and Ava Gardner had one, as did racers Stirling Moss and Maurice Trintignant; Albert Camus died in his publisher’s.
The Facel is far from the flawless beast mythology insists it is, but its mystique is mammoth and its sheer charisma greater still. Like Bristol’s Tony Crook, Daninos had that secret extra unidentifiable ingredient with which to garnish his car. It maybe invisible, but you sure as hell can feel it. Apologies, but I wasted a lot of my time and a little of yours at the beginning of this article — put simply, there is nothing quite like a Facel.
THANKS TO romanceojrust.com and Duke of London. This Facel Vega will be at the Concours of Elegance at Hampton Court on 4-6 September. See concoursofelegance.co.uk for more.
Above and left: Blue piping is a later addition to the trim; equally, the Peacock Blue paint is a non-original Rolls-Royce colour, but looks far more dignified on the Facel than the red it left the factory with.
1962 Facel Vega II
Engine 6765cc 90° V8, OHV, two four-barrel Carter carburettors
Max Power 390bhp @ 5400rpm
Max Torque 411lb ft @ 2900rpm
Transmission Pont-a-Mousson four-speed all-synchromesh manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Power- assisted worm and roller
Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear: live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, Armstrong Selectaride lever-arm dampers Brakes Servo-assisted
Top speed 152mph
Clockwise, from top
Facel II sits alongside an equally rare example at Romance of Rust; second time around for Lance McCormack, this time with son Algy; fan shroud in engine compartment was copied by hand to match the other Facel M’s.
WHEN WE TAKE THIS TYPE OF CAR APART WE GET TO SHAKE HANDS WITH THE PEOPLE THAT HAVE WORKED THERE BEFORE’
Above and left
Blue piping is a later addition to the trim; equally, the Peacock Blue paint is a non-original Rolls-Royce colour, but looks far more dignified on the Facel than the red it left the factory with.