Facel: The Fall of a Star

The first Vega FV1 came off the lines in 1955 and, compared to the prototype, was slightly longer to increase space in the rear, and had a more powerful V8 engine giving it adequate performance.

Destiny can offer moments of joy but also of deep sadness, sometimes bringing people together by making them participate in certain events, directly or indirectly. The history of Facel includes perhaps both of these characteristics, starting from the mixture of initial enthusiasm and high expectations then arriving at the inevitable tragic pain, full of dismay and disillusionment. The protagonists that make up the jigsaw puzzle of this automotive affair and its aftermath are two: on one side Jean Daninos, self-made man and car lover who, after a brilliant career, came to create his own car company, and on the other side the writer, journalist and philosopher, Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus, who had the privilege of owning a Facel Vega, but also had the misfortune of being in the wrong one.

Starting from the beginning of the Facel marque’s history, we must first introduce the figure of the already-mentioned brilliant and enterprising Jean who, at a very young age, started working at Citroën, then moved on from the automotive to the aeronautical sector, firstly at Morane Saulnier and finally to Bronzavia. The latter, in reality, was when he stated a new company in 1939, Forges et Atelier de  Constructions Eure-et-Loir, known by the acronym FACEL, of which Daninos became the CEO after the end of the Second World War in 1945.

Thanks to the partnership with Metallon, a company operating in the steel sector, he took production into the automotive sector and, starting in 1948, built the bodies of luxury models for marques such as Bentley, Ford and Simca. This was the starting point for Daninos who, in 1954, created his own brand, named Vega, with a plan which was much more ambitious: to create high-performance luxury cars which would be capable of restoring a prominent place at the pinnacle of exclusivity to France.

With great enthusiasm, in the early 1950s he started to design a new car, and although he originally wanted to use only parts produced within France he ended up having to approach the Chrysler Corporation for the supply of its robust and powerful V8 engine. The name Vega was chosen by Daninos’s brother, Pierre, and referred to the name of a star in the bright constellation of Lira, surely a name full of good intentions!

The new Vega was presented as a prototype in July 1954 in the historic Facel factory in Colombes, France, and subsequently officially at the Paris Motor Show in October of the same year, where there was a lot of interest in it due its performance and for its sporty and aristocratic lines, which camouflaged its imposing size well. Just as impressive were the interiors with their expensive materials and comfort, and the car was very expensive at close to three million francs, making it a car for the select few and placing it in the price range of Ferraris and Bentleys. The first Vega FV1 came off the lines in 1955 and, compared to the prototype, was slightly longer to increase space in the rear, and had a more powerful V8 engine giving it adequate performance. A small number of cabriolet versions of this model were also built.

At the end of the same year the FV2 was introduced, differing from its predecessor with new wrap-around panoramic front and rear windows, American-style. The following year came the turn of the FV2B, with an identical body to the FV2 but fitted with a more powerful V8 engine, producing a good 255 bhp. The FV3 saw the light of day in 1956, still with a V8 engine but producing only 200 bhp, whilst the design was refined, particularly at the front where innovative vertically-stacked twin headlights were fitted along with larger air intake grilles. The following year the FV3B appeared, with the engine boosted to 235 bhp and to be sold alongside the FV4, also called the FVS, originally fitted with a 5.8-litre 340 bhp engine but later uprated to a 375 bhp 6.4-litre unit.

In 1958 it was the turn of the final evolution of the model, the HK500, with a new name and a V8 engine producing from 330 to 345 bhp. Driving this new model, the motoring journalist and racing driver Paul Frère recorded a top speed of over 230 km/h, sealing the new HK as the world’s fastest four-seater car! So far the Facel Vega adventure was all success and great satisfaction, but on the other hand, from the very beginning there were many doubts about the possibility of the long-term survival of the French company, and the first criticism on which many focussed was the very small number of cars produced. Expensive cars produce greater profits, of course, but it also requires numbers and Facel made too few cars to give any hope for a bright future.

To add to the scepticism mentioned above there was also another sad story to add, which did not help the car’s image at all, and in fact it became infamous as the car in which Albert Camus and his publisher Michel Gallimard were killed. On 4th January, 1960 Camus, Gallimard and the latter’s wife and daughter Janine and Anne were in the powerful coupé to drive to Paris. On the journey Gallimard lost control of the car, crashing violently into trees along the side of the road. The two women, who were sitting in the rear seats, were thrown out of the car and, although badly injured, they survived, whilst Camus and Gallimard both died following the injuries they had sustained. Subsequently Janine Gallimard reported having heard a noise coming from underneath the car, and after examination of the wreck by experts it became clear that the cause of the accident was a punctured rear tyre which had locked the wheel and caused the rear axle to collapse, making the car completely uncontrollable at high speed. The death of Camus remains controversial to this day, as on the one hand the accident raised doubts about Facel, which came to be seen as a dangerous car manufacturer, but on the other hand there are certain beliefs that the car might have been tampered with by the KGB, who saw Camus as a thorn in their side, to be eliminated. To make the tragedy even worse, in Camus’s pocket a train ticket to Paris was found, indicating that the writer had changed his mind at the last minute and accepted a lift in the car, which of course proved to be fatal.

The final days of the Facel Vega were equally dramatic as in addition to the damage caused to the company’s image by the terribly tragic accident they had also committed to launching another model, the smaller Facellia. It was intended as a more accessible entry-level model but was plagued with numerous problems with unreliable engines, which were produced in-house by Facel itself, which ended up aggravating the financial situation and quickly led to the bankruptcy and end of the marque and Jean’s dream.

As for Daninos and Camus, the splendid rare cars of the former remain as do the thoughts and work of the latter, to which can be added the regrets of an unused train ticket, which might perhaps have led to a different fate for both.

Text by Tommaso Lai

Translation by Norman Hawkes

Copyright © Cars Forgotten Stories. All rights reserved.


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