Facel Vega Excellence
The old-line French makers of grandes routieres (luxury touring cars)--Delahaye, Bugatti, Delage, and Talbot-Lago--were fading fast, done in by punitive horsepower taxes on large displacement engines, and by the fact that the performance gap between cars which the petit bourgeoise could afford and the grandes routieres they made for the elite was a lot narrower in the postwar era--too narrow to justify the
price difference in the minds of many buyers. Nonetheless, M. Daninos believed there was still enough demand for grandes routieres or something like them to justify making them in low volumes for an exclusive clientele. FACEL would fabricate the bodies and frames and the front suspension in house, and use off-the-rack components for the drivetrain and rear axle.
The new "Facel Vega" coupe made its debut at the 1954 Salon de l'Automobile in Paris. M. Daninos did the styling himself. There's a bit of similarity to Virgil Exner's 1953 D'Elegance show car, the Mercedes 300SL (also introduced in 1954), and the later Continental Mark II (introduced in late 1955 as a 1956 model), all four cars having a long hood and short deck, with clean lines and restrained ornamentation. The 108-inch wheelbase chassis was dead conventional for the time--control arms and coil springs up front, live axle on leaf springs at the rear--but quite well executed. Even with its typically French (soft) suspension tuning, the Facel Vega had excellent handling.
What truly set the Facel Vega apart from its European contemporaries, though, was the drivetrain. Unable to procure an engine in France or Italy which he considered worthy of his creation, M. Daninos cut a deal with Chrysler to purchase its advanced hemispherical-head OHV V-8s, the first generation of the famed "Hemis." Under the hood of a '54 Facel Vega was a 276 cubic inch DeSoto Fire Dome rated at 170 horsepower, mated to your choice of a Chrysler PowerFlite automatic or a French-built Pont-à-Mousson four-speed manual. This gave the Facel Vega excellent acceleration. The Hemis became more and more powerful each year as a consequence of Detroit's "horsepower wars," and Facel Vegas accrued additional straight-line badassery at the same pace as their Mopar cousins.
The Facel Vega was always intended to be a car for an exclusive set: "The Few Who Own The Finest," as their advertising tagline put it. The interior was opulent, the build quality was superlative, and the sticker price was blood-curdling. FACEL didn't sell very many, but that wasn't a problem. The company made its living making metal stampings for other manufacturers; the Vega project was a small part of its business at best. Some sources claim that FACEL lost money on every Facel Vega coupe and sedan it sold, but if it did, the loss wasn't that much, and could arguably be charged off to advertising and promotion.
In October of 1956, FACEL unveiled an enlarged sedan version of the Facel Vega called the Excellence--and if ever a car could live up to such a boastful model name, this was the one. It was an immense car by European standards, 206 inches long, on a 125 inch wheelbase, with a 4,200 pound curb weight, right up there with the super-sized Cadillacs, Lincolns, and Imperials les Américains were selling across the pond. Its styling was Yankee large-barge with a French twist: the Facel Vega grille and the coupe's beltline and bright metal rocker panels were the gourmet apéritifs for a three course meal of Detroit styling cues--wraparound windshield, hardtop roofline, and tail fins--garnished with suicide doors.
The first time I saw a photo of an Excellence, and before I knew anything about it, I thought it might be a French imitation of the 1961 Lincoln Continental. That's clearly not the case: the first production Excellence hit the Paris streets well before Elwood Engel began sculpting the clay model that eventually became the '61 Continental. (There's also no evidence, as far as I know, that the Lincoln's stylists were influenced by the Facel Vega, or even knew what one was.) The two designs both have that same jet age mid-century swank thing going on, though. If the Continental is all narrow ties and cocktails at the supper club, the Excellence is its French cousin in the black turtleneck sitting at the sidewalk cafe with a bottle of cognac.
The first batch of eleven Excellences built in mid-1958, known as "Model EX," had a 392 Hemi under the hood which was rated at 345 HP with a single four-barrel carburetor, or 375 HP in "dual quad" configuration with two four-barrels. Beginning in October of '58, the engine was a 361 "Wedge" V-8 producing 360 HP; these cars were officially "Model EX1." Transmission options for both variants were the Pont-à-Mousson manual or a three-speed TorqueFlite automatic. With either engine, and either transmission, an Excellence could top out somewhere above 140 MPH.
Though intended for high-speed cruising instead of the drag strip, an Excellence with a four speed could also sprint from 0-60 in as little as 8.5 seconds, which is darned good for the times and would still be respectable today--especially in a two-ton luxury dreadnought! Some sources claim that handling suffered in comparison to the Facel Vega coupe because the hardtop body lacked rigidity, but others dispute that. At that size and curb weight, the Excellence is obviously not your first choice for competition autocross, but the handling was good enough for the type of driving it was intended for. Disc brakes became an option in late 1959, and with that kind of top speed on tap they were effectively a necessity.
Owning an Excellence was a lot like owning a Duesenberg before the war. An Excellence owner could go howling down les grands axes like un chat échaudé, coddled in fine handcrafted luxury, outrunning everything else on the road and looking good doing it. As was also the case with the Duesey, not many people had the bank balance it took to afford an Excellence. If you bought one from the authorized U.S. distributor (Hornburg Chrysler-Plymouth, Hollywood, CA), the base price was a terror-inducing $12,800 (equivalent to about $95,500 today). It was actually cheaper to shop for your Facel in Paris, where the sticker price was a couple grand less after you exchanged your dollars for francs. Even after paying the cost of shipping the car home and the round-trip steamship or airline ticket, you still came out ahead! Besides, it gave you as good an excuse as any for spending April in Paris.
137 Model EX1s were sold between October of 1958 and June of 1961. The car recieved a light restyling in mid-'61 that eliminated the now passé wraparound windshield and deemphasized the tail fins, and the drivetrain switched to a 383 V-8 cranking out a mind-bending 390 horsepower. Only eight of this version, the "Model EX2," were sold before FACEL went bust.
While automobile manufacturing was not a big part of FACEL's business, M. Daninos' enthusiasam for the car business was, ironically, the cause of his company's undoing. In 1960, Facel Vega took a shot at becoming a mass-market manufacturer with its new sporty compact, the Facellia. FACEL had gotten some criticisim for using those loutish moteurs de V-8 de Yankee in what was supposed to be une automobile Française. To silence the critics, and to avoid protectionist tarrifs on imported auto parts, M. Daninos specified a French engine for the Facellia, a 1.6L DOHC four cylinder built by Pont-à-Mousson.
Unfortunately, the all-French Facellia turned out to be more of a Chevy Vega than a Facel Vega. The Pont-à-Mousson engine only used two bearings on each camshaft, and over time the shaft would start flexing and throw off the valve timing. Down below, in the engine block, undersized cooling passages led to overheating which manifested itself in holed pistons. Facellias started suffering catastrophic engine failures all over Europe, and despite a quick change to more reliable Volvo and Austin (!) prime movers, the aura of failure tarnished the brand equity of everything FACEL did, including the big Chrysler-powered Excellence.
In an attempt at damage control, FACEL ofered to replace the engine in any Facellia on demand, regarless of whether the car was still under warranty. This was intended as a gesture of goodwill, but came off as panic and desperation. Between the warranty repair costs and the drop-off in car sales from the bad word of mouth the Facellia was generating, Facel lost 11 million francs between August of '61 and July of '62. Quelle horreur! The automotive sideline was taking down the entire firm! The company stopped production in October of 1963 and was gobbled up by Sud-Aviation in a 1964 bankruptcy sale.
There were probably no more than 3,000 Facel Vegas of all kinds built and sold, 1,000 of which were the ill-fated "mass produced" Facellia. Despite their rarity, Facel Vegas have a relatively prominent place in French popular culture. They appear often in comic books and TV shows, and one even showed up in Pixar's Ratatouille.
The Excellence has had a number of feature film roles. Not long after the car's introduction, it rolled into the screwball romantic comedy Count Your Blessings with Maurice Chevalier behind the wheel.
An Excellence also was one of the stars of Dancing Machine, a disco murder mystery (!) released in 1990. If the reviews are to be believed, the film is a bizarre mashup of Flashdance and Agatha Christie, and the Excellence is the best actor in the cast. Here it is doing a pas de deux in a parking garage with the lithe and limber Tonya Kinzinger:
There's one last Facel fun fact I have to relate to you. In 1958, Studebaker-Packard approached FACEL about importing Excellences for sale as Packards. The distinctive Facel Vega front end would have been replaced with something more Packardish, and there would probably have been a few other minor styling tweaks--you can see how the 1955-56 Packard "cathedral" tail lights would have tucked in nicely under the Facel's tail fins. With its supercar performance, meticulous build quality, and high-end luxury, the Excellence would have made a more plausible badge-engineered Packard than the desperate 1957-58 "Packardbakers."
Hélas, it was not to be! Studebaker was at that time the North American distributor of Mercedes Benz. When they heard that Studebaker was talking to FACEL about importing and selling Excellences, the boys from Stuttgart let their friends in South Bend know that they did not take kindly to Studebaker importing a competing European luxury car and selling it alongside the Benzes. The Mercedes relationship was too important to Studebaker to risk for the sake of a French flirtation, and the plan was dropped. [Insert Gallic shrug here.] C'est la vie!
Still, it is interesting to imagine the concentration of undiluted swank that would have graced Studebaker showrooms in late 1962 if a Packardized Facel Vega Excellence had been on sale side by side with the Avanti. It would have been, as they say in France, excellent.
--Propriétaire du chien appelé "Cookie"
Crédits photographiques: The blue-gray Excellence at the top of this post came from den Seiten der Facel-Vega-Interessengemeinschaft in Deutschland. The EX1-vs-EX2 comparison photo is from Wikipedia. All other Excellence images are from the website of the marque's French owners' club, Amicale Facel Vega. The vintage advertising images of the coupe and the Facellia came from the Facel Vega Home Page.
*"Dude, it's got a Hemi!"