Makers of the glamorous Vega, Facel showed us how a small company can overextend itself.
Facel is one of the only French automakers which is today about as likely to be known by Americans as it is by Europeans, placing it in such fine company as Bugatti and basically nothing else. The company did not last all that long, but it was a glamorous if brief history, and unfortunately demonstrates why not every coachbuilder can become an independent automaker. Facel was also a pioneer in American-European partnerships in car building.
Facel was started in 1939 as a metal stamping company, but was soon branching out into custom bodies for luxury cars from other European brands like Bentley. The turning point would come in 1951, when it was commissioned by Ford to build the bodies for the 1951-1954 Comete. This was a small 2+2 sports car, badged as either a Ford or a Simca, made for the French market. France in the early Fifties was not an easy place to try and sell cars. Still recovering from the horrors of WWII, many in France were still getting back on their feet, financially speaking.
But the relatively pricy Comete was a big hit anyway, and having built all of the bodies for these cars, Facel was flush with cash, and decided to branch out to building their own cars. Though the Comete was built by Ford, it was still a very European car, and for the first vehicle to actually wear the Facel badge, the company wanted to try something more in the American style, bigger, flashier and more powerful. Thus, in 1954, Facel introduced the Vega, a Franco-American GT car which was briefly quite popular with movie stars, royalty and presidents.
The design of the body contained both French and American styling elements and under the hood was a Chrysler V8. This was at first a De Soto Firedome 4.5-liter Hemi engine, but Facel was soon upgrading this to bigger Chrysler engines until finally a 6.28-liter unit found its way under the hood. Several different versions of the Vega were produced, with a few different body styles, and Facel would continue building the Vega until it went under. The Vega was expensive and exclusive, but Facel was selling enough of them to take a chance at branching out.
So in 1960, Facel brought out the Facellia, a small sports car which borrowed heavily from the Mercedes-Benz 190SL in the styling department. Unfortunately, Facel decided to go a different route for the engine this time, choosing a small French company named after its home town of Pont-a-Mousson. This was a four-cylinder engine with a radical new design that featured just two bearings to support the crankshaft. That characteristic French need to do everything differently from everyone else would be the undoing of Facel.
The engine was a disaster, flex in the crankshaft caused a huge number of engines to fail, and the combined cost of warranty repairs and tarnished reputation damaged the company irreparably. Facel would eventually come up with a fix for the car, dropping in the engine from a Volvo P1800 and renaming the car the Facel 6. But this was ultimately too late to save the company, and Facel would shut down production in 1964, just ten years after building their first car. By this time, Carroll Shelby was already stuffing American V8s into small European cars, and Sunbeam had just started doing the same as well.
But these were made exclusively for speed, and those who wanted an American V8 in a “personal luxury car” had the Ford Thunderbird, a much cheaper and quicker alternative to the Vega. It was a company founded on a good idea, but one which was quickly overextended and doing damage to its own reputation. Nonetheless, the Vega was an excellent if slightly overpriced car.