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France's Finest - Facel Vega FV2B Convertible

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Back in the 1950s, Facel Vega produced cars more than capable of competing for the title of world’s best car. Meet the most desirable of all, the FV2B convertible, one of two built...

The word ‘elegant’ is overused these days: it’s a superlative tacked on to machinery as mundane as toasters and vacuum cleaners in modern advertising, and I for one think that’s a crime against the English language. Elegance should be part of a design philosophy in which less is more – every styling feature there to serve a purpose; each decoration used for a reason, and not merely to serve as a trinket to massage the ego of insecure owners. In short, elegant is simply beautiful. The Facel Vega FV2B is elegant; your stainless steel premium toaster isn’t.

I feel pretty special wafting through the English countryside in this Facel, one of 11 convertibles based on the FV coupé between 1955 and ’57 (seven FV1s, one FV2, two FV2Bs and an FV3). Rural Nottinghamshire on a damp morning might not be this car’s natural stamping ground, but the super-tourer copes tremendously well, and its compactness comes as a surprise to someone like me who’s never spent time behind the wheel of France’s top car.

As national flagships go, the Facel Vega is an unlikely one. Unlike Bentley or Bugatti, the company’s history doesn’t stretch back to the dawn of the motoring age, and it certainly hadn’t proved itself in competition. In fact, it was formed on the eve of World War Two to machine tools for an aircraft industry gearing itself up for the approaching hostilities.

Originally known as FACEL (Forges et Ateliers de Construction d’Eure-et-Loir) and based in Paris, the company made gas generators for the automotive industry during the war, before returning to the aircraft industry in 1946. The link with the car industry strengthened in the following years as the company’s expertise with stainless steel was put to good use, with Simca, Panhard, Bentley and Ford retaining Facel for the manufacture of car bodies.

In the post-war boom years Facel became a French success story, and such was its expansion that by 1950 the company employed 2000 workers across a number of factories. Panhard and Simca were buying in more than 100 bodies per day.

But the body supply gravy train wasn’t going to last forever, as the bigger players would begin to bring this aspect of their businesses in-house. Sure enough, in 1953 Panhard dropped out. Seeing the writing on the wall, Facel’s founder Jean Daninos had already begun to investigate the possibility of producing his own cars. The talent was clearly there within the company – Facel chief engineer Jacques Brasseur helped define the Ford Comète coupé – and, given a blank canvas by Daninos, he’d be able to express himself even more fully for Facel’s first production car.

In 1954 Facel showed its first car at the Paris Salon, the Vega saloon. The crowds loved the combination of Daninos’ styling concept and V8 De Soto Firedome power, and from a standing start the company shifted 46 Vegas during the first two years of production. It wasn’t without problems, but the tubular-frame chassis car won respect within the industry as well as with France’s well-heeled and patriotic buyers, swayed by the advertising slogan ‘For the few who own the finest’.

Confidently the company moved forward, with Brasseur’s work being rewarded with the rebranding of the company to Facel Vega. It moved further up the price scale into the grand touring market with the arrival of the Chrysler-powered FV coupé, a dramatic-looking car that shared its signature roofline with Daninos’ earlier work, the Comète.

By the time the FVS had been upgraded with an updated roofline, additional power from its Chrysler Hemi V8 and more luxurious equipment to become the HK500, it was a massively expensive rival for Europe’s finest cars.

During their four-year production run from 1954, 352 FV coupés were built, putting the company firmly on the map. Facel Vega ensured it used the most powerful Chrysler engines available, and that culminated with a 325bhp Hemi.

All manner of celebrities fell under the Facel Vega spell: Danny Kaye, Tony Curtis, François Truffaut, Brian Rix, Ringo Starr, Lionel Bart, Joan Fontaine and Ava Gardner. For car enthusiasts, the fact that Grand Prix drivers Maurice Trintignant and Stirling Moss, and team owner Rob Walker, used HK500s to waft between European races made these cars a compelling choice for those who could afford one.

For the ultimate in exclusivity, Facel Vega’s convertible was the one to go for. Outrageously priced, and not liked by Daninos, who considered it inferior to the coupés, it slipped quietly onto the market after the tin-topped cars.

It’s a shame more weren’t made, because what we’re left with is a magnificent-looking creation. Shorn of its roof, the FVS seems even purer, almost as if it was designed to be that way from the outset. ‘Elegant’ really is the best way of describing how it looks, especially when the details are brought into focus on a closer examination. Why have ugly exhaust pipes projecting below the bumper when they can exit through it? The wraparound windscreen, shared with the HK500, adds still more character.

Inside it’s just as glorious. The abundant leather, high-quality veneered wood-over-steel dashboard and peerless build quality go a long way towards justifying its price when new (£4726 in 1954, when a top-of-the-line Jaguar XK120 cost £1609). Equipment levels are top-drawer, too – electric windows and power hood would have been just the thing for impressing the paparazzi on the Riviera. But what really impresses is the snugness of it all. Once inside, you are cocooned in a grandiose car that feels surprisingly compact.

Although there’s a great deal of pleasure to be had enjoying the Facel Vega’s static qualities, driving this beautifully restored example – originally delivered to film producer Norman Krasna (White Christmas and The Devil and Miss Jones) – is a real eye-opener. Since its comprehensive overhaul, where it was colour-changed from yellow and retrimmed in cream leather (it was originally black), the FV2B went on to win the La Vie en Bleu concours d’Elegance.

On the road, there are downsides:  the brakes –  drums all-round – deliver plenty of stopping power, but a lack of bite doesn’t inspire confidence. You know they’re going to work, but why so little feedback? Then there’s the steering. It takes time to acclimatise to the ‘Detroit weave’ (ironic, as the system’s British) but, once you learn that it’s best not to try and compensate for the vagueness but just roll with it, you begin to hustle the FV2B along at a fair old pace.  
The rest of the story is overwhelmingly brilliant. Our car is fitted with a two-speed Powerflite transmission and 285bhp Hemi, which produces a distinctly Detroit soundtrack. It’s docile, though, and tapping the push-button gearbox selector into Drive slurs the FV2B forward satisfactorily. Throttle response is lazy and the pedal travel long, and that blurs you into thinking it’s not a quick car. Push the pedal further, though, and it accelerates with real conviction.

That aside, the FV2B is effortless to drive and the ride quality is astonishingly compliant and well-damped. On a typically cambered and pot-holed British B-road it feels silky smooth and aloof – as if joggling around is a pastime for the proletariat.

As the miles pass, my initial wobbles with the brakes and steering disappear, and a feeling of immense well-being takes over. Despite cold weather I’ve got the electric hood down, the heater’s pumping molten air into the cabin, the driver’s seat is soothing and the V8 is burbling away contentedly.

Given the FV2B’s overall panache, it seems unbelievable that so few were made and that its maker would go under less than a decade after this car was built. For the former, blame a lack of structural rigidity and Daninos’ dislike for the concept; and the latter, economies of scale. The company couldn’t balance its books once the third-party work dried-up, and the cheaper Facellia and Facel III failed to find enough buyers to keep the factory in business.

Elegance alone simply wasn’t enough to save Facel Vega.

Thanks to:
Thanks to Peter Meagher; Sherwood Restorations, +44 (0)1636 812655,
www.sherwoodrestorations.co.uk; and the ever-helpful Facel Vega Car Club,
www.facelvegacarclub.co.uk.

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