Rearview Mirror There is something compelling about a spectacular failure, whether it be a multi million-dollar film, a political coup or an ingenious but impractical invention.
Facel Vega's beauty and power were its forte, but pride was its downfall
There is something compelling about a spectacular failure, whether it be a multi million-dollar film, a political coup or an ingenious but impractical invention. The automobile industry has attracted more than its fair share of visionaries and fantasists who have squandered vast fortunes turning elaborate dreams into reality. Ignoring financial rules and rhetoric in a single-minded pursuit of an implausible dream, many have been left bankrupt and embittered.
For every established, enduring car maker there are dozens of marques that have launched one year and disappeared the next, soon forgotten by all but the staunchest of enthusiasts. Nostalgia imbues these curios of motoring history with a unique charm. The flaws that condemned them to fail become the fascination that makes their appeal endure.
The story of the Facel Vega is, like that of many failed marques, a compelling tale of pride, passion and personality. In the early 1960s, the French grand tourer was one of the most desirable cars in the world. Its elegance, comfort, style and speed saw it as the car of choice for many of the most famous celebrities of the day; stars as diverse as Pablo Picasso, James Dean and Fred Astaire. It was the ultimate hybrid and one of the most decadent, desirable cars ever made: as luxurious as a Rolls-Royce, as striking as a Lamborghini and as thunderously fast as a Ferrari. And yet while these other marques are renowned and revered across the globe, the Facel Vega is a mere footnote in history. The reason for such contrasting fates lies in the avarice of ambition.
Jean Daninos was an exceptionally talented metal worker and designer who began his career working with Citroën, where he was instrumental in the design of the iconic Traction Avant. Establishing his own firm, he began making eye-catching, coach-built bodies for exclusive US marques such as Panhard and Delahaye. After spending the Second World War in England making parts for the RAF, he returned to France once the Nazis had retreated and began building his business. As a French patriot, he was dismayed by the collapse of the proud marques of Bugatti and Delage that had set the benchmark for style and sophistication in the pre-war world. He set out to produce his own all-French car to restore the pride of his nation and its prestige within the motoring world.
In 1954, he launched his first model, targeting the lucrative US market. Costing $7,500, it was by far the most expensive car on the market and, in relative terms, one of the most expensive ever sold. The exclusivity that the almost absurd price guaranteed was used as a marketing tool with the company adopting the sales slogan "For the Few who Own the Finest". With a combination of exquisite engineering, sweeping lines and surging power courtesy of a Chrysler V8, it established a small but successful niche.
From the late 1950s, the styling was refined and the powerplants upgraded until the model reached its ultimate evolution with the Facel II in 1962. With awe-inspiring beauty, sumptuous comfort and market-leading performance, this was a car that had few rivals. With a 6.3L Chrysler V8 producing 400 hp, the grand tourer could reach 160kph in a scarcely believable 17 seconds. But rather than the cramped, relatively spartan cabin of a sports car, the Facel's interior harked back to the opulence of the 1930s, with sumptuous leather, a hand-burred walnut dashboard and every luxury available, including electric windows.
Such exacting engineering standards meant that, despite its exorbitant list price, every car was sold at a loss. But Daninos was able to continue his "hobby" as his metal business was flourishing. With less than 1,200 made in nine years, it was but a sideline, albeit one that had become an all-consuming passion. With celebrities queuing up to buy them and investing the model with a Hollywood allure, the future seemed secure, if not profitable. Then ambition played its hand.
Daninos had always wanted to his models to be "all French", to showcase French engineering and design as the envy of the world. He viewed the Chrysler powerplant as a weakness, even though it was one of the car's great strengths. This ambition and the wish to move into mass manufacture saw him launch the Facellia, a compact two-seater sports car to rival the Mercedes SL, MG and Alfa Romeo. Its styling cues were taken from the Facel II, producing a stylish and sleek design.
This move took the company from an exclusive niche to the savagely competitive mass market. For the first time, economy was as important as extravagance. The Facellia was powered by a French-designed and-built 1.6L engine. However, it lacked the sophistication and reliability of its rivals and had to be hastily replaced by a 1.8L Volvo powerplant. While a decent, undeniably attractive car, the Facellia was almost twice as expensive as its rivals and proved uncompetitive.
To save the ailing automobile arm of the company, Daninos was forced to take loans from French oil producer Mobil, which soon lost patience with the frivolous enterprise and withdrew funding, forcing Daninos to cease car operations. Despite ambitions for mass production only 1,100 Facillia's were built.
The Facel Vega is an example on of the hardest lessons of car manufacture: producing cars is one thing, selling them in sufficient quantities is quite another.