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Facel III - Volvo B18B

The Facel III was the best car Jean Daninos made
but looks don't guarantee success, says 
Richard Hesseltine

 (This article was published in the June 1999 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine)
With thanks to the Publisher

 Fêted by the beautiful people, lauded everywhere from Paris Match to Road & Track, the Franco-American Facel Vega grande routieres were the cars to be seen in during the late 50’s. Company founder Jean Daninos was an automotive couturier who could afford to name drop, his clientele including royalty (Prince Saud of Arabia), movie stars (Tony Curtis, Ava Gardner) and racing drivers (Stirling Moss, Maurice Trintingnant).

For all the acclaim, the opulent Facels were more nouveau riche than old money. There remained the ever present stigma of cross­breeding. It was bad enough that Daninos was having to go to Detroit to source engines for his super-coupés, but there was a sizeable British parts content too. Daninos’ nationalistic pride demanded an all-French product. To redress matters, he felt a small, four-cylinder Facel Vega sports car would fit the bill. But, as the saving goes, pride comes before a fall.

Work began at the Colombes factory in May 1958 on a small sports car dubbed the Facellia, Daninos touring all the major French manu­facturers for a suitable power plant for his new baby. None was deemed appropriate so he approached Jean Cavalier of transmission firm Pont-à-Mousson, with the brief to build a bespoke unit. Based on an original design by former Talbot man Carlo Marchetti, he concocted an oversquare, 1647cc twin-earn ‘four’ with a light-alloy crossflow hemi head. In prototype form it ran to 140bhp, production units knocking out a more conservative 114bhp at 6400 rpm. Pont-à-Mousson also supplied the all-synchro four-speed manual gearbox.

The car’s Jacques Brasseur-styled body was welded directly to the rugged, tubular frame, Front suspension was independent via wish-bones, coils and anti-roll bar, the solid rear hypoid axle carried by half-elliptic springs.

The Facellia convertible was unveiled on September 28, 1959 in the walled gardens of I Jacquemart-Notre Museum, Paris, where Daninos laid on a grand reception for 200 well-heeled guests. A month later the Facellia was one of the Paris Salon’s star turns and, by the following March, the car was optimistically deemed ready for production. Daninos declared that the first 300 units would be deliv­ered before the end of July a two-plus-two coupe following within a matter of months.  

A production run of 1500 cars a year was envisaged, but total numbers barely scraped past the 1000 mark in four years. The Facellia was still woefully underdeveloped, the vagaries of engine development and manufacture appar­ently beyond Daninos’ comprehension.

Not only was the Facellia unit unacceptably noisy, it was a committed oil-burner, John Bolsters MotorSport recollections of driving an early example were pointed: ‘I did 114mph at Montlhery and then broke a piston.’ He wasn’t alone. After just four months’ production, the factory’s technicians spent more time engaged with warranty repairs than producing cars. Improvements were made for the ‘61 model year, but not even a class win in the Monte Carlo Rally, courtesy of Maurice Gatsonides, was enough to salvage the car’s reputation.

In August 1961, bankruptcy was warded off by the joint efforts of Hispano-Suiza, Pont-a-­Mousson and Mobil-France, Jean Daninos stayed on board as vice-president, but the kitty was soon empty and the firm lurched into receivership on July 10, 1962. The receiver appointed Jacques Persin as managing direc­tor, Daninos staving on as commercial director. A lightly face-lifted Facellia, the F2 62, was unveiled at that October’s Paris Salon but orders received could be counted on one hand.

The dream of an all-French Facel Vega had become a nightmare. In desperation, and much to the horror of Daninos, the troublesome twin-cam was junked in favour of a 1780cc Volvo B18B four-pot that pumped out 108bhp at 5800rpm. Christened the Facel III the new car was introduced on April 18, 1963, Sales were initially buoyant, prompting SFERMA, a subsidiary of Sud-Aviaton, to make an approach to the receiver for gerarnce libre - a 12-month contract to run the firm and attempt to make it profitable.  

Incoming managing director Paul Badre envisaged a new, more powerful Facellia variant. Assisted by Jean Bertin and Charles Deutsch, he devised an aluminium twin-cam, dubbed the 4M4, that developed 150bhp and propelled a test hack to 125mph. But, considering Facel’s track record, Badré was loathe to commit the firm to the costs of building engines. So the search was on for a new proprietary lump, Facel went to England and adopted the BMC three-litre straight-six, supposedly destroked to 2852cc to avoid France’s crippling tax penalties, the nose area lengthened by 4.5 in to accommo­date the new unit.

But the Facel 6 never stood a chance. SFERMA’s agreement expired on September 30, 1964, by which time just 26 cars had been assembled including a solitary example using BMW power. With apparent governmental pressure to concentrate on the serious business of building aeroplanes, Badré was persuaded not to renew the contract. Though Facel Vega had a stand at the following month’s Paris Salon, the once-proud marque was dead as a dodo. Daninos’ dream of an all-French Facel had been suicidal but it could be argued that the firm was doomed to follow Delahaye, Talbot and all the other great French marques regard­less, as the big V8s were by now encountering stiff competition from the Maserati Quattro-­porte and Mercedes 600.

Forty years after its inception, the Facellia has yet to shed its reputation for self-destruction. The insertion of Volvo’s sturdy four-pot solved the reliability problems but the Facel III still lingers in the shadow of its illustrious V8 forebears, despite being arguably the best all-round car the firm ever produced.  

The first thing that strikes you about the Facel III is its dinky proportions. Lt looks for all the world like an HK500 that’s shrunk in the wash. In four-window coupe configuration, the styling isn’t entirely cohesive although there is a sober elegance to the car’s crisp lines. The bluff front end bears the Vega corporate grille, the slab-sided flanks blending neatly into the closely cropped tail fins Much of the bright-work, including bumpers and wheel trims, is stainless steel while the Mercedes SL-esque headlights ape those used on its Chrysler VS-powered Facel II big brother.

Inside, the low roof encroaches on head­room, Ahead of the driver is what appears to be a large slab of burr walnut, decorated with myriad gauges and switches, but it’s actually painted metal. On the move, the car’s short­comings become immediately, painfully obvious. The seating position is compromised by the attractive, non-adjustable steering wheel that rests on the driver’s knees, a situation not helped by the skewed tightly spaced pedals. operation of the car’s heavy throttle pedal requires reserves of physical dexterity while the worm-and-roller steering is slack and uncommunicative.

But it isn’t all bad. Though no lightweight at 2403 lbs, the Facel’s a keen performer. Contem­porary road tests talk of 0-60mph sprints in 12 secs which seems a little pessimistic, but press on further and the car’s brick-like aero­dynamics quickly take effect.

The Volvo motor emits a purposeful, irregular burble which sounds vaguely sporting, the four speed box (also of Swedish origin) being surprisingly slick, although double declutching is advisable on second. The recessed overdrive switch, positioned on the transmission tunnel behind the gear lever, isn’t ideally situated but is a welcome addition for those long continental jaunts.

The car’s ride is firm but supple, the oil/gas shockers ironing out the ruts. Period road tests talk of rear end hop when pushed but, if anything, it’s an under-steerer. The Volvo engine, in cast iron, is significantly heavier than the Facellias twin-cam unit, which accounts for the nose—heavy stance. Body roll is pronounced and this isn’t a car you want to hustle through corners, Back road bravado is not an option.

It’s better to sit back, try to get as comfort­able as possible, and enjoy regal progress. Alternatively, let somebody else do the driving and revel in being a passenger.  

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