Another abridged "Classic Driver" story, this one a friend's Facel Vega


1961 Facel Vega HK500

Working in my day job, the House of Travel social club decided that a car rally would be a great idea for an outing. It certainly was, but then the pressure came on. What car was Tony going to bring? When my friend and colleague Mel. announced that she was borrowing a newly restored early Mustang I realised that nothing I owned was going to keep my reputation intact. Then I discovered that I had a car-load of passengers who had decided that my car (whatever that may be ) was the one to be in. Time to make some phone calls. I now needed a four seater closed car, preferably something no-one else would have come across.
My first thought was a MKII Jaguar. Fast, comfortable, and I know of a couple I might be able to convince the owners to let me have for a day. Great cars, but I really wanted something a little more unusual. Something that people who know cars would say ”Wow – I didn’t know there was one of those in the country”, The sort of car where those who don’t know cars stop, stare and ask “What on earth is that?” And I knew of just such a car. One phone call later and it was done. New Zealand’s only Facel Vega HK500 was mine for a weekend.

By the mid 1950’s, the once proud marques of France were reduced to manufacture of commercial vehicles (Hotchkiss and Delahaye), or were in the midst of vanishing totally (Lago and Bugatti). Enter Jean Daninos and his FACEL concern. Forges et Ateliers de Construction d’Eure et de Loire. Originally supplying aircraft parts, post war they also made office furniture and literally, the kitchen sink! Into the 1950’s they began making bodies on a small scale for the likes of Panhard, Simca, Ford-France and Delahaye. From here it was a small step to go into production of an entire car. And Daninos was wanting to reintroduce the Grand Routier to the roads of France. The 1954 Paris Motor Show was to see the release of the first Facel-Vega. The French have never had a problem with coming up with distinctive design. The problem in 1954 was coming up with a modern, powerful engine to give the type of performance Daninos had in mind.
Across the Atlantic, the converse was the case, so the Facel Vega FV1 was equipped with one of the best power plants Detroit had to offer, Chrysler’s 4.5 litre hemi head De Soto Firedome. Coupled to either the three speed Torqueflite automatic transmission, or at extra cost, a 4 speed manual from Pont -à -Mousson, supposedly made specifically for Facel, but in reality a truck gearbox. As an aside, if you look at the man-hole covers in the streets of Paris, they also are a Pont-à-Mousson product.
In 1958 the most successful Facel Vega, the HK500, was released. The engine was now a 5.8 litre Chrysler producing 325hp. The tubular chassis had independent wishbone suspension at the front, but with antiquated ½ elliptic springs at the rear. Brakes were drums, and were not up to the task of halting such a heavy and powerful car. The interior was what one would expect from a car which was more expensive than a Maserati or Aston Martin. Seats and door trims were in high quality leather. Instruments and controls were set out in aircraft-style. The dash looks like it is burr-walnut, but was actually an example of the best wood-grained paint on metal you will ever see.
On 27 January 1967, Joseph Edward George Harvey of Taihape registered his newly imported 1961 Facel Vega HK500 coupe. One can only image how this sleepy lower North Island rural outpost would have reacted to the sight and sound of the big, sleek 6.2 litre V8 engined French coupe. Ex-UK, and with 24000 miles on the clock at this stage, the Custom bill gives it a value of £865.00 pounds, Duty of £475.15.0 and Sales Tax of £554.9.5 took the total bill to £1030.4.50.
The car we are talking about has disc brakes, the 6.2 litre 360hp engine, the manual gearbox, and with a 2.93/1 rear axle ratio, the brochure quotes a top speed of 150 mph, and a 0 to 100mph time of 17.5 seconds.
The car had not been long in New Zealand when Bill Chamberlain opened his copy of “The Press” in Christchurch and spotted a small classified ad. “For Sale. 1961 Facel Vega HK500…” A man who knew his cars, Mr Chamberlain immediately jumped into his E-type Jaguar (the feature car in the last issue of “Classic Driver” and headed flat-out to Nelson, where the car was located. Arriving at the address , there was the Facel Vega parked in the driveway. There was no-one home, but Mr Chamberlain was not to be deterred. Pulling up behind the Facel, he parked the Jaguar, got into the unlocked French coupe and sat there until such time as the owner arrived home to complete the sale. The Jaguar was left in Nelson and the Facel Vega returned to Christchurch.
Still in Chamberlain family ownership, and showing less than 40000 miles on the speedo, the Facel is in absolutely original, unrestored condition. For a car of this quality to have lasted this long without having been restored to better than new condition is a rare thing. Even the tool kit is still complete, sitting in it’s own drop down compartment in the top of the boot. A car can only be original once, and once restored, part of its history is lost. Sadly the Facel did suffer damage in the Christchurch earthquakes, when an errant motorcycle came into violent and frequent contact with the right hand front mudguard, so a new coat of paint will be happening soon. Matching 60 year old, faded French Blue is not an easy job.
Inside the leather is soft, and shows the sort of wear which indicates it has not seen much sun, and has always been cared for. The wood-grained dash is in amazing condition, and the red hoodlining is a work of art in itself. But the most interesting interior feature, according to my crew for the Social Club rally, is the fact that a 1961 car has electric windows.
Opening the wide, heavy doors, you step down into the typically soft, comfortable drivers seat. The large, very 1960’s black plastic steering wheel is vertical and not power assisted. While a little heavy at low speed, on the road it is very light, and makes for easy driving. The clutch however, is not light. Needing to be strong enough to reliably transmit oodles of Detroit horsepower and torque, it is the only part of the driving experience which could be taken as a negative. I cannot do anything more than agree with Bill Boddy’s comments on the gearbox. If it was originally designed for a truck, then 1960’s French trucks must be pretty good to drive!
You sit very low, and the view along the bonnet is dominated by the large hump in the middle of the bonnet to clear the air cleaners on top of the twin four barrel carburettors underneath. At speed, even with 50 year old rubbers on the windows, wind noise is negligible, and the sound from the dual exhaust, exiting via two outlets in the rear bumper is just enough to let you know this is a powerful car, without getting obtrusive. Driving along city streets, the rumble from the V8 immediately grabs attention, and it certainly turns heads. Parking it, or getting fuel, you always have to first explain what the car is to the inevitable group of bystanders before being able to go about your business.