Fast motoring in a Facel Vega
Effortless silent travel at over 120 m.p.h. characterises this French luxury-cum-high performance car
FRANCE, once famous for cars such as the Hispano-Suiza, Bugatti, Delage, Delahaye and Darracq, has in recent times neglected the luxury and high-performance field. In 1958 this is confined to the B.M.W.-powered Lago-Talbot and the Facel Vega. The latter is the hobby of M. J. C. Daninos, who builds it as a specialised production of the great Facel engineering enterprise. Its excellence and performance offset the current French swing towards dull economy cars.
Feeling that we ought to become acquainted with the Facel Vega F.V.S., we borrowed one from H.W. Motors of Walton-on-Thames, who, through the initiative of George Abecassis, are the English distributors.
George Abecassis, of Alta and B.W.M. memory, is a man who knows motor cars. Over lunch he told us that the handsome Facet Vega is selling steadily in England in spite of its price of over £4,701 in the form in which we were to test it. It appeals to those who must have "something different," to drivers who seek the performance and comfort of the Bentley Continental at a rather more modest price, and to people who like the great power which a big American power unit pours out without losing tune but who respect the more compact dimensions and less garish appearance of the French car.
The version we took away and drove up to Oulten Park and home again for the "Mercedes-Benz week-end" was by no means the latest model. It was the 2/3-seater coupé with Chrysler Fire Power vee-8 engine and manual gear change. Later Facet Vegas have the Chrysler 300 C engine and can be supplied with automatic transmission at a lower price than the 4-speed Pont-á-Mousson gearbox commands. Moreover, if the back seat in the F.V.S. is cramped for one tall passenger, the Facel Vega "Excellence," on a chassis possessing a wheelbase 1 ft. 8 1/4 in. longer, is a full four seater, with greater luggage space, an even more handsome appearance and, as a small detail alteration, a swept-back radio aerial to obviate whip.
However, for us that is for the future, so over to the coupé Facet Vega Sport.
It is only necessary to remark that this is a vehicle capable of over 135 m.p.h., able to hold its own on acceleration with the faster American cars, and endowed with adequate roadholding, for the reader to appreciate what was in store for us as we threaded out of London that Thursday evening bound for Chilton Park and another treat—seeing the pre-war Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix cars in action again, after an interval of 20 years.
The interior of the Facel Vega is laid out on unique lines reminiscent of a small private aeroplane. The enormously deep facia in artificial wood veneer carries the lesser dials and controls on its centre-section, the wide transmission tunnel being used, in effect, as an extension of this control panel.
The car tested had left-hand-drive. The two-spoke, thin-rimmed steering wheel is fitted to a near-horizontal column and, being deeply dished, provides an almost perfect driving position. Two long stalks protrude right and left beneath it, these, with finger-tip ends, sounding the horns. Nothing could be more convenient but it was disappointing that loud/soft born selection isn't provided on this expensively-equipped car. A shorter stalk, to the left of the wheel, operates the direction-flashers. On the extreme left of the facia is a Jaeger/Facel Vega tachometer reading to 5,500 r.p.m., very nicely calibrated every 500 r.p.m., as "1,000, 1,500, 2.000," etc. This is matched on the right of the steering column by a Jaeger/Facel Vega speedometer (with total and trip mileage recorders) reading to 260 k.p.h., m.p.h. markings, to 160 m.p.h., occupying an inner ring. Four small warning lamps occupy this l.h. panel, for low fuel level, left or right flashers in use, and ignition. Up under the facia-sill a tiny knob controls rheostat panel lighting.
On the centre of the panel are a clock and small ammeter, fuelgauge, water thermometer and oil-pressure dials, marked in French and English. The fuel gauge is straked below " 1," being calibrated 1, 2, 3. 4. The oil gauge records in kg./sq. cm. and all these matching dials are of Jaeger manufacture. Radio and heater/fresh-air controls occupy the panel below these dials.
The centre tunnel contains an enormous lidded ash-tray. Behind this the short, stiff gear lever protrudes at an angle, biased towards the driver's right hand. Also on the near-side of the transmission tunnel are metal knobs controlling head and side lamps, twin spot-lamps, and screen wipers, a knob to the rear of these operating the screen washers.
The screen wipers are rheostatically controlled and thus can be run at any required speed. On the opposite flank of the tunnel neat pivoted twin thumb-pushes control the roof and panel lighting, respectively. Opening the doors also operates the interior lamps.
The off-side of the facia contains a big concealed vanity mirror for madame, a cigarette lighter and the radio speaker. The door windows can be automatically if rather noisily raised and lowered by two snitches on the drivers door, one for his window, the other over-riding the switch in the passenger's door for that window.
Up to down, or vice versa, occupies two seconds. There are also 1/2-windows in the doors, secured by catches at the top, while the rear windows swivel open an inch for further ventilation. It is in these luxurious surroundings that the driver takes command of the powerful Facet Vega. He is further intrigued by inset dour pockets, which are extremely capacious, closed by rigid lids which then form an extension of the arm-rests. His separate, deep, comfortable, leather-upholstered seat, like a club arm-chair but offering rather less support, adjusts easily to the desired driving position, when the treadle-accelerator and other pedals with floor dip-switch, are found to be well placed. The pleasant hand-brake lies horizontally by the tunnel, completely unobtrusive.
The windscreen of the Facel Vega is of the fully-wrap-round type, its right-angle edges sometimes taking toll of a careless passenger's knee. This provides splendid visibility, in conjunction with a comparatively short bonnet and, for reversing, a faintly wrap-round back window. Hinged metal door-polls, twin transparent anti-dazzle vizors and an ineffective anti-dazzle rear-view mirror complete the generous amenities. The slew over the bonnet, with its raised air-intake is reminiscent of being in a Ford Thunderbird. Inbuilt spotlamps below the headlamps add to the American appearance.
It is a reflection of the careful thought which M. Daninos has put into the car that the facia dials have concave glasses to obviate-dazzle and that although the screen-sill is unpadded (though upholstered), the base of the facia is crash-protected.
Before taking-off in this fabulous car, let us continue to look round it. A refinement that comes to light when madame wants music or the owner the latest Stock Exchange prices is automatic erection of the radio aerial as the radio is switched on. This aerial hides in the-near-side tail fin, matched by a dummy on the off-side. These tail fins are inobtrusive and terminate in divided rear lamp.
Outwardly an aggressive forwardly-inclined radiator grille distinguishes, and we think enhances, the appearance of the Facial Vega. Stainless-steel is used for the very rigid bumpers and rubbing strips, and wire wheels are used. The doors trail, the front-seat squab angle is manually adjustable, and these squabs hinge to give access to the rear compartment, which has deep foot-wells. Moreover, the inner edge of each front-seat squab has a folding arm-rest. The door handles, one of which worked loose but was easily tightened, are placed well forward.
The heavy boot lid self-props and releases but a key is required before it will open. Luggage space is somewhat restricted by the presence in the boot of a 22-gallon petrol tank with imposing racing-pattern quick-action filler. The filler neck is of sensible diameter for rapid refuelling. The spare wheel lives under the floor of the hoot. Opening the bonnet reveals the Chrysler Fire Power engine with dual drum-type air cleaners and the Fulmer battery set Against the bulkhead. The dip-stick, in a tube on the rear near-side of the engine, is easily accessible. Tools live in a fitted tray above the fuel tank.
The specification of the Facel Vega embraces a box-section cruciform frame from which the all-steel body is insulated by rubber. Front suspension is by coil springs and wishbones, with anti-roll bar, rear suspension using 4-elliptic springs for the Salisbury back-axle. The brakes are French Lockheed-Bendix with vacuum-servo assistance. The car weighs not far short of 2 tons. The early models had a 4.9-litre Chrysler Typhoon engine of 260 h.p. but later a 5.8-litre Chrysler 300 C power unit of 325 h.p. was installed. Now an even more powerful engine running up to 5,200 r.p.m. is available, offering a maximum speed of 150 m.p.h., which is quite something! The test car had a Chrysler Fire Power engine with quadruple carburetters, to which H.W. Motors had fitted balance pipes.
Driving the Facel Vega is a really memorable experience. It reaches 100 m.p.h. as easily as the average fast car gets up to 70 m.p.h. and given a reasonable bit of straight road a gait of two miles-a-minute becomes commonplace. At this speed, all is silence—engine roars gears, whine, wind-noise, all are absent. This means that this big French car provides truly restful travel. The running is effortless, the American engine seemingly "unburstable." Yet, while accelerating, there is a trace of exhaust noise and that hard sound from the engine beloved by the enthusiast—and found only in the best fast cars!
The gearbox, developed from the racing Gordini box, has synchromesh on all four forward ratios, and is a delight to use, the rigid lever absolutely to hand, changes quick and effortless, and each gear absolutely silent. We believe that racing starts, used repeatedly, can destroy bottom gear but for normal fast driving this is a splendid gearbox.
The suspension is capable of smoothing out bad roads with only subdued wallowing and on fast corners there is scarcely a trace of roll. In consequence, the Facel Vega is a safe car on winding roads, although in the rain wheelspin is all too easy to provoke, and on tight corners the front wheels gave the impression of running wide, possibly accentuated by sponge in the steering. The test car was shod with Michelin "X" tyres—Abecassis speaks very highly indeed of the long-wearing qualities of this Michelin type, both on the heavy, fast Facel Vega and the H.W.M. he drove in a Goodwood 9-hour sports-car race. In this, he is not alone.
Two factors alone marred the pleasure we derived from a long week-end in the Facel Vega. The brakes are quite inadequate. In traffic, up to 40 m.p.h. or so, they are powerful enough but even at 60 or 70 m.p.h. they seem inadequate while after one stop from 90 or 100 m.p.h. they disappear completely. We became accustomed to using the lower gears for retarding the car, second, which is as high as many top gears, at 5:63 to 1, pulling the heavy car up quite well. But this isn't the answer in an emergency. The fact is that Alfin drums are used but these are not of the most effective pattern. The real trouble, however, is that the styling of the Facel Vega lends itself to 15-in. rather than 16-in. wheels, and that means using 11-in. brake drums, the lining area thus being restricted to 95 1/2 sq. in. per ton. Improved brake drums are scheduled but disc brakes are surely the real answer! It is expected that these, probably of British manufacture, will soon become available, when the Facet Vega will become one of the fastest cars from A to B offered in any catalogue.
The other displeasing feature is low geared steering, which we gather persists even if power-steering (not on the test car) is specified. The wheel requires 4 1/4 turns. lock-to-lock, in conjunction with a poor turning circle. Although the action is light and smooth once under way, an inherent sponginess not affecting accuracy, if a skid should develop this low-gearing offers the driver slight chance of correcting it quickly enough. The vicious castor-return action would probably merely accentuate the accident, although useful on slow corners. Apart from this the steering is free from kick-back and vibration. It calls for some effort when parking (although nothing like that demanded by a Rolls-Royce Phantom III) but it is difficult to understand why M. Daninos does not use a higher ratio.
To overcome slip, alterations had been made to the clutch by H.W. Motors which render the clutch action extremely heavy. In consequence, s.s. acceleration calls for skill, so that the car should not be judged by our rough check of 0-100 m.p.h. pick up, which occupied a mere 24 seconds on the level, improved to 19.8 sec. aided by some downhill road. We were unable to check other acceleration figures, fuel consumption. etc., because the speedometer was grossly inaccurate, reading some 15 m.p.h. slow at 100 m.p.h. However, well over 100 m.p.h. is available. in third gear and we reached about 130 m.p.h. in the 2.93 to 1 top gear.
Incidentally, on reaching 100 m.p.h. we clapped on the brakes and came to rest (except that the car rolled on, the brakes having faded away) in 8.3 sec. in other words, the Facet Vega in its less fierce form will take the occupants up to 100 and down again to rest in a matter of just over half-a-minute! Only when opening the throttles viciously in bottom gear does serious back-axle tramp intrude. The throttle linkage caused power to come in too suddenly for smooth pick-up, although ideal for crawling in town.
Our criticism of brakes and steering should not obscure the fact that this is a very fast form of travel from place to place. For instance, Chester to Wolverhampton in Sunday morning traffic, taking it easily for the first 50 miles and stopping for some performance checks, was achieved comfortably within three hours.
At night the headlamps are efficient and with sidelamps on the foot dipper brings in dipped headlamps, a useful feature; incidentally, the lamps warning light is for dipped and not full beam.
We covered a considerable mileage in George Abecassis' Facel Vega without a trace of trouble, consuming no oil or water and petrol at the rate of, it appeared, better than 12 m.p.g. We used Esso Extra, Golden not being necessary. Oil pressure sat steady at 4 kg./sq. cm. and the water temperature was constant at 65/70 deg. C. Starting is effected by turning the ignition key, the choke being automatic. Turning the key to the left cuts the engine while leaving the radio operative; separate keys are provided for ignition, doors and boot.
In conclusion, the outstanding quality of the individualistic Facel Vega is its completely silent, effortless 120 m.p.h. cruising. We would dearly like to sample a disc-braked version on a long Continental journey.
The car is made in limited numbers by Facel Vega, 19, Avenue George V, Paris, and demonstrated there by the Englishman Lance Macklin. Over here you buy them from George Abecassis of H.W. Motors Ltd., Walton-on-Thames, Surrey. The F.V.S. coupé costs £3,150 with heater and radio, which p.t. and import duty lifts to £4,726 7s. With automatic transmission there is a saving of £255 on the total price in this country, i.e., £4,471 7s.—W. B.
The Facel Vega F.V.S.
Engine: Eight cylinders in vee formation, 100 by 92.2 mm. (5,801 c.c.). Push-rod-operated o.h. valves. 9.25-to-1 compression-ratio. 325 b.h.p. at 4,000 r.p.m.
Gear ratios: First, 10.11 to 1; second, 5.63 to 1; third, 4.01 to 1; top, 2.93 to 1.
Tyres: 6.70 by 15 Michelin "X" on bolt-on wheels.
Weight: Not weighed. Maker's figure: 1 ton 16 cwt. (kerb weight).
Steering ratio: 4 1/4 turns, lock-to-lock.
Fuel capacity: 22 gallons. Range about 260 miles.
Wheelbase: 8 ft. 8 3/4 in.
Track: Front. 4 ft. 8 in.; rear, 4 ft. 9 in.
Dimensions: 15 ft. 1 in. by 5 ft. 10 1/4 in. by 4 ft. 5 1/2 in. (high).
Price: £3,150 (£4,726 7s. inclusive of purchase tax).
Makers: Facel Vega, 19, Avenue George V, Paris, 8, France.
Concessionaires: H.W. Motors Ltd., Walton-on-Thames, Surrey.