The ultra-glamorous French coupe became the car of choice for owners including Picasso, Tony Curtis, Ava Gardner, and Stirling Moss
Almost all automobile marques carry the name of their creator. But that's not the case of FACEL (Forges et Ateliers de Construction d'Eure-et-Loir), the company founded in 1939 by Jean Daninos, which became Facel-Métalion in 1945 with two distinct activities-aviation and automobiles. The HK500 was presented in May 1958 and replaced the FV3 of 1956. The car was equipped with a Chrysler type TY7 Typhoon engine of almost 6.3 liters, which gave the respectable power output of 360 hp at 5,200 rpm. This allowed the new four-seater a speed of 155 mph. Replaced in 1961 by the Facel II, the HK500 was one of the great French luxury cars, of which the car presented here is the perfect example. The coachwork of this car was completely restored by Lecoq. The interior, done in superb red leather, was sent to England for reconstruction. The mechanicals were entrusted to the care of the Parisian specialist Tisserand. The car is equipped with Spax shock absorbers and 205x15 Avon radial tires. The alignment of the body panels is perfect, as are all the numerous stainless trim pieces. It is a magnificent automobile, a very grand French classic, in a superb state of presentation.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1961 Facel Vega HK500 coupe
Number Produced:458
Original List Price:$9,795
Tune Up Cost:$400
Distributor Caps:$35
Chassis Number Location:Center of firewall in engine compartment
Engine Number Location:N/A
Club Info:Facel Club USA, P.O. Box 6142 San Pedro, CA 90734
Investment Grade:B

This 1961 Facel Vega HK500 sold for $78,799 at the Artcurial Paris sale on June 18, 2007.

The lure of the transatlantic gran turismo is a strong one. The combination of lazy, strong American grunt married to a sophisticated European chassis and coachwork seems to be a natural. Effortless, reliable power in a relatively inexpensive package has been used by Jensen, Iso, Bristol, DeTomaso, Monteverdi, Qvale, and Intermeccanica, to name a few. One of the earliest, and for a time, quite successful, was Facel Vega.

Jean Daninos was the head of a metal working company that produced a range of items from jet engine parts to kitchen sinks. As a supplier of complete body shells to the French auto industry he observed the combination of poor marketing, lack of management skills, and punitive taxation that saw the decline and later demise of Delahaye, Delage, Hotchkiss, and Bugatti in the immediate post-war period.

French in the prestige market

Sensing a void, he sought to re-establish the French in the prestige car market. Daninos first rebodied a Bentley Mk VI chassis for his own use, and exhibited it at the Paris Motor Show. Interest in the car was high and he received a number of orders. Apparently, the appeal of his sportier Bentley wasn’t lost on Rolls-Royce, which was at the same time planning what would become the R-type Continental coupe. They cut off the supply of chassis to Daninos so as not to encourage a competitor.

At the same time, a lost contract with Panhard-a result of their switching from primarily aluminum to steel bodies as part of their 1954 redesign-convinced Daninos to start manufacturing a range of cars of his own. The first Facel Vega to hit the market was the FV in 1954. It featured contemporary, somewhat transatlantic sharp-edged styling in a bold form, combined with a 276-ci Chrysler Hemi V8 and Powerflite transmission. Lance Macklin, noted English racing driver, had a hand in the chassis design. With 120 mph performance, it clearly seemed to be the world-beater Daninos wanted it to be. From 1955 through 1958, the Chrysler engines used steadily increased in size and power. Next came the FVS and the wonderful and hopefully named “Excellence,” a pillarless 4-door hard top with rear suicide doors. Legend has always held that the body engineering on the Excellence was suspect, with tales of doors either popping open on the move or being stuck closed when parked on an uneven surface.

However, given Daninos’s experience in the metal trades, it would have been surprising if these rumors had been true. This issue was addressed in an April 1962 Motor Trend comparison test when the Facel was put up against a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud and Mercedes 300; the testers found no evidence of body twist.

The HK500 debuted in 1959, with a 383-ci Chrysler V8 delivering 360 hp and a massive 460 ft-lbs of torque at 2,800 rpm. It boasted a 0-60 time of 8.4 seconds and a top speed of over 130 mph. The ultra-glamorous French coupe rapidly became the car of choice for the dolce vita (or should I say, “la vie doux”) crowd. Facel owners ran the gamut from Picasso to Tony Curtis, Ava Gardner to Stirling Moss. An unfortunate association with a well-known name was Albert Camus. The famous writer was a passenger in his publisher’s Facel when it left the road and drove into a tree and they were both killed. The handling of the Facel Vega HK500 was blamed, although the conditions of the road in January and the speed at which they were traveling may have had more to do with the outcome.

Nevertheless, it was the first of several blows to Facel’s reputation, from which it would not recover. Far more crippling was yet another French tax, this time on imported engines. Forced to develop his own power plant for a planned new smaller GT, the Facellia, Daninos turned to transmission (and manhole cover) maker Pont-a-Mousson for a solution. The DOHC 4-cylinder they created was a disaster, resulting in numerous warranty claims, which for all intents and purposes destroyed the company.

Before it went under, a replacement for the HK500, the Facel II, was launched in late 1961. A cleaner, more European-looking coupe, it continued using the Chrysler 383 and offered 150 mph performance. The tariff on the engine, however, made it much more expensive than the older model and sales were disappointing.

An attempt was made to save the Facellia by dropping the troublesome French four and replacing it with a Volvo engine. The Facel III, as it was now called, was too little, too late. Daninos attempted to sign a contract with Rover to supply an engine in exchange for building Land Rovers in France. The French government scuppered that deal as well and in 1964, only a decade after beginning with such promise, the last Facel left the factory.

I must confess in the name of disclosure that the Facel Vega HK500 has long been one of my favorite cars. The typically ’50s styling and neat details such as the trompe l’oeil “wood graining” on the metal dashboard and aircraft-like toggle switches make it quite unlike any other cars in its class. The handling is certainly as good as most of its European competition and much better than American cars of the period.

Build quality and detailing are excellent, and you certainly won’t have to worry about being one of many Facel Vegas at any show or vintage rally you attend. In fact, as a vintage rally/tour car, an HK500 would be hard to beat, since any mechanical issues that might arise could be easily addressed at the nearest NAPA store, and its easy power and comfortable seats would be welcome on a thousand-mile trip.

The most desirable last year

The Facel sold by Artcurial is the most desirable HK500 from the final year of production. In addition, it is in a great color combination, with the preferred wire wheels and 4-speed manual gearbox. The market has long valued the later Facel II higher than the HK; I think it’s more for the design than anything else, as the basic underpinnings are little changed from the last HK500, which gained the four-wheel disc brakes standard on all Facel IIs. I happen to find the earlier car more attractive, as it doesn’t have the “chopped” roof look of its successor.

This sale, at the top of the SCM Price Guide range, seems to be market correct. Facels trade in a fairly thin market, but when a really good one comes up, there always seem to be willing buyers available. Given the intrinsic appeal of these Franco-American hybrids, this may seem like a bargain not too long from now.

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