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French Project: 1961 Facel Vega Facellia

Who first moved a car’s engine from under a hatch beneath its seat into its front end? That would be Panhard Levassor – also responsible for creating the saloon car. Who patented the supercharger? Louis Renault, of course. And who organized the first Grand Prix? Ah yes, the Automobile Club of France – also the first club of its type in the world. From the earliest days of the automobile, the French were technologically sophisticated. But a few decades down the road, France’s grip on innovation fell away. Competition, taxes, and rules around sourcing materials and labor burdened companies to the point of demise. Facel Vega – maker of powerful, handbuilt luxury cars – was struggling with just these issues when in 1960 it introduced the Facellia. The “little Facel” was to be the low-priced, high-production savior that Facel Vega needed to survive. But thanks to French tariffs on imported engines, making the Facellia for a reasonable price was impossible given that hundreds of foreign engines had to be purchased. The engine would need to be made in France. The result was disastrous, as we’ll see – and this history explains why this 1961 Facel Vega Facellia convertible here on Craigslist harbors a Chevy engine up front. The seller wants $45,000 or best offer for this project car, and it’s located in Santa Rosa, California. ToddK sent us this intriguing tip – thanks!

Facel Vega installed Chrysler V8s in its low-production luxury cars, nearly all of which were sold overseas thanks to confiscatory horsepower taxes in France. The Facellia needed a smaller, cheaper powerplant. Jean Daninos, chief of Facel Vega, contracted with PontàMousson, which already made Facel’s gearboxes, to build a four-cylinder twin-cam engine. Alas, the rush to production provoked cascading errors. The cams ran on only two bearings, the steel and aluminum alloys were not to grade for a high-performance engine, and quality control was abysmal. The result was an intensity of warranty claims that swamped Facel Vega and led to its demise in 1964. The usual substitute underhood is a Volvo B20 or an Austin Healey powerplant, both of which are perfectly satisfactory. This owner decided on a Chevy 350 cu. in. V8 with a Chevy five-speed. The engine is not fully installed; a $5000 deduction is offered if the buyer doesn’t want the engine. 

This Facellia was found at Alice Brooks Chevrolet on Van Ness Avenue with a small block Chevy installed. Another enthusiast purchased it and set about installing an original PontàMousson four-cylinder; when he passed away mid-project, the current owner acquired the car. That was in 1993. The listing photos show that the car is substantially disassembled, with parts galore in tubs and on tarps.

Three body styles were available: the convertible was most common with 320 made, a coupe (46 examples), and a four-seater. This convertible retains its very rare aluminum hardtop. (Too bad the photos look like they were shot through Vaseline.) The paint and chrome are said to be excellent. The prospective buyer faces two challenges: value, and once that’s surmounted, reassembly. If you can live without a hardtop, the market wants to pay about $39k for a quality, running car with a Volvo motor. I think that “best offer” verbiage will be key here; what do you think?

Comments

  1. HoA Howard A Member

    Fascinating, Captain, stuff we probably should have learned in French class,,,,instead of staring out the window watching the trucks go by. What the author doesn’t mention, and I mean no disrespect to the French, they were always picked on. Not sure why. I believe they were heroes in WW1, but not so much in WW2. My dad, yep, not “the old man” this time, spent time in the trenches of France in WW2, or so it was told, and he used to tell us kids “war stories”,,,scared the HELL out of us, and always mentioned what a pasting the French took. His views on foreign cars are well known here, but a French car was the only import he ever owned. Several Renaults and a Peugeot. I think he always felt bad for the French.
    The “other” Vega here, doomed from the start, even though, for many, the Chevy Vega was the 1st time we heard that name. Seriously, we, as Americans were that sheltered. Only after our Vega, did these surface in magazines. To us, it was just another bastardized foreign car that didn’t have a motor that could satisfy Americans, so they used ours. I thought the Facel Vega was British, so I learned something today. I think the French made/make such awesome products we never heard about,,maybe a bit out of the norm for us, but quality engineering not based entirely on greed. These had THE most beautiful interiors, on par with the finest British cars, check it out, absolutely stunning,,,
    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/57/Facel_Vega_HK_500%2C_Interior_%2835649439662%29.jpg

    Like 5
    • Michelle Rand Staff

      I desperately wanted to pick on the French, but someone would no doubt get mad!

      Like 2
    • jwaltb

      Blah, blah, blah…

      Like 2
      • WayneV

        Was Alice Brooks the sister of Ellis Brooks Chevrolet, corner Bush and Van Ness

        Like 0
      • WayneV

        Was Alice Brooks the sister of Ellis Brooks Chevrolet, corner Bush and Van Ness

        Like 0
  2. gippy

    Well, you must have been in the bushes yourself to have encountered these folks. Your view of history is a bit uneducated, as WW II was not fought to save the French. While living in Paris I had the honor to have met the last WW I French soldier living at the Invalides. I also met and became friends with a WW II veteran who had been a tank driver and lost an arm in 1940. He was captured by the Germans and released because they felt a one armed Frenchman was no longer a threat. He then escaped Vichy France and went to India where he served out the war working for the British in Burma. When the war ended he returned to his wife and 2 sons in France. One son was killed in Vietnam and the other was killed in Algeria. Perhaps you should review your views of others rather than just listening to Al Bundy.

    Like 19
    • jwaltb

      Right on.

      Like 7
  3. Jimbosidecar

    I’ve owned 2 French cars in my lifetime. Both Citroens. A DS21 and an Ami 6. Definitely weird cars but very comfortable to sit in or drive. I’m way too young to know much about the French in WW I or EWW II so I used Google to get my info. Just Google French Military Victories. At least you’ll get a good chuckle.

    Like 0
  4. Bob “The ICEMAN”

    Don’t ever undercut the French. Hitler strolled into France, just like he tromped on the Austrians, Checks, Poles, Dutch, Russians (who successfully let the Germans freeze to death), and Belgians. Those countries greatest failures were their governments were woefully deficient in military strength to fight off the Nazis. They spent little money on men, armor, aircraft and proper planning along with inadequate training. The average citizen took no joy when Hitler’s forces occupied their countries. We make jokes about the French hiding in the bushes, understand the courage and sacrifices made by the French Underground were unparalleled. The real problem for those occupied countries were their governments weak stance on a strong, well financed military coupled with their failure to adopt the very tragic lessons learned from WW-1. We now have a real time example with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Think back 20 months ago, the adjacent countries had minimized their defense budgets for years, never considered invasion from Russia a possibility, even after Russia invaded and occupied Crimea. Guess what? history repeated itself. Putin is a mirror image of Hitler and Stalin combined. Don’t laugh at the French, their government let them down, they would have put up a good fight if the average soldier had the weapons of war and proper training in hand.

    Like 5
    • Gerard Frederick

      What a bunch of crap. So the big bad Hitler stomped all over Austria? Listen up, BBC propaganda mouth, just be quiet. This is a car site, by a bunch of car guys for a buch if gearheads, not the History chanel on steroids.

      Like 0
      • jwaltb

        The History Chanel? No. 5?

        Like 1
  5. Ted

    As mentioned, I do not understand how sellers can expect buyers to appreciate their cars, when the photos are terrible! Thank goodness for the internet to be able to look up better images!

    Like 1
  6. Rallye Member

    There were some Facel ?s that came with Volvo engines.
    I thought Facel Vega but …
    Maybe Michelle knows in English.

    Like 1
    • Michelle Rand Staff

      You are correct. The French government relented enough to allow Facel to replace the fateful four-cylinder with Volvo 1800s a few times, which was a successful strategy but came too late. Ironically, Pont–à–Mousson had a larger engine that was time-tested and ran reliably; that mill could have been chosen for the Facellia but it was not. If you want a deep discussion of the whole sorry tale, here it is!

      https://facelvegacc.com/2017/04/18/facellia-engines/

      Like 1
      • Rallye Member

        I’d like a deep discussion with you.

        Like 0

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