For those of you who may not have heard of him, the French film director Jean-Pierre Melville is among the all-time greats, in my humble opinion. Between the late 1960s and ’70s, he made some of the finest crime thrillers I have ever seen. They were all in the film noir genre – movies that were cynical and dark in theme, style and content, with stark lighting techniques, gritty dialogue, a frisson of sex and violence running through them and endings that were usually anything but happy.
Starring in many of Melville’s films was Alain Delon, hands down the most glacially cool actor ever to have frozen the screen. In a sharply cut suit, a Gauloises cigarette hanging nonchalantly out of the corner of his mouth, a grim smile on his chiselled face, Delon was sophisticated and brutish, as sharp as a scalpel and as blunt as a cosh, as fast as a gazelle and as languid as dripping honey – and the Facel Vega II that you see in these pages is the very embodiment of Delon, an incandescent star lurking under a street lamp in a Melville-directed film.
The ideal conditions for me to have shot this car would have been at night, in some louche district of Paris, against a monochromatic cityscape, with dense fog thrown in for good measure and Alain Delon himself at the wheel; the weather gods instead gave me a crisp, bright autumnal day, with the lively Eric Schahl, the car’s lucky owner, doing driving duty. I was wandering about on the street, trying to locate our meeting point, when I was stopped dead in my tracks by the sight of the Facel II burbling its way towards me, Eric waving through the window in greeting. As a wake-up moment, not even the two large espressos I had just downed in a nearby café could compare – the car was just gorgeous.
The Facel Vega had been expressly designed as an instrument which would make people stop and stare and render them breathless. The very decision to produce a sensational car like this, in post-war France, when economy and rational thinking were of paramount importance and high taxes were slapped on luxury automobiles, qualifies as a jaw-dropping act of chutzpah . In the good old days, France had been at the forefront of the luxury car business, with world-class marques like Bugatti, Hotchkiss and Talbot, to name a few, but by the 1950s, most of these brands were dead or dying.
Jean Daninos, who had founded the Facel company as a metal stamping business, decided that he wanted to change this scenario. He diversified into providing custom bodywork to companies like Delahaye, Panhard and Simca, and using the capital thus earned, launched his first car, the Facel Vega, a big, powerful and luxurious grand tourer, in 1954. Initially powered by a DeSoto Hemi engine, the car, in HK500 form, later had a barnstorming Chrysler Typhoon hemi, with 390 hp, coupled to a 4-speed Pont-a-mousson manual gearbox (a 3-speed push-button automatic, with about 355 hp, was also available).
That much explosive power made the HK500 the fastest 4-seat production car in the world, at one point, with claimed top speeds being anything from 248 to 257 kph. Whichever figure you choose to believe, the car was stupidly fast for its time, and soon became a much sought after (though niche) automobile. The likes of Pablo Picasso, Ringo Starr, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra and several Saudi Arabian kings owned them, and perhaps the best possible endorsement came from Sir Stirling Moss, who owned one and preferred to drive it from race to race rather than fly. The great writer Albert Camus was rather unfortunately killed in an HK500 driven by his friend, a blot that I’m sure M. Daninos wanted to wish away!
Facel continued to sell its hugely desirable, shatteringly fast and awesomely expensive cars (as much as thrice the price of a Jaguar E-Type) into the 1960s, when it introduced a ‘mass’ two-seat car called the Facellia; the model was an abject failure, and the financial crisis this caused put a cloud of gloom over the launch of the Facel Vega II, the car you see in these pages – faced with closure, this car was Facel’s way of raging against the dying of the light. It didn’t work, sadly, and the company shut down in 1964; today, these cars are some of the most valuable in the world.
The Facel II was undoubtedly the finest car the company produced. Already a beautiful machine, the styling evolved further in order to give it a more sporty, aggressive look. It sat lower on the ground, something that made it look wider than the HK500, when it fact it was narrower, and its wheelbase remained unchanged. The windscreen was taller and more curvy, and angled pillars were used in place of the older wrapped windscreen and A-pillars. The vertically stacked quad headlamps were now integrated, and as you moved along the car, you spotted the flatter roof, the thinner C-pillars and a more raked rear windscreen, all of which made the car look infinitely sexier and even more desirable.
Even among the rarified atmosphere of the world of Facel, Eric’s car is special. Built in 1963, it was intended for sale outside France but was eventually retained by the company as a test car (Facel essais). This status meant that it got a bored-out, 7.2-litre version of the already formidable 6.3-litre Typhoon TY8 engine that came fitted as standard, boosting performance to teeth-clenching levels. The exact power output of this car isn’t known, but it’s safe to assume that it’s over 400 hp, which is simply bonkers for a car from 1963; Eric says that he routinely hits 180 kph with ease, with much more to come, and that he backs off only because the brakes (discs all-round) aren’t as monumentally capable as the engine. Power-assisted steering came as standard with the automatic gearbox, but apparently it made the steering very vague; manual gearbox models like this car got non-assisted steering.
Getting into the Facel II’s cabin is an experience by itself. Some fairly nifty gymnastic manoeuvres are required to place yourself in the seats, given the low-slung stance – if you draw the short straw and have to sit at the back, being a distant relative of Nadia Comaneci will help. Once settled, though, you will find your rear end caressed by the comfortable leather seats, at which point you can admire what must be one of the coolest cabins ever committed to the production line.
The dashboard is made of the finest wood, and… wait a minute… that’s not wood, that’s metal! Yes, the carefully hand-painted dashboard was made to look like wood, which was probably as much of a cost-cutting measure as it was a quirk (the French, I tell you!). The switches are clearly aircraft-cabin inspired, and it’s a real thrill to flip them up and down and think of yourself at the controls of a WWII fighter aircraft. Mod cons included power windows, a radio and, in right-hand drive British spec, shock absorbers adjustable from the dash.
The meat in this delectable baguette is, of course, the driving experience. Grip the wooden steering wheel, slot the smooth gearbox into first, give it what-ho and the massive output of the engine makes the Facel II spin its wheels in delightful fashion. Forward progress is absolutely relentless, the car’s nose seeking out the horizon like a hound giving chase; the accompanying engine note is fantastic, the quad pipes bellowing out a soundtrack that is simultaneously raucous and refined. I can easily understand how Eric hits close to 200 kph – the car simply doesn’t let up in its single-minded focus, that of reaching its very limit and staying there. Back in its heyday, this car out-accelerated heavy hitters like the Ferrari 250 GT and the Aston Martin DB4, yet kept its occupants in relative luxury throughout.
The stiff chassis made it a pretty decent handler, and ride quality was good as well, no matter where you were sitting. In every sense, buying this ultra-exclusive car gave you the best of all worlds – all-American, tyre-smoking power, French design elegance and very propah, British levels of luxury. Eric owns other fine cars, like a 1933 Lincoln K coupé and a rare Lynx-made shooting brake version of the Jaguar XJS, but the Facel II (still with its original Parisian number plate) is unsurprisingly his favourite; he drives close to 5,000 km every year in the 10 years that he’s owned it. I would too, if I was lucky enough to have a car like this in my garage – and I’m sure Alain Delon would approve.