It is sometimes claimed that a cars soul lies within its engine. But that can’t possibly be right, when the same engine can result in two cars as diversely different as the Facel-Vega and the Jensen.
The engine in question stems from Chrysler, more precisely the big V8 from the “B”-family which debuted in 1958. It’s quite an unassuming name for such a monumental machine – especially considering that its predecessor was called “FirePower” – but that was none the less its internal designation. Apparently because it was Chrysler’s second generation of V8 engines. And “big” V8 because it was in fact classified as a “Big Block” according to the American engine mythology. The first engines were 350 cu. in. and 361 cu. in. equating to 5.7 and 5.9 liters, which from a European perspective is indeed BIG.
The marketing department managed to add some pazzazz to the names – not least to identify one from the other in the huge Chrysler Group. This lead to the early engines being named “Commando” when installed in a Plymouth – and later we got further variants in the “Golden Commando” and my personal favourite, the “Sonoramic Commando”. I haven’t a clue what that’s supposed to mean, but there’s no denying that it sounds spectacular. It even pushed out an impressive 300 horsepower, which was quite respectable in the late fifties. De Soto’s version called “TurboFlash” couldn’t equal such power, even if their name wasn’t bad either. There was even a version with fuel injection, though most of them were apparently converted back to carburetors while the cars where still relatively new.
In 1959 they introduced a 383 cu. in. version – or 6.3 liters. In a Dodge, it was named “Magnum”, which seems decidedly appropriate. It was an over-square engine and with a bore of 107 millimeters it was quite a sizeable hole – well, eight of them of course. This allowed enough space for huge 53 millimeter valves, so it was an engine with a real appetite for fuel vapours. The result was a very healthy 335 (SAE) horsepower and not least a colossal 460 lb. ft. of torque! Numbers this size were unheard of in Europe, and presented the question of why we on the old continent stubbornly chased multiple camshafts and carburetors, when they still couldn’t achieve similar power? The Chrysler B powerhouse was of cast iron, had only one camshaft and often only one carburetor too. It was not sophisticated, but it was strong.
Which presumably explains why it appealed to both French Facel-Vega and British Jensen, when they in the fifties and early sixties needed a suitable engine for their new cars. They needed to be luxurious and they needed to be fast. They could of course just as well have found a suitable option with either of the two other big American companies, Ford or General Motors, but both chose Chrysler, as they were open to talks and willing to sell their engines in small numbers to these European niche car manufacturers.
Which is how the well-off European car enthusiast in 1962 came to have the choice between two very different cars from the pinnacle of luxury coupés, which however shared the same Chrysler engine. The Facel-Vega Facel II was elegant and fashionable – perhaps best described as exclusive haute couture but equipped with the heart of an American heavyweight wrestler. It was presented as “the world’s fastest four-seater car”, and was capable of exceeding 140 mph. And that was with an automatic gearbox, bearing in mind that the manual version was quicker still. The design was elegant – heavily influenced by American design, but also overflowing with small exquisite French details and finesse.
As such it was actually quite in contrast to Jensen’s variation of the theme. The CV8 was at first introduced with the “small” 361 cu. in. B-engine, but was already then remarkably rapid. Needless to say, once the full-fat 383 cu. in. engine was deployed, the Jensen too became a contender for the title as (one of) the world’s fastest four-seaters. Despite its body appearing to be more aerodynamic, the claimed top speed was only 135 mph. Was it possibly the massive resistance to its controversial design which held it back? The characteristic slant headlights were originally intended to be somewhat hidden behind perspex covers, but this was dropped in the eleventh hour due to fears of restricting the light beam too much.
Both cars had blindingly quick mid-range acceleration – naturally thanks to the previously mentioned astonishing 460 lb. ft. of torque. But they impressed from a standing start too, as 0 – 60 mph in less than seven seconds gave you serious bragging rights in the early sixties – especially when achieved by a large four-seater car.
All of which eventually leads us to today’s point: Despite the two cars having plenty in common – not least due to the shared Chrysler engine – they could still hardly be more different. I’ll even go as far as claiming, that no potential customer, not then nor now, would ever find themselves torn between choosing a Facel II or a CV8.
It’s either one or the other, and those few lucky customers had most likely made up their minds well in advance. Why? Well, just because the two cars are indeed that different. Not just visually either, but also in philosophy, execution and – yes, soul.
Whereby we have determined beyond a shadow of a doubt, that a car’s soul is NOT found within the engine, as it is of course the same in this case. Which then presents the inevitable million-dollar question: Where is the soul then to be found?