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Same Engine Yet So Different – Facel-Vega and Jensen

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.

This version of the Chrysler B-engine is a “Super Red Ram” as used in Dodge. (picture from allpar.com, a formidable source for all things Chrysler Corporation)

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.

The new engine was introduced for the 1958 Dodge model-year, but wasn’t used in Chrysler’s own cars until the following year.

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.

Detuned versions of the big V8 were even used in pick-up trucks.

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.

Facel-Vega Facel II: One of the world’s fastest four-seater cars – thanks to the Chryslers B-engine.

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.

Jensen CV-8: Also one of the world’s fastest four-seater cars – for the same reason.

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.

A small example of the two cars many differences: Jensen stuck with tradition and used wood for their dashboard.

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.

Facel-Vega on the other hand decided to hand-paint a metal panel so as it resembled wood.

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?

3 Responses

  1. Tony Wawryk
    As someone who knows almost nothing about engines, this piece raises a really interesting point, Claus, and your comment that ” no potential customer, not then nor now, would ever find themselves torn between choosing a Facel II or a CV8″ certainly rings true for me – it’d be the Facel every time; there’s nothing about the Jensen that would make me want it (unlike the FF or Interceptor). Having said that, driving the cars might still be very different – having driven neither, I obviously don’t know, but suspension settings and chassis design could result in them being entirely different to drive despite sharing the engine. The exhaust system could also make them sound very different. Might have to search for a comparison test, if one exists…For me, shallow as I am, it’s all about the styling – the Facel is elegant and stylish, the Jensen is not, and not just from the front. The Facel is also another car that makes great use of stacked headlamps (per a previous discussion), the CV8’s slanted lights combined with it’s down-turned “mouth” are a fail. All imo, of course.

    Incidentally, is this engine based on the same block as the (smaller) Chevy engines in a couple of other Italian-designed 4-seater GTs of the time – the Iso Rivolta and the Gordon Keeble?

    As to where the soul of a car lies, I guess there’s no simple answer – it could be in it’s “face”, the sound it makes, the interior ambience…and could be something different in every car. The answer is obvious – I don’t know!

    Reply
  2. Anders Bilidt
    Interesting topic indeed. In my opinion, the engine of a classic car can indeed give it soul. But equally, the engine is not the only thing which can contribute to the soul of a classic car.

    For instance, the engine in the beautiful Citroën DS is truly boring and soulless, however the car most certainly is not without soul. Perhaps in this case, the soul stems from the elegant design and the avantgarde hydraulic technologi? And while I’m sure many would argue that it’s the flat-6 which gives a classic 911 real soul, I would actually argue that the characteristic handling adds just as much soul. The way it sits down hard on the rear axle, and not least the light bobbing of the front, yet ever so communicative feedback through the steering wheel. Clearly it’s not only the engine.

    Tony, as it is, I would personally choose the Facel-Vega before the Jensen too. Much more appealing and stylish. If we ignore the presence of the Frenchman, and look only at Jensen, then I would much rather go for either an Interceptor mk.I, or even the much earlier Jensen 541 which has an altogether more pleasing design than its predecessor.

    Reply
  3. YrHmblHst
    Mr Warwyk ; no, the Chevrolet and Mopar engines are absolutely no kin; they are similar in that they are both V8s, both iron, both OHV, but no parentage in common nor any parts interchangeability. When you look at them, they are actually very different, and are from completely different corporations.
    Of course, you bring up two of my favourite things on earth – the small block Chevrolet and B [and RB] Mopars. Since we’re talking Pentastar here, just a couple of comments…
    The ‘Sonoramic’ name was tagged on certain B motors due to their intake system; there was quite a study and interesting engineering behind the design. Oughta read about it sometime – it worked.
    As mentioned, b motors came in various flavours, and then there were the RB – or Raised B /Raised block – engines, which are the same except for a taller deck height. [400, 413, 426 wedge and 440s] The early hemis – 331, 354 and 392 -sorta shared some B motor architecture on the bottom end, but the 426 was/is entirely different. B motors have been used in everything from passenger cars, to race cars, boats, trucks, motorhomes and even warning sirens…they were the engine of choice for a couple of decades for taxi cabs also. Good engines with no real weak spots, and have that oh-so-cool sounding starter. Of course, I may be just a wee bit prejudiced as my first car was a Plymouth with a 383…
    Dont forget Chryslers small blocks either – the A motors, or Polyspherics werent bad, but the LA variants like the 340s were, and are, great engines.

    Anyway, as far as a cars ‘soul’ goes, I would agree with Mr Bilidt in that it can come from many areas of design or performance, tho the engine is usually at, or is at least, the heart of it all.
    The Facel is, imnsho, a GORGEOUS car, and I would love to own one some day when I get rich and famous. I can keep the thing running….It has soul. the Jensen on the other hand, is ugly as sin. It may drive wonderfully and have a good personality, but only a face a mother could love.

    Reply

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