As previously mentioned on ViaRETRO, the Facel Vega was thecar for the beautiful, rich and famous. A glance through the customer list (see document here) quickly proves this claim, as it includes a mix of Royals, leading politicians, performing artists from within film and music (including e.g. Ava Gardner and Ringo Starr) and not least racing drivers (including a certain Mr. M. Gatsonides who later made a name for himself when he invented the “Gatso” – short for the speed cameras developed by the Dutch company Gatsometer). On the list was also, M. Gallimard, Éditeur, who was the owner of a FV3B with the serial number 58-228. Behind that number: 58-228, lies a dramatic story about the deathof the famous author and philosopher, Albert Camus, but… before coming to that part; let’s take a look at the Facel Vega…
The combination of a high-end European niche automobile with an American V8 engine has been seen multiple times before. The examples which contiguously crop up are always English or Italian, but the combination has also been explored by the French. And that is what this article is about – Facel Vega (Forges Ateliers de Constructions d’Eure-et-Loir, or said in a slightly more mundane way: FACEL). The company was founded before World War II as a manufacturer of metal parts for the aerospace industry, based around their specialized knowledge of electric arc welding of aluminum and stainless steel. The production continued with gas generators in the occupied France and in England with aircraft parts. Once the war came to an end, they had to face the challenge, like many others, of finding something else to produce.
France had been well-known for having manufacturers of luxury cars – you only have to mention Bugatti to remember that, but there were also other brands such as Delahaye and Talbot-Lago. Unfortunately, France introduced a taxation system which favored small engines, and in conjunction with the materially lean post-war years, this “helped” to kill the French luxury car industry. Without a home market of a reasonable size, it simply wasn’t sustainable. The debacle still leaves vestiges to this day, where the French automotive industry mainly produce affordable mainstream cars. The market for premium cars with the possibility of higher profit margins is probably irreversibly lost.
But back to Facel Vega and the man behind the development of it: Jean Daninos, who found “another market” in the automotive industry and soon became a supplier of everything from smaller automotive sheet metal parts to entire bodies for cars. At some time in the mid 50s, Facel lost Panhard as a customer, and Jean Daninos then saw the opportunity of closing the gap by starting the production of “his own” car – a luxury car. The fact that Jean Daninos had been fascinated by cars his entire life and had spent a great deal of school time drawing and, above all, dreaming about them – rather than doing his school work – made it quite obvious that he was indeed the right man to be in charge of the design. In fact, he had previously designed and built Cresta II for Bentley, and even at that early stage, several fundamental design features were established which would later become a signature characteristic for every Facel Vega.
A suitable engine had to be found, and the choice ended up being Chrysler’s Hemi V8 in the DeSoto version – frankly, there were no French alternatives which could deliver that kind of unstressed power. What was “unique and exclusive” was instead to be found in the form rather than in the content, which was quite traditional with a separate chassis consisting of an independent front suspension and live rear axle kept in place by semi-elliptical springs from a horse-drawn carriage. However… let’s now move on to the essential “drama”, where the Facel Vega FV3B with the serial number 58-228 ended up costing the life of Albert Camus. As mentioned earlier, the car belonged to Michel Gallimard; the publisher and friend of Camus.
Albert Camus grew up as “Pied-Noir” in Algeria (Pied-Noir is a term primarily referring to people of European, mostly ethnic French origin, who were born in Algeria during the period of French rule from 1830 to 1962), in the French colony era and, thanks to his undeniable aptitudes, he succeeded as political journalist, author and actor soon after finishing his university studies. With books like “The Stranger” (Yes, I was rather bored during my French lessons in high school, since we had to read “L’Étranger”, as it was called in its original language), “The Plague” and “The Fall”, he established his name as an author of international format. As a result, at the very young age of 44 (at least in this context, it is in fact considered very young!), he received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1957. Camus is by most people regarded as an existentialist, even if he continuously denied being just that (this never ending disagreement could somehow metaphorically be seen as an existential debate itself… sort of like the “Sisyphus” myth, which Camus also wrote a book about, where Sisyphus endlessly pushed his rock up the mountain only to see it roll back down each time he reached the top). Instead, Camus argued the absurdity of life and seeked meaning through rebellious sub-elements. Absurd or not, he was a bohemian, womanizer and a cosmopolitan – which man doesn’t secretly dream of a life like that?
That kind of man will most likely often be French… if nothing else, then at least in their minds.
We will now proceed with the story of that particular Facel Vega… to the scene of a French “Route Nationale”. Try visualising being on the Route Nationale 5, which is framed by leafless plane trees – the date is January 4, 1960.
It’s always challenging when our heroes die at an early age – in this case a great man, only 46 years old, died in a meaningless car crash. A man with extraordinary proficiencies; a huge cultural loss – just think of all the literature he could have enriched us with, if only he had been given a few more years… Conspiracy theories therefore often occur in situations like this – and so it was in this case as well. Was the KGB perhaps involved? Had they “fiddled” with the car somehow… maybe because he had criticized the Soviet Union?
Regardless, one thing we know for sure, is that among the remaining parts of the wrecked car, the still incomplete manuscript of the autobiographical novel Camus was working on at the time of his death, was found in the mud at the accident site: “Le Premier Homme” (translates to “The First Man”). The daughter of Camus, Catherine Camus, later transcribed the handwritten manuscript, and published the book in 1994.
Albert Camus is thus a man, a star who never grows older and will continue to shine forever. Camus was hit by the meaninglessness of life; perhaps the ending, for him, was the answer to his own questions about life and death, which he had always seeked…
In spite of this tragic story, and not least the almost mythical aura which the Facel Vega got after the horrific accident – of course largely due to the various conspiracy theories which were created after the fatal crash – the Facel Vega FV/HK500 is still one of my absolute favourite classic cars! The styling is nothing short of stunning – even if its wrap-around windscreen and missing B-pillar only made it structurally weaker.
Maybe for that exact reason, the successor – the Facel Vega II – did indeed have both a B-pillar and window frames. Yet it luckily still retained the aviation inspired cockpit-like interior. An interesting detail was, that what initially looked very much like an exquisite wooden veneer on the broad dashboard, turned out to be a hand-painted pattern – not entirely unlike some parts of the “marble” in The Palace of Versailles where the Sun King lived (Louis XIV, known as Louis the Great – Louis le Grand or Roi Soleil in French – was a monarch of the House of Bourbon who reigned as King of France and Navarre from 1643 until his death in 1715). I suppose, if it was acceptable for the Sun King, it would equally be good enough for Facel Vega customers – even if the Sun King probably only accepted the “fake marble” solution because he albeit realised that there was after all a bottom to their pot of gold – so to speak…
But… royalty of not; drama or not – is the Facel Vega dream truly unattainable, as the headline suggests?
Well perhaps not, seeing as the Facel Vega company was also a subcontractor to the French automotive industry, all of which included Simca. Up through the fifties and early sixties, Simca had a Sport model called Simca Sport “Plein Ciel” on their program (bizarrely, Plein Ciel translates into “open sky/air, despite the Simca Sport “Plein Ciel” being a 2-seater coupé with a fixed roof), which was based on the Simca Aronde. The basic four-door Aronde was Simca’s first original and in-house design, since their earlier models were all to some extent based on Fiats. It was also the company’s first unitary bodied car. While this was clearly a major step for Simca, the Aronde 90A was nicknamed: “The Cod’s mouth”. But the Simca Sport “Plein Ciel” was actually a very decent product and fortunately it only inherited the front and rear lights from the “The Cod’s mouth”. Further to that, it clearly had some “finesse” as it could be delivered both with or without white wall tires.
So if only one could find such a Simca out there, somewhere, then the possibility of “tasting a bit of Facel Vega” might actually be attainable. Just don’t let it lead you to your demise…
- Facel Vega homepage
- “Albert Camus might have been killed by the KGB for criticising the Soviet Union, claims newspaper”. The Observer, Aug 7, 2011