Like a shooting star, the Facel Vega's trajectory was brief but brilliant, and its chic legacy endures, says Martin Buckley

To take command of a Facel Vega Facel II in the early Sixties was to experience earthbound jet travel in your own personal first-class compartment, with high-grade fixtures and fittings that, almost half a century on, have yet to be beaten for stylish flamboyance.

Relaxing on fine English leathers, caressing a slim, deeply dished wheel, admiring a dashboard that combined the cabinet-maker's artistry (in fact, it was painted metal) with the multi-dialled feel of a private aircraft, the Facel II owner of four decades ago was in the privileged position of driving not only the worlds most decadent and fashionable four-seater coupé, but also the fastest.

Consider the figures: the automatic 355bhp, 6.3 litre Facel II of 1961 would lunge past 60 in 7.8 seconds, hit 100 in 21 seconds, and had a terminal velocity of 134mph.

The Facel II is the most coveted of the 3,033 Facel Vegas produced from 1954 to 1964. It is a marque that attracted more interest and generated more excitement than many more sober companies, with histories 10 times as long.

In one stroke, Facel effortlessly gatecrashed the elite ranks of the world's most exclusive cars. Few first-time makers have ever established their identity with such a swift, sure touch as this Franco-American Grand Routier. As an exercise in upmarket branding, the new French supercar was a masterstroke.

It is 40 years since le patron, Jean Daninos, built his Facel Vega cars. So, why does this marque have such resonance as one of the mid-20th century's most glamorous automotive status symbols? The ownership profile had something to do with it. Facel never had to advertise much because its buyers did it for them. Peers and pop stars, matinée idols and off-duty Grand Prix drivers, old money and nouveaux riches.

Yet the Facel II and its predecessors sold just as strongly to the sober, discerning international rich - diplomats, aristocrats and plutocrats - as to showbiz types such as Danny Kaye, Ava Gardner and Ringo Starr. The concept was simple: wholesome, virile new-world power - in the form of Chrysler's V8 - harnessed in a chassis that retained the old-world sensibilities of moderate size and firm, good-mannered handling. It wasn't rocket science - Facel wasn't the first to use American horses in a European chassis - yet, somehow, it cleverly bridged the gap between ponderous luxury saloons and the most expensive sports cars.

The First Facel Vegas appeared in 1954. Jean Daninos, a playboy industrialist who had made his fortune during the war building aircraft components, wanted to create an international marque with the luxury to appeal to connoisseurs of all nationalities. He knew from the start that the main market for his new car would be outside France. It was a brave car to build in the post-war socialist climate, where large-engined non-essential machinery was hit hard by the taxman.

Though he kept himself busy running an industrial combine of 1,700 workers (building car bodywork for other firms, among other things), the Facel Vegas were entirely the conception of this energetic industrialist. He was designer, stylist and boss rolled into one. Showing an assured eye for line and form, he created the trademark three-piece honeycomb grille and vertical headlights, setting a house style that would endure for the entire production run.

Technically, his cars would change very little, except to become even faster and more luxurious, culminating in the Facel II. Introduced at the Paris show of October 1961, only 181 cars were built over the next three years. Facels always sold well in the UK, where the marque was handled by a subsidiary of HWM Motors called Intercontinental Cars.

The first Facel II sold in the UK went to Lionel Bart, who insisted on having the car he'd seen on the Earls Court Show stand in 1961. That car was left-hook, but all of the other 26 - costing the equivalent of two E-Types and a Lotus Elan - were right-hand drive, the last one sold to Ringo Starr.

The death in a Facel Vega of the great French existentialist writer Albert Camus in January 1960 put the make under something of a black cloud, but it was the firm's blunders in the realms of higher-volume manufacture with a smaller sports car called the Facellia that finished it off. Pressured into using a frail and unproven engine of its own manufacture (red tape would not allow it to use an imported unit), Daninos paid the price in warranty claims, and Facellia sales could never justify the investment. Facel went into receivership in 1962, and limped on until 1964, when a final bid by Daninos to have a licensing deal to build Land Rovers in France was quashed by Charles de Gaulle, who was famously distrustful of the English and would not be driven in a presidential Facel because it had an American engine.

Would the Facel II have survived the Sixties if the Facellia had been drowned at birth? Perhaps, although younger, cheaper Euro-V8 competition was starting to catch up. Jensen, Iso, Gordon-Keeble and others all trod the same hybrid path, but today, the Bristol is the only survivor of this Sixties school of American-engined gentlemen's hot rods.

Yet, somehow, none of them ever quite recaptured the glamorous romance of the French original.

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