Rob Walker’s mystical Mistress What do F1 bosses drive on their day off? In Rob Walker’s case, this Facel-Vega. Draped in a familiar dark blue, this Facel II used its mysterious Gallic assets to charm race team owner Rob Walker. Today, we have a rendezvous with the full-time gentleman’s high-society seductress. Words Ivan Ostroff. Photography Glen Lindberg.
Rob Walker’s Facel II driven. Rob Walker’s Mystical Mistress On the road in the Facel-Vega Facel II that crossed Europe in the hands of the man who managed Stirling Moss’ racing career…
Only around 180 of these exceptionally luxurious French Grand Tourers were built, and this is one of the mere 26 right-hand-drive examples of the Facel II – but that’s not the only reason that this particular car is so special. This is the car that belonged to the late Rob Walker, the Johnny Walker whisky heir and founder of the eponymous racing team for whom Stirling Moss had so many successes in the late Fifties and early Sixties. The Facel II is markedly different from anything else of its time. The hexagonal radiator, lanked by quad horizontal openings, Megalux headlamps and strangely curved windscreen are most imposing, yet the subtle ins and recessed indicator lenses sculpted into the rear wings exude pure elegance. There appears to be an antenna set into each of the rear wings, however the one on the nearside is a dummy, purely for aesthetic balance.
The Paris-based Facel Vega company built luxurious grand touring cars from 1954 until it folded in 1963. After years of financial struggles the Facel II was its last chance of success. However, as well as being ultra-exclusive it was also eye-wateringly expensive – the £5500 required to secure a Facel II was roughly the same as the newly released Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III.
I slide behind the deep-dished wood-rim steering wheel into the sumptuous leather seat and pull the large door closed. It shuts with that special coachbuilt clunk that you would expect from a Silver Wraith. The dashboard spread out in front of me is like nothing else in the automotive world. Despite appearing to be of some sort of burr walnut it is a specially painted finish, rather like that on a pre-war Chrysler. On the right of the steering wheel is a 0-5500rpm tachometer, on the left a 0-160mph speedometer. There are switches and knobs everywhere and without markings to identify what’s what it’s something of an ergonomic nightmare. But an owner quickly gets used to where things are and it quite frankly it just adds to the mystique. This interior is an art form in its own right.
I twist the key, the big 6286cc Chrysler V8 churns lazily and fires. The wonderful big-bore burble on tickover emanating from the quadruple rear exhaust pipes promises all the power I would ever want. I check the instruments and note the five heater levers in front of the automatic gear selector. They resemble the throttle quadrant of a Boeing Stratocruiser; I daydream about the roar of four Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Majors, slide them all forward in unison and rev the big V8 at the same time. Juvenile maybe, but this really is the epitome of a big boy’s toy. I let the revs drop and then move the automatic gear selector back into D, drop the handbrake and gently ease forward.
On the move the dated worm and nut steering box does feel a tad vague, though once you switch the brain into grand touring mode it feels more acceptable. This is a big car, but with all that glass it’s pretty easy to see all the corners and after driving for a while it feels like it’s shrunk around me.
This 1962 example was fitted with the earlier 6.3-litre Chrysler V8 (later variants were 6.7 litres) mated to a three-speed automatic Torqueflite gearbox that provides near-seamless changes both up and down. Electric windows were standard, as was power steering and a full leather interior.
When Rob Walker owned it, he had a short differential fitted so that the car would be quick from low speeds and responsive for overtaking. It worked. Mash the throttle around 2500rpm (70mph in top) and the ’box kicks down a cog, pressing my back into the seat squab. There’s a sudden surge of power, the tacho needle goes on a merry spool and the exhaust, which was muted on a light touring throttle, hardens into a throaty waling bellow. In an instant I’m travelling at a speed I wouldn’t care to admit so I back of, realising that I just yelled out ‘wow’ quite involuntarily. I continue to grin for what feels like ages.
In dropping a hulking great American V8 into a Euro GT, Facel Vega set a precedent that would be followed by many other marques later in the Sixties, including Gordon-Keeble, Bizzarrini, Iso Rivolta and De Tomaso. Those big American iron lumps might have seemed rather unsophisticated without a multitude of overhead camshafts, but they delivered a huge amount of lolloping power for a relatively modest outlay. Furthermore, they were reliable – so long as you kept them topped up with fluids they’d invariably go on forever and a day. These silky-smooth big V8s gave these old-school hybrids just about all the performance credibility they could ever need.
The Facel II is remarkably relaxing and easy to drive. The lower ratios are clearly marked on the chrome bezel of the gear selector quadrant, so I try playing some Torquelight tunes by manually moving the gears up and down. But beyond this tomfoolery disguised as hardware testing, I realise that swapping gears manually on a car like this is a superfluous exercise most of the time; with such immense amounts of torque on tap, why bother? A manual option was available but rarely taken up for a reason, and in any case anyone who could afford a Facel Vega would probably have little concern about any potential fuel economy improvements.
In a straight line at high speed, the Facel II feels imperiously planted. In period, this would have been a car in which you could drive all day on any decent motorway at speeds well in excess of 120mph. Stirling Moss had the earlier HK500 in France for use when driving on the continent for two or three years, and was negotiating for a Facel II for 1962 when he had his big accident. However, by that stage the company was in chaos because of the reliability problems with the Facellia’s Pont-à-Mousson-made 1647cc engine.
Says the car’s current owner, F1 commentator and Facel enthusiast Bob Constanduros, ‘When I spoke to Stirling about his time with his Facel he said, “It was a lovely car. I would drive the Facel all over Europe, pretty girl by my side, what could be better?” I then asked what kind of speeds he’d reach. “Oh, about 140, something like that.” Kilometres? “No, no, miles per hour my boy.” He drove the Facel as fast on the road as he would a race car.’
At 1850kg, this grand tourer is no lightweight. While the suspension allows for good ride quality without excessive wallow and the handling is adequate, I hardly feel inspired to throw the car into corners. Nevertheless, if I do load up the suspension through bends the Facel copes, even if it does require some physical effort from the driver in return. On turn-in the front end bites well, but there is some body roll and if you push too hard accelerating through the apex the back end threatens to bite like a French Mastif that’s had its tail pulled. I guess that when Jean Daninos, Facel’s founder and the designer of the Facel II, claimed it was ‘the fastest four-seater coupé in the world’, he probably meant in a straight line. Chucking the Facel II around feels unseemly; perhaps if it had been endowed with rack and pinion steering it would be a more enjoyable proposition.
Slowing down isn’t such a tall order. The Dunlop disc brakes all-round bite resolutely from high speeds and pull the car up straight and true, Constanduros having had them rebuilt in recent times. Starting his career in the Seventies as a motor sport journalist, Constanduros was soon touring Europe driving from one race to another in his VW camper van. A roving reporter in the truest sense, he covered Formula One, Formula Two, European Touring Cars and endurance racing.
‘Eventually I decided to concentrate on reporting on F1, but I’d done the commentary at Le Mans for a few years and Bernie Ecclestone got to hear about it. He asked me if I’d consider doing the track commentary at F1 events.
That was about 1985, and I’ve done the circuit commentary ever since.’ It was in the early Eighties that Constanduros bought the Facel II; he had it restored in the mid-Nineties, acquiring a Facellia to use in the meantime. Today he covers around 1000 miles a year in it. He also bought a four-door Excellence limousine which is currently being restored. So, entwined in the top-level motor sport lifestyle, you might wonder how he formed such an allegiance to a marque with virtually no racing connections or aspirations?
‘When I was a boy, I used to see a Facel Vega HK500 parked outside the church every Sunday,’ he says. ‘I was so impressed by the car’s amazing dashboard layout that I vowed one day I’d own my own Facel.’ Spool forward to the Eighties, Constanduros was introduced to a Facel specialist while on a work assignment.
Needing to raise some extra capital and knowing that Constanduros was a Facel fanatic, the specialist mentioned a restored Facel II that he was willing to sell for £20,000. ‘When I realised that it was the ex-Rob Walker car and that I could pay for it on the never-never it seemed like a pretty good deal, but it turned out that the restoration was not exactly finished. I collected it in a partly-restored state and took it down to Ian Webb in Cornwall, who agreed to finish the work for another £10,000.
Constanduros knew Rob Walker well and once told him that he’d bought his old Facel II, which he ran with the registration ROB 2. Says Constanduros, ‘Instead of enquiring where I’d found the car, he asked if it was as gorgeous as when he’d had it. I said it was. So he went on, “How are you going to cure the awful overheating?”’ When these cars were new, it was a real problem. Just as was the case with its other applications, such as the Jensen CV8, the big Chrysler V8 is crammed into a small space with little room to breathe. Today, with modern high-efficiency aluminium radiators, keeping it cool is much easier.
‘Peter Sellers had a Facel Vega delivered to him,’ says Constanduros, ‘but when someone pointed out that the dashboard was painted metal and not made from wood veneer he sent the car back immediately. Perhaps he didn’t know that he could have ordered his with a wooden dash for an extra £30. Few had this option though. I had to pay £400 to have mine repainted.
‘I appreciate that as a combination of an American engine and a French coachbuilder it is not a thoroughbred motor car,’ continues Constanduros. ‘But then neither is an AC Cobra. On the other hand, there are so many Ferraris and Porsches out there, whereas Facels are so rare. Out of around 3000 made, there were just 189 Facel IIs built and as a part-time historian for the Facel Vega club, I know every single car. The Facel II is a particularly rare beast.’
Other famous Facel II owners included Maurice Trintignant, Francois Trufaut, Ringo Starr, Brian Rix, Danny Kaye, Tony Curtis and Ava Gardner, who owned three. It was perfectly described by the company’s own grandiose advertising pitch, which claimed it was the car ‘For the few who want the finest’.
The reality was that there were not enough of those few who were prepared to pay for the finery, and the company lost money on every car it made. But that didn’t stop it being one of the most impressive cars of the Sixties. A French styling icon. A romantic dream. Facels might have been the preserve of the beau monde in their day, but their mystical appeal has an allure that transcends cultures, continents and classes – whether you’re a full-time gentleman or a church-going schoolboy.