A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.
The French are leaders in ashtray technology.
—Davey G. Johnson
In the annals of all that is car, certain vehicles stand out. Others tend to leap. A very select group however, reaches right into your chest, squeezes you around the heart and won't ever let go. The Facel Vega HK500 is such a machine and it's two clicks past high time we induct it into our Fantasy Garage.
I will always remember the first time I saw todady's nominee parked on the lawn at a small car show surrounded by Cobras, Jags and Ferraris. "This Jonny," lectured my old man, "Is a car." Even surrounded by all that automotive opulence, the 1959 HK500 indeed stood out. It had the beloved look of endless optimism just like American metal of the era (at the time, my 11-year-old mind could hardly stop thinking about '57 Bel Airs) yet that was cut with a svelte, almost subversive sense of European style. Despite the endless chrome, there were Bentleys, Jaguars and even Ferraris buried in them thar hilly curves. The Facel was alluring yet debonair, gorgeous yet butch, fantastically familiar but still outrageously exotic. In all honestly, I think seeing the HK500 that day forced me into French as opposed to Spanish in high school. Zut alors!
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In 1954 metal-stamper Jean Daninos decided to recapture the former glory of the 1930s (the grande routiere as it were) and introduce a French luxury brand called Facel Vega. A few years prior his company Forges et Ateliers de Construction d'Eure-et-Loir — or FACEL for short — began supplying custom bodies to makes such as Panhard, Delahaye and Simca. This gave him enough capital to begin building cars of his own. And even though the fledging car company's slogan was, "For the Few Who Own the Finest," the initial cars were a bit short of the mark. The idea was solid enough. The first Facel (the FV1) was built around a tubular steel chassis (designed by Lance Macklin) with independent wishbones up front and a solid axle out back. The power came from a DeSoto 4.5-liter V8 and the looks were to die for. But something was missing.
That something was Chrysler Typhoon power! In a wonderful instance of synchronicity, Facel decided to match the hot looks of its car to some truly smoking grunt. And you just weren't going to find an adequate engine in post-war Europe. In came the type TY7 Typhoon motor (we'd call it a 392 Hemi in the States) with its 390-hp and 430 ft-lb of torque (though some sources quote up to 460 ft-lbs.) and out came one of the most astonishing cars ever: the Facel Vega HK500. Let's just put it this way, Stirling Moss owned one and he preferred to drive it from race to race as opposed to flying.
Sir Stirling Moss and his HK500
That much power and twist coupled to a 4-speed manual made the HK500 the fastest car in the world during its 4-year production run. For comparison's sake, the freakin' mad 1958 Chrysler 300C could push 140 mph. The Facel Vega HK500? 155 mph. Actually, like the torque figures, the numbers are all over the place according to the interwebs, ranging from 147 to 161mph. Suffice to say, the HK500 was damn fast and would most likely slaughter anything else on the road in its time. So fast in fact that Facel dumped the drum brakes found on the earlier models and fitted 4-wheel disks so that (relatively) safe high speed runs could be performed in the 2-ton beast.
Sadly, the Facel Vega HK500 is best known as the car that killed one of my favorite authors and thinkers, Albert Camus, who died in one on January 4, 1960. Many people mistakenly believe the HK500 belonged to Camus. The car in fact belonged to his publisher, Michel Gallimard, who drove the car into a tree. Camus, who disliked fast driving — often saying, "Hey, little friend, who's in a hurry?" was hurled from the vehicle and died instantly. The speedo was pegged at 90 mph. Interestingly, the manuscript for Camus's final work, Premier Homme, was found in a bag inside the car, though it wasn't published for another 35 years.
However, the list of people that owned an HK500 is still bloody impressive, as its $9,795 list price in 1958 guaranteed. Pablo Picasso, Ava Gardner, the aforementioned Sir Stirling Moss, Ringo Starr, Tony Curtis, Maurice Trintignant, Joan Fonatine, Danny Kaye, François Truffaut, and of course, countless Saudi royals. Only the Citroen SM has better lineage, what with seven examples being owned by the last King of Scotland himself, the ruthless (yet comical) Idi Amin.
I'm scratching my head trying to think of a reason not to vote the HK500 in. Honestly, I can't think of a single one. The car is fantastically rare (less than 500 HK500s were built), achingly beautiful, sports probably the most awesome interior in the history of cardom, goes like bat-guano-rubbed stink, has a Hemi, is in fact French and the name reminds you of an assault rifle. For reals, is there anything, anything at all not to absolutely love? The clear answer is no. And by no I mean vote yes. And be happy while you do so.
The Jalopnik Fantasy Garage, So Far:
RUF RT12 | 1978 Aston Martin V8 Vantage | Honda 1300 Coupe 9 | 1931 Daimler Double Six 50 Corsica Drophead Coupe | Ferrari 288 GTO | Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 | 1970 Buick GSX 455 | First Generation BMW M Coupe | Bugatti Veyron 16.4 | Ford GT | Citroen SM | Porsche 928 | Jensen FF | DeTomaso Vallelunga | Audi Quattro S1 | Buick GNX | Nissan Skyline R34 GT-R | Honorary Fantasy Garager: The LS1 Powered Rotus | Lamborghini LM002 | Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe | Ferrari 250 GTO | Bentley Speed Six | Talbot-Lago T150C SS Figoni et Falaschi Raindrop/Teardrop Coupe | Porsche 917 | Audi RS4 Avant | Lamborghini Miura | Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9 | BMW E39 M5 | Jaguar E-type | Mercedes-Benz 300 SL | Dodge Charger/Challenger R/T | Toyota 2000GT
[The Jalopnik Fantasy Garage appears every Wednesday. Readers vote the cars in or out. The idea is that we'll have 50 cars in our Fantasy Garage, the world's greatest mechanic and endless wads of cash. Would you like to nominate a car for the Fantasy Garage? Write firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Fantasy."]