The Excellence was a luxury saloon unveiled by Facel-Vega of Paris, France at the Paris Auto Show in October 1956 to rave reviews by the motoring press.
Production started in 1958 and lasted until the company ceased production in 1964. The car was based on an elongated chassis from the Facel Vega FV Coupé. It was the only four-door model the company ever made. Production ended after only 156 cars had been built. The low production figure is a direct result of the car's exorbitant purchase price. When new, it cost about as much as four Citroën DS saloons, which themselves were hardly to be considered cheap cars. The towering price could still be boosted by ordering optional equipment, which gradually became available over the car's production run, such as power steering, power brakes, electric windows, wire-spoke wheels, and air conditioning.
The Excellence featured some styling elements usually found on American cars of the era, like tailfins, the wraparound windshield, and the "hardtop" roof without B-pillars. But the overall design was distinctively European, with its stacked quad-headlights and rakishly low profile. Its low beltline and comparatively high greenhouse predicted the automotive architecture that became mainstream in the late Fifties, and lasted throughout the Sixties. The Facel-Vega Excellence also incorporated a pillarless four-door mechanism, allowing the car to be designed with rear-hinged "suicide door" styled rear doors for easier access and egress. This layout could also be found on the limited production Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, which was unveiled later in 1956, and on the mass-produced 1961-1969 Lincoln Continental.
Inside, the car had a lavish interior with seats covered in aromatic leather, a fake walnut dashboard with full instrumentation, and a make up kit located in the back of the centre armrest, consisting of a chrome-handled brush and comb, and two perfume bottles, the latter albeit being supplied empty by the factory. Still, the interior was not nearly as roomy as one would expect from a car with a wheelbase exceeding three metres.
The Excellence was a top performer and could hold its own among the best GTs Europe had to offer. Some high-performance American cars, most notably Chrysler's 300 'letter series' models, could probably outrun an Excellence in straight-line performance, but they were neither as refined, well built, nor had they the 'panache' of a Facel-Vega. Although the Excellence could match the wheelbase of most full-sized American cars of the time, it was considerably shorter, narrower, and most of all, lower. Its comparatively compact measurements gave it the edge in the handling department, which came in handy, especially under European road conditions.
In an article for the November 1985 edition of Collectible Automobile Magazine, noted automotive historian Richard Langworth stated his opinion that "The Excellence is a large vehicle...better suited as a car of State rather than a daily driver." How he came to this conclusion despite the unanimously positive reviews regarding the roadability of the Excellence from the contemporary motoring press as well as its owners, has been a matter of debate ever since.
Powered by contemporary Chrysler V8 engines, like other Facel-Vega cars, the initial Excellences were fitted with the famed Hemi, which Chrysler discontinued for the 1958 model year. Facel-Vega continued to use those engines until stocks were depleted in late 1958. From then on, the V8 powered Facel-Vegas packed the Chrysler RB Wedge big-block engines.
All Chrysler powered Facel-Vegas could either be had with the Pont-à-Mousson built four-speed manual, or the Chrysler built Torqueflite three-speed automatic. Whereas the American automatic transmission was optional for the Facel-Vegas, the French manual gearbox conversely became optionally available in selected Chrysler high-performance models.
May 1958 – October 1958 (Model 'EX')
While the Paris Show Car of 1956 was fitted with a 331 CID (5.4 Litre) unit, the initial batch of production Excellences was equipped with the monster 392 CID (6.4 Litre) version of the Chrysler Hemi V8, shared, among others, with the Facel-Vega HK 500, and Chrysler's own Imperial. Facels could either be ordered with the Pont-à-Mousson built four-speed manual, or the Chrysler built Torqueflite three-speed automatic. Contemporary road tests showed, that they performed equally well with either gearbox. Arguably the most powerful Excellences to ever hit the roads, these were genuine 140 mph cars. Allegedly a mere eleven 'EX'-series cars were built, seven of which are known to survive.
October 1958 – July 1961 (Model 'EX1')
For model year 1958, Chrysler discontinued the Hemi engines, and after stocks had dried up, Facel-Vega started using the 361 CID (5.9 Litre) Chrysler 'Wedge' head V8 engines. Why Facel-Vega didn't go for the top-of-the-line 413 CID (6.9 Litre) engines remains a mystery, but the French road tax system, which is based on engine displacement, is often cited as an explanation.
Be it as it may, a 361 powered Excellence was anything but a slouch. It had the same nominal horsepower output as the Hemi it replaced. The more faint at heart may be pleased to learn, that from late 1959 onwards, an Excellence could be stopped via optional power disc brakes up front.
The 1958 - 1961 Excellences were the most numerous of the bunch with 137 examples being built.
July 1961 - June 1964 (Model 'EX2')
The Excellence received its only significant facelift in 1961. It now came with a bigger 383 CID (6.3 Litre) engine, rated at 390 hp, a mindboggling figure back then, especially for a saloon car. However, no significant gain in performance could be noted in contemporary road tests, and the initial Hemi-powered cars remain the fastest Excellences ever built.
The 'EX2' lost its wraparound windshield and the tailfins were severely clipped, which resulted in a considerably less flamboyant appearance. Despite these measures, the Excellence did not gain significantly more modern looks in general. It rather lost some of its previous elegance. But a complete re-styling of the car would have been prohibitively expensive, especially given its low production figures. Of these "EX2" models, only eight were completed, when production finally ceased for good.
The domestic market price quoted for the car at the EX2's first Paris Motor Show, in October 1961, was 72,500 new francs for a car with automatic transmission. The same money could at that time buy more than twelve Renault Dauphines.
Discussions with Studebaker-Packard
Following the proposition of a New York based conglomerate wanting to revive the luxurious Packard brand in 1959, Facel-Vega boss Jean Daninos entered into negotiations with Studebaker-Packard Corporation president Harold Churchill. The idea was to badge-engineer the Excellence with Packard nameplates and the trademark Packard "Ox-Yoke" grille, and market it through the more "exclusive" Studebaker-Packard dealers in North America. However, Daimler-Benz, which already had a marketing partnership with Studebaker-Packard, using Studebaker's dealership network to sell its Mercedes brand of cars in the United States, objected to the plan. Churchill realized that he could never get the same cash stream from Facel-Vega that he did from Daimler-Benz, and the whole project was abandoned. Despite the Facel-Vega Excellence-come-Packard in fact did make it to the to the planning stage, contrary to popular belief, not a single actual prototype was built. However, a number of Excellences were imported to the USA by private owners.
In popular culture
A Facel-Vega Excellence appeared in the 1959 movie Count Your Blessings starring Deborah Kerr and Maurice Chevalier. Other Excellences make brief appearances in the 1961 movie Goodbye Again, the 1963 movies Le temps des copains and Love Is a Ball, the 1972 movie Slaughter, and the 1990 movie Dancing Machine. All of them were non-EX2 versions.