Today we recall DAF’s sixteen years as a manufacturer of small passenger cars alongside the heavy trucks for which the Dutch company is famous.
Mention the name DAF to those interested in matters automotive and their mind will immediately turn to the heavy trucks that are a familiar sight as they carry freight across the length and breadth of the European road network. Based in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, DAF Trucks is a subsidiary of the US manufacturer, Paccar Inc, which acquired the Dutch company in 1996. Paccar’s US truck brands include Kenworth and Peterbilt. It also owns UK truck maker, Leyland, which it acquired in 1998. Paccar is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of medium and heavy trucks.
Some readers may be unaware that DAF used also to be a producer of passenger cars back in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The first of these was the 1959 DAF 600, a small rear-wheel-drive two-door saloon with a front-mounted 590cc air-cooled flat-twin engine, which produced 22 bhp (16 kW). The 600 had a conventional steel monocoque body with independent suspension comprising a transverse leaf spring at the front and semi-trailing arms with coil springs at the rear.
In one respect the 600 was decidedly unconventional: its transmission was a unique continuously variable (CVT) design that comprised an arrangement of pulleys connected by flexible drive belts with a V-shaped cross-section. Each pulley was in two halves with cone-shaped opposing faces. Actuators pushed the faces together to increase the effective diameter of the pulley, or allowed them to move apart to reduce the effective diameter. The pulleys at either end of the drive belt were synchronised to move in opposite directions, to maintain the correct tension on the belt and allow road speed to vary while the engine remained within its optimum RPM range. A centrifugal clutch facilitated starting and stopping.
On the 600, there were two pairs of pulleys and two drive belts, one for each rear half-axle and wheel. The pulley actuators were controlled by centrifugal weights and the inlet manifold vacuum pressure, which was in turn determined by pressure on the accelerator pedal. A dashboard mounted switch reversed the direction of the vacuum pressure to allow for engine braking on steep descents.
The ‘gear lever’ was a simple forward / reverse selector and the car was theoretically able to travel as quickly in reverse as it could going forwards. The transmission, called Variomatic, was designed by Hubert van Doorne, who founded DAF with his brother, Wim. It was robust and required no lubrication or other regular maintenance.
When the 600 was launched, DAF claimed that the belts had been tested to last at least 80,000 km (50,000 miles). They would, however, eventually stretch a little in use and if this happened, the direction indicator light would illuminate continuously as a warning. An adjuster lug was provided beneath the rear bumper and the owner or mechanic would simply tighten the lug with a spanner until the light was extinguished to restore the correct tension. Surprisingly, the belts and pulleys were exposed to the elements beneath the car, but DAF claimed that stones, mud or other detritus would simply be thrown off the moving parts.
In 1961 the 600 was joined by a new model, the Daffodil, with a mildly updated and more angular bodystyle and a larger 746cc engine producing 30 bhp (22 kW). This reduced the 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) time to 29 seconds and increased the top speed to 65 mph (105 km/h). A de-contented version of the Daffodil called the 750 was sold on the home market for two years before it and the 600 were discontinued. The Daffodil was sold in some markets as the 30 and renamed 31 and 32 in 1963 and 1965 respectively as it was mildly updated.
1966 saw the introduction of what would become the definitive DAF bodystyle, the 44. Although still a small car, it was usefully larger than the Daffodil, roughly 200mm (8”) longer in wheelbase and overall length than the older model. Giovanni Michelotti had been commissioned to style the new car and produced a neat and contemporary design with slim pillars and a distinctive clamshell bonnet that blended neatly into an indented waistline. In addition to the notchback saloon, there was also a three-door estate model called the Stationcar or Combi.
The 44 was powered by a further enlargement of the flat-twin engine to 844cc, This increased the power output to 34 bhp (25 kW). The Variomatic transmission was carried over unchanged, while the swing-axle rear suspension was replaced with a more compact design. The 44 would remain in production until November 1974. Meanwhile, the Daffodil was renamed 33 in 1967 and remained in production as a cheaper and smaller model alongside the 44 until 1974.
The 44 model’s weak point was its engine, which was noisy and lacked power. In 1967, DAF signed an agreement with Renault to build its 50 bhp (37 kW) 1,108cc Cléon-Fronte engine under licence for an additional model, the 55. This featured a revised front suspension layout, with longitudinal torsion bars replacing the transverse leaf spring to make room for the new engine. The 44’s swing-axle rear suspension was retained, and the extra power of the new engine could make the 55’s handling unpredictable at the limit.
The 55 was produced in the same saloon and estate variants as the 44, plus an additional model, the Coupé, launched in March 1968. The latter was identical to the saloon below the waistline but had a different glasshouse, with frameless door glass(1) behind fixed quarter lights, pop-out rear quarter windows and a more steeply raked rear windscreen. All 55 models had a grille in place of the 44’s flush front panel, to allow airflow to the new water-cooled engine’s radiator.
The 55 was perhaps an unlikely choice as a rally car, but its Variomatic transmission provided similar benefits to a limited slip differential, so the car did enjoy some success, most notably in the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon when the Dutch National Team pairing of Rob Slotemaker and Rob Janssen achieved a credible 17th place overall. DAF produced a Marathon range-topping version of the 55 in celebration.
The 55’s potentially wayward handling was addressed when it was replaced by the 66 model in 1972. This was visually distinguished by a new full-width black plastic front grille incorporating the headlamps, but more significant changes were made to the Variomatic transmission and rear suspension. The former now incorporated a differential to make low-speed manoeuvring smoother(2), while the latter replaced swing-axles with a De Dion tube axle mounted on leaf springs, to the benefit of both ride and handling.
The 66 was again available in saloon, coupé and estate versions, with three trim levels and two power outputs from the 1,108cc engine, a 53 bhp (40kW) version for the De Luxe and Super Luxe models and a 60 bhp (45 kW) version for the Marathon top of the range model.
In 1974 the 44 was replaced by the visually identical 46 model, which received a single-belt version of the 66’s Variomatic transmission and differential, the 66’s rear suspension, and some interior upgrades.
Although DAF cars continued to sell steadily and had a loyal following, the business was increasingly peripheral to the company’s main truck making activity, so it was sold to Volvo AB in 1975 when the Swedish automaker increased its minority 33% stake to 75%. Volvo was, of course, a major competitor in the truck business, but it also had a passenger car operation that appeared complementary to DAF as it was focused on larger models.
Volvo’s first move in integrating DAF was to revise the 66 and relaunch it under its own name in saloon and estate versions(3). The Volvo 66 featured side-impact bars in the doors, larger front seats with head restraints and a safety padded steering wheel. Externally it was distinguished by large impact absorbing bumpers, while a ‘Park’ function that locked the transmission was added to the forward / reverse selector lever. The Volvo 66 remained in production for five years and sold 113,431 units.
The total number of DAF branded passenger cars produced between 1959 and 1976 was 815,646, broken down as follows:
|750 / Daffodil / 30||1961-63||39,812|
In addition to the above, there were around 4,900 light commercial vehicles produced, comprising the Pony pick-up truck, Kalmar delivery van and the 66YA, a Jeep-like (but still RWD) open-top vehicle.
Volvo also inherited the near production-ready DAF 77, a larger three-door hatchback scheduled for release in 1975. Volvo delayed its launch by a year while it re-engineered the design to its own standards and renamed it the Volvo 343. It was initially equipped with the van Doorne CVT, albeit no longer branded ‘Variomatic’. A manual gearbox option was offered from 1978, using a transaxle version of the 200’s gearbox mounted directly to the rear axle. The manual would go on to comprise the great majority of 300 Series sales and DAF’s Variomatic-only USP was consigned to history.
(1) Persistent problems with water leaks saw the coupé instead adopt conventional framed door windows from 1971.
(2) The previous set up caused a degree of rear tyre-scrub when large amounts of steering lock were used.
(3) The DAF 66 Coupé was never produced as a Volvo.
Author’s note: I am indebted to Richard Butler, editor of the DAF Owners Club magazine and website, www.dafownersclub.co.uk, for his contribution to this piece, including the provision of the DAF production data quoted above.