Welcome to the final act of this European Deadly Sins trilogy, dedicated to smaller nations’ failed automotive efforts. After having seen Belgium’s obscure Minerva-Impéria and Switzerland’s glamorous Monteverdi, let’s top things off with a look at the remarkable Dutch singularity that was DAF.
I think it fair to posit that, historically, Holland was never very fertile ground for automobile manufacturing. Compared to similarly-sized European countries such as Austria, Belgium, Sweden or even Switzerland, few automakers emerged – even back in the early 20th century. One firm did last long enough to find some success in the sports/luxury niche: Spyker. Alas, the company was mismanaged and went bust in 1926.
That was the long and short of Dutch automobile production for decades. Up to the early ‘50s, there were a few quality coachbuilders for cars (there were many for buses, hearses and other commercial vehicles). The most famous was Pennock, who bodied the cars above – specials or drop-top versions of American cars (which were all the rage for decades in Benelux), as well as various fancy (or not) European chassis. But even before the war, something was brewing in Brabant.
Hubertus “Hub” and Willem “Wim” van Doorne were born, in 1900 and 1906 respectively, to a metalworker father. Hub van Doorne learnt the trade from his father, who died when Hub was only 12, and from apprenticeships in various industries. In 1928, Hub van Doorne started a small metalworking business in Eindhoven. As the work became more specialized in trailers, by 1932 the name was changed to Van Doorne’s Aanhangwagen Fabriek (DAF). Wim van Doorne had been involved from the start and showed interest in management and administration. Hub van Doorne was a sort of technical director / co-president of the company.
The first revolutionary idea that DAF introduced was the Trado system, patented by Piet van der Trappen and Hub van Doorne. The Trado could be adapted to any truck’s rear axle, turning it into a twin axle type of setup. This was developed into a 6×6 and 4×4 (H-Drive) by the eve of the Second World War, but as yet, DAF hadn’t built their own chassis. The Dutch government placed an order in 1939 with Eindhoven for a 6×6 armoured vehicle, the DAF M-39. Crucial French and German parts became very difficult to source by the time production got started; only 12 were made by the time Holland fell in 1940. The Germans were intrigued by the design (and used the available M-39s), but production was not resumed.
DAF largely escaped the material damage that so many others had to deal with, and as such was in decent financial health in 1945. The van Doornes rightly figured that trucks were going to be in great need after the war, so Hub and his team designed a chassis and CoE body that would be ideal for the times ahead while Wim reorganized and transformed the Eindhoven site into a proper factory. In 1949, as DAF officially became Van Doorne’ Automobiel Fabriek, a line of 3- and 5-tonne trucks (as well as buses and trolleybuses) were introduced, powered by Perkins, Hercules or Leyland engines.
DAF trucks and buses soon garnered a favourable reputation, especially in northern Europe. Exports are usually an important part of any vehicle manufacturer’s success, but when your domestic market is the Netherlands (population in 1949: 10 million), foreign sales become vital. The company (and the town of Eindhoven) thrived in the ‘50s, eventually producing its own engines and axles by the late ‘50s. There was room for DAF to grow, but perhaps outside the truck business. In 1941, Hub van Doorne built his first motorized transport, though this one-seat three-wheeler (nicknamed Rijdende Regenjas, or “driving overcoat”) was just an experiment. After the war and the truck line, van Doorne had been busy developing a “light” version of the Trado that was showing promise.
The idea was one that could be adapted to a small RWD car. It consisted in a transaxle transmission that basically combined a transmission and a limited-slip differential, the power going to the each rear wheel via a twin pulley and belt setup. The result, dubbed Variomatic, was the world’s first continuously variable transmission (CVT). Rather than modifying an existing model or partnering with another (necessarily foreign) automaker, DAF determined that they should build a car around the Variomatic. For the benefit of all, here’s how Wikipedia describes the system:
The DAF Variomatic employs centrifugal weights to control the drive ratio of the transmission and is enhanced by the engine manifold vacuum. The action of the bob weights and inlet vacuum combined to pull together the cheeks of two, variable diameter, driving pulleys, driven directly from the engine. These were connected, by rubber ‘V’ belts, to two similar driven pulleys, connected to the drive wheels. The cheeks of the driven pulleys were held together by spring tension, which was progressively overcome as the drive pulleys expanded and the tension of the belts increased. The DAF Variomatics were thereby the only cars ever produced which went faster by the simple expedient of gently and gradually releasing the accelerator once top engine speed had been reached, as the increased vacuum took over from the reducing bob weight speed. The Variomatic also permitted increased engine braking by operating a switch on the dashboard which reversed the action of the vacuum on the pulley’s diaphragm, seeking a lower ratio with increased manifold vacuum. Two separate transmissions ran the two driving wheels, eliminating the need for a differential. The two transmissions could provide different drive ratios, permitting the wheels to rotate at different speeds. The duplication also provided redundancy. If one belt broke, the vehicle could still be driven. An interesting feature: putting the car in reverse reversed the entire drive system. This enabled the vehicle, at least the earlier examples, in theory to reach the same top speed in reverse as forward.
The brothers van Doorne knew they had something. Automatics for the people! DAF created a niche, a global first: a subcompact with two pedals. European competition was heating up at the lower end of the market in these late ‘50s. The new DAF would have that CVT ace up its sleeve, but otherwise, the new car was pretty mainstream for 1958. “Small two-door economy car with an air-cooled twin, drum brakes, and trendy rear fins.” Autobianchi? BMW? Glas? Lloyd? Neckar? NSU? Steyr-Puch? Trabant? Vespa? Some sort of new derivative of Citroën, DKW, Fiat, Panhard or Saab? Could be anything, including the DAF 600.
The DAF flat-twin engine, a 590cc producing 19 hp (DIN), was created and built in Eindhoven. It has been described as essentially half a VW flat-4. Subsequently, the DAF twin saw its displacement and power grow significantly, up to 850cc and 34 hp in under a decade. Still, up was the only way to go and these remain underwhelming numbers – the twins made by BMW, NSU or Panhard, three automakers with a large following in the flatter nether regions of Europe, were far more exciting. The DAF design favoured VW-like solidity and ease of operation over performance. This was to be DAF’s overall philosophy and it would come back to haunt them.
For now, DAF began peddling the 600 across Europe and even over in the US, where automatic transmissions had become very popular. The car’s unibody construction, entirely made by DAF, was saluted as a very good first effort, though its 630kg weight was a bit much for 19 hp (for instance, the NSU Prinz 2, which had a similar amount of power but weighed only 500kg). The Variomatic was not too bad, weight-wise, compared to a standard-issue gearbox. But it did take up a bit more space than usual at the back. This, coupled with the transmission hump, meant interior space was not the car’s strong suit, especially in a world overwhelmingly consisting of FWD and rear-engined competitors.
The 600 was ideal as a city car and/or a second car, but the engine size was quite limiting. This did not prevent DAF from offering a 600 pick-up and a panel van in late 1959 – DAF’s name was chiefly associated with professional vehicles, after all. The DAF 750 arrived in 1961 to add a few direly-needed horses; a deluxe version was also launched, the Daffodil.
For some reason, the Daffodil was known on the West German market as the DAF 30. In 1963, a facelift was operated and the Daffodil (or DAF 31) became the only model as DAF dropped the 600 / 750. Though modest, this wide grille was a sign of the boys in Eindhoven getting their act together in terms of car design. The initial DAF design was decidedly odd-looking, which it need not have been.
The answer was to do what everyone else was doing in the early ‘60s: go to Italy. Giovanni Michelotti (above, finalizing the new DAF saloon’s design) got the account and produced the Daffodil’s urgent facelift, but he would get to style the next generation of DAFs. That was well played on DAF’s part – making a pretty car is just as expensive as making an ugly one. Besides, the range had only one way to go: up to a 4-cyl. small family car, with possibilities for several variants.
Not that special versions of the Daffodil hadn’t already been considered: this stylish (and quite Italianate) coupé, built in 1962, was designed in Eindhoven but remained a one-off. Soon, the prolific Michelotti started proposing new, sometimes radical and always interesting designs.
This arresting 1965 “GT” coupé even got built in Turin and shipped to Holland, but DAF never even bothered installing an engine. This was a little too spicy for the Dutch palate. Fortunately, it has been preserved and can be seen at the DAF Museum (and in this great CC post by our main man in Amsterdam, Johannes Dutch).
After another facelift in 1965, the Daffodil / DAF 32 name disappeared in 1967. The car was even more extensively facelifted and remained in production virtually unchanged (and on sale in the US, until DAF pulled out in 1972 due to the Variomatic’s lack of a “Park” position) as the 750cc DAF 33 – the base model of DAF’s range – until 1974.
Meanwhile, the all-new Michelotti-penned DAF, the 44, came out in late 1966. It was soon accompanied by interesting variants other than the basic two-door saloon, including a hatchback station wagon, a panel van and a pick-up. This was the last car Hub van Doorne oversaw as DAF’s chief engineer, as he reached retirement age in 1965. He remained very active in promoting the Variomatic, which had other applications than just twin-cylinder cars (more on that in a bit), through his new business, Van Doorne’s Transmissie (VDT), which continued R&D on the system.
Speaking of the devil, the DAF 44’s flat-twin was now up to 850cc, but the rest of the car’s mechanicals were still pretty much as they were in the 750cc Daffodils, though front disc brakes had been added. One increasingly problematic area was the rear swing axle suspension. The design worked well on the original 600, but now the car was more powerful and over 100kg heavier, ride comfort was becoming an issue. It seemed like the limits of the design had been reached – a conclusion that most automakers using swing axles also reached by that time. If a larger DAF were to be made, the swing axles would have to go, which also meant the Variomatic would need to be modified. That was only the first of three issues facing DAF in the mid-‘60s.
The other obvious issue was the engine. A more powerful car would necessitate a completely new engine, most likely a 4-cyl., but DAF’s capacity was stretched to breaking point. The engine would have to be sourced from another supplier, just like what arch-rival Saab were about to do themselves. But unlike Saab, DAF wanted something around the 1-litre mark. After careful consideration, DAF signed a deal with Renault to use the R8’s 1100cc plant, the five-bearing Cléon Fonte.
There were no resources to attempt a home-grown 4-cyl. and work out a new rear suspension because of DAF’s crippling lack of capacity. Production rates were never higher than demand and Eindhoven was getting severely cramped. To make the jump from selling around 20,000 passenger cars per year to 100,000 – while allowing bus, truck and military vehicle production to also grow, DAF built a new factory dedicated to car production in Born, a village in the nearby province of Limburg, in 1968.
The 4-cyl. DAF 55 was launched in late 1967 to coincide with this increased capacity. The new 55 models included a two-door sedan and a hatchback wagon, as on the 44 range. The Variomatic and the rear swing axles remained, but the front suspension traded its leaf springs for torsion bars. The brakes were now dual-circuit and discs were mounted on the front wheels. The Renault engine provided 45 hp (DIN), which propelled the car to about 135 kph (in either direction).
In March 1968, a snazzy (and apparently hilarious) 2+2 coupé was also launched – DAF were trying to shift their image, which was already one of “old-people’s car.” The unlikely role that DAF played in late ‘60s / early ‘70s motorsport did improve this image somewhat. The Variomatic’s reliability, incredibly good traction, ease of use and limited slip diff-like effect made DAF cars a very interesting proposition for hill-climbs, snow racing and the like. When a DAF 55 finished the punishing 1968 London-Sydney Marathon a remarkable 17th out of 100 cars (of which 56 finished the race), a special 65 hp sports version of the 55 called ‘Marathon’ was launched, complete with go-faster stripes.
So by 1968, DAF had a three-car range: the Daffodil-based 33 with a 750cc air-cooled twin, followed by the 44 (850cc twin) and the 55 (1108cc water-cooled 4-cyl.) The new 55 was doing well across Western Europe. The twin twins were doing ok too, at least in flatter regions; hills and mountains were never their forte. One snag: DAF’s three cars all looked like each other a bit too much. This was to the detriment of the 55, which was aimed at a new segment where it looked at least one size too small – and where it was easily confused, by the casual observer, with the slow and noisy 44 grannymobile. The only one of the lot that stuck out, the 55 coupé, sold extremely well partly because of this issue: it was the only one that didn’t look like great-auntie’s runabout.
The Image thing was becoming a real concern. Even back in 1958, DAFs were small by European standards. In the ‘70s, the future of twin-cylinder air-cooled engines would be, at best, limited. The 55 was going to make or break the company’s future. How did it hold up vis-à-vis its numerous competitors, as the ’70s dawned? Things had moved on since DAF arrived on the scene a decade before. There were a lot of models offering a wider variety of approaches (certainly lots more than today): rear engine, FWD and RWD were all on offer within the 1-litre segment; some models could be ordered with semi or fully-automatic transmission, a recent phenomenon. Let’s pick a foreign market to see how the 55 fared outside its (flat) comfort zone.
A number of competitor cars (Renault 6, Renault 8, Simca 1000, Peugeot 204, Škoda 110, etc.) were omitted, as they only came as four/five-door saloons. The French market, like its southern neighbours (and, to a lesser extent, the UK), was always keen on rear passenger doors – especially if the car was over 1 litre. This glaring gap in DAF’s line-up likely caused the firm many lost sales. New Japanese competitors, with their formula of crudely engineered cars – but powerful, attractive, well-built and fully-optioned – took time to take hold in France, but in Austria, Benelux, Scandinavia or Switzerland, Japanese cars were a common sight by 1970. Most cars in this category crossed a certain threshold from “little car” to “small family car,” but the DAF, the NSU, the Beetle and the Imp clone did not.
In 1968-70, DAF and Michelotti made several prototypes, some of which are at the DAF museum, to continue broadening the range. This led to several cul-de-sacs: a P500 four-door car (top right) that might have used the Renault 10’s 1300cc, the small P300 (top left) to carry on with the DAF twin and Michelotti’s own “DAF 77” four-door concept (bottom row), which was reported about at the time. The company dithered a while, finally opting for a quick-fix facelift of the 55, albeit with a completely new rear suspension.
The new and improved 4-cyl. DAF was the 66, which premiered in 1972 with a fresh, clean-cut front end. (At least it didn’t look like a Triumph 1300 that shrank in the wash like its predecessor…) The swing axles were finally gone, replaced by a far more suitable de Dion setup. The familiar saloon / “Stationcar” / coupé and Marathon variants were all included.
But this redesign and improved ride came at a cost. One was the revision of the Renault engine to conform to new pollution limitation efforts, which meant the new car was as slow as its predecessor (the engine lost 2 hp). The transaxle nature of the Variomatic meant it was also redesigned for the de Dion: a proper differential had to be added. This negated the Variomatic’s diff-like qualities, which had made the car attractive from a performance and handling point of view, particularly in winter weather.
In 1973, DAF proposed the Marathon 1.3 litre option for the 66 range (wagon included), which included a quad headlamp grille. But the 1966 body shell, which was fine for a 750cc, seemed out of its depth in comparison to the average 1300cc of the mid-‘70s. In short: the 66 was a Deadly Sin. DAF were unable to get their ducks in a row and replace the 55, which had done ok but not great, with a new, larger DAF for young families, people who wanted a bit more oomph and folks who did not connect with the 55’s lack of rear doors.
The larger DAF was in the works, and virtually production-ready by 1972. It descended from the P900, the only design of the 1968-70 prototypes that went ahead. Dubbed DAF 77, it was previewed in the trade press at the time and seemed intriguing – though it still only had two doors, it now had a trendy hatchback. But the little DAF fish in the big European pond was in someone’s crosshairs already by now.
Volvo’s main issue, since the late ‘60s, was the European single market and their lack of access to it. Sweden was a long way from trying to get involved with the EEC, which hampered Volvo’s growth in Europe – particularly now that the Brits were (temporarily?) joining the trade bloc. Volvo established a two-prong European strategy: develop a joint-venture to manufacture engines (with Peugeot and Renault) and take control of a EEC-registered company. DAF, rather small and somewhat isolated, was the ideal candidate. DAF’s profitability improved with the launch of the 66, which had very good initial sales. It was time for Volvo to make their move.
The van Doornes, who owned DAF for decades, were splitting up the empire. Wim van Doorne, who had left the company’s directorship in the previous months, recommended that DAF should sell the car factory and re-focus on trucks, in partnership with another truck manufacturer. Effective on the 1st of January 1973, Volvo bought one third of DAF’s carmaking operation. DAF and Volvo had complementary ranges and cultures, but the DAF marque was in serious peril. A controlling share of DAF’s bus, truck and military side (in Eindhoven) remained in the van Doornes’ hands for the time being, with the Dutch government and International Harvester holding the rest. Eventually, DAF merged with Leyland Trucks in 1987; Leyland-DAF went bankrupt in 1993 and de-merged – both companies survive to this day, having subsequently re-merged as part of PACCAR. DAF’s bus branch was spun off in 1990 and bought by the Dutch VDL Group, which also owns the Born factory.
The sun was setting on DAF, yet a new model was launched in 1974. The 850cc DAF 44 got a slight makeover and traded the swing axle for the 66’s de Dion and a new, single-belt Variomatic, making this beautiful new automobile the aptly-named DAF 46; the old Daffodil-based DAF 33 finally got the chop. Somehow, it was fitting for the marque to breathe its last in the same way it came to be: to the melodious sound of an air-cooled flat-twin. The DAF 46 sold rather poorly (about 15,000 in two years), as the asthmatic engine and the transmission changes were booed by most contemporary observers. Indeed, the 46 had a (cheaper) new Variomatic single-belt system, making it a less attractive proposition than previous DAFs in terms of reliability. Clearly, the 2-cyl. cars had had their day. Deadly Sin? Well, it’s hard for a cadaver to commit those – and by the time the 46 was out, DAF were already “van Doomed.”
By mid-1975, Volvo had increased their participation in DAF to 75%. Volvo’s plans, as well as the continued existence of DAF trucks, meant the DAF marque was going to disappear in short order. The first to get the treatment was the 66. In becoming a Volvo in August 1975, it also piled on new trendy rubber bumpers, a revised grille (of course) and a touch or two of Swedish wisdom, such as redesigning the Variomatic’s floor shifter to read “PRND,” as on nearly all automatics by then (previous Variomatics did not have a “Park” position). The cabin was given a makeover with additional safety features, such as rear seat belts – it was a Volvo now, after all.
The Volvo 66 was the proverbial poor man’s Volvo. And as such, it was irreplaceable – Volvo had no intention to do so. But as long as it was there and that a steady 15,000-20,000 units could be sold yearly, why mess with it? Volvo continued making the 66, still powered by a 1.1 or a 1.3 Renault engine, until 1980.
The DAF 46 made it to the 1976 model year as the last DAF-badged car to emerge from Born – with enough stocks to last until mid-1977. This was just to keep dealership with something to sell alongside the revamped 66 while the new Volvo 343 (formerly DAF 77) went into production. The new Volvo, which was in every sense the last DAF, was unveiled at the 1976 Geneva Motor Show, but took another six months to hit the streets.
The car still kept the Variomatic (and RWD), but now had a 70 hp Renault 1.4 as its base engine. The car got off to a bad start due to early production snafus that harmed the car’s reputation, which was still tainted by its blatant DAF origins: the Volvo 300 series was a notable bomb in Sweden, where most people thought (not unreasonably) that it just wasn’t a proper Volvo. In the late ’70s, the Swedish company tried to buy out Saab and had to reduce its participation in the JV to 55%.
In due course and with the help of the Dutch taxpayer, Volvo ironed out the problems and improved the car’s appeal by engineering a 5-door version and later a 4-door notchback (the 360) variant. Mechanically, Volvo introduced a new manual gearbox (progress?) and a more powerful Volvo 2 litre option, as well as a 1.6 Diesel. Volvo’s role in the 300 series’ eventual success was pivotal, but the car can be seen as DAF’s Pyrrhic victory: sales picked up quite nicely in the ‘80s and ended up tallying well over 1 million when the Born factory halted 340/360 production in 1991. By contrast, DAF produced a little over 800,000 cars from 1958 to 1976.
The Variomatic proved its worth even in prototype racing. Besides the rally cars, DAF tried their hand at prototype racing and hillclimbs: in 1972, DAF bought out Huron, a Canadian racing team, and transformed the car with a rear-mounted Variomatic transmission, mated to a potent 1.8 litre Cosworth engine. The resultant success did not change DAF’s image (it was a bit late for that), but it did prove the Variomatic’s endurance and flexibility.
Hub van Doorne’s VDT firm completely overhauled with modern electronics and steel push-belts, and tried out in a Williams Formula 1 in 1993. Williams claimed he only had one gear; his competitors and the FIA replied that he had 1001 gears and the system was banned before it could be tried out on the track. Though VDT was bought out by Bosch, the belt-and-pulley transmission system never disappeared, though – scooters, snowmobiles and various other applications used it over the years. The recent re-introduction of the CVT in cars, still using Variomatic / VDT principles, is a testament to the genius of Hub van Doorne.
The story of DAF is bittersweet, as many of these Deadly Sins are. The genius of Hub van Doorne’s transmission ensured that DAF found clients for their wares, but these clients were not usually folks who liked to drive. DAF stuck doggedly to their initial formula, making the jump to the 1-itre segment, but this was the concept’s plateau. The company was simply not big enough to carry on solo and develop the car they needed to escape its pigeonhole. Instead, DAF hesitated and stuttered with the 66 and 46, mere tweaks of the 55 and 44 predecessors, while the Vikings were at the gates. The somewhat unexpected success of the 66 merely increased Volvo’s appetite and forced them to act quickly. Call it envy, call it greed – the DAF 66 was a Deadly Sin, though the deadlier / original one was DAF’s lack of a second act after the “little automatic for old or disabled folks” concept they unveiled in 1958 had limited appeal and/or run its course.
Still, DAF had a lasting positive effect on the Dutch automotive sector, as well as the Netherlands as a whole. The Born factory is still very much in operation (making MINIs). It is now known as VDL NedCar NV, which to this Simpsons fan sounds like the rival marque of the Homer. A re-booted Spyker and a few others such as Donkervoort have kept the flame of motorsport alive after DAF’s trailblazing efforts. And guess where Tesla decided to build their European factory and HQ?
There we have it, three unusual European destinations in one triptych. I hope you enjoyed this little trip off the beaten path, though geographically not far from the Italian Issues, French Failures, British Blunders and Teutonic Troubles covered in previous installments. Only one question remains: where to next?
My heartfelt thanks to Johannes “DAF-man” Dutch for his very generous help in writing this series.
Car Show Classics: 2017 DAF Museum Days – Variomatics With A Twist, by Johannes Dutch
CC History: A 1929 Letter To DAF’s Founders – About (Not) Throwing Snowballs, by Johannes Dutch
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European Deadly Sins series