The Glove Box: DAF

The Glove Box: DAF

Does your car have a continuously variable transmission? If it does, auto enthusiasts are liable pass you off as a mindless, lazy sheep. But fear not! In fact, the CVT has a history of its own. Today, we’re talking about DAF. Now, unlike most of the other ones I pull out of The Glove Box, I don’t know how to make these cars interesting, and I have little clue as to why anyone would buy one. However, the DAF compact cars are worth knowing about for two reasons: their influence on Volvo, and their pioneering Variomatic transmission.

From 1958 until the mid-1970s, this Dutch firm known much more widely for its trucks produced a series of mildly stylish small cars. If you take anything away from this article, please just know that the Netherlands did at least at one point have a mainstream car brand to its name, and that if you ever feel blue, you can just search up “DAF reverse racing” on YouTube and be content with life.

1966 ad, scanned and uploaded by Alden Jewell on Flickr

Hub and Wim van Doorne may just have the best names of any founding figures of an automotive marque. They came relatively late to the wheeled-vehicle market, only starting their machine shop in 1928 with financial backing from a Mr. Huenges, a local businessman. By 1933, they had developed a lightweight design for semi trailers that became popular in the still-nascent long-haul trucking market. Somehow appropriately, Hub (born in a town called America, bizarrely) did much of the engineering work, while Wim focused his energy more on the business side.

In 1948, they renamed their company from van Doorne Aanhangwagen Fabriek (DAF) to van Doorne Automobiel Fabriek (still DAF); Hub and Wim were entering the field of engines and chassis, no longer just the trailers pulled behind them. Buses with slide-out engines and two new truck chassis debuted in 1949, and a new factory followed in 1950.

DAF’s swinging ‘50s culminated with the release of the 600, a petite two-door sedan with simple but arguably attractive styling. At least it looked like a product of the Jet Age, as it was. Hub and Wim chose to develop small cars alongside their truck business presumably to capitalize on Europe’s postwar microcar craze. While they came a little late, the larger size and technological innovations of the new DAFs made up for it.

Some sheep observe a DAF 600 Luxe. Photo from Bruno from Belgium on Flickr

As the name implies, the 600 had a 600-cc engine, essentially what one might find on a motorcycle. Tied to a car, it was not the fastest piece of machinery. DAF’s first move, in 1961, was to add a larger engine as an option: all of 750 cubic centimeters. This model, though at first called the 750, sold better and for longer (until 1967) as the Daffodil. The ‘50s-styled small cars, with some help from Italian designer Giovanni Michelotti, soldiered on until 1974, ending as the DAF 33.

In 1966, though, was the big development. Michelotti designed the much more modern 44, which sat above the 33 in the lineup. This model went through various engine sizes from 850 to 1100 cc and names 55 and 46. In 1972, the even more modern 66 came out, offering either a 1.1- or 1.3-liter engine. The 44 on up came in wagon, coupe, or standard sedan form. In total, the better part of a million DAF cars rolled out of the factory.

Just like Volvos, DAF cars earned a reputation as “grandma cars”—while slower than other compacts at the time, they had safer handling. For better or for worse, Volvo managed to purchase a company that aligned quite well with its own values to kick off its compact car effort. After the purchase of DAF’s car arm, Volvo stopped production of the older 46 design but kept the 66 going until 1980. The car that became the Volvo 300 series would have been the DAF 77.

DAF 55 coupe. Photo from Aleksander Kjær Steig on Flickr.

But here was the big deal: the DAF Variomatic transmission, the first continuously variable transmission (CVT) in effectively any production car. Now, there’s no shame in not knowing what transmissions do, so I’ll tell you: they give an engine leverage, allowing for the most efficient use of power in a given situation. Instead of a traditional automatic or manual transmission, which can only choose between a set of gear ratios, though, the CVT uses belts, pulleys, and cones to create a system that allows for effectively infinite variation of the “gear” ratio. A CVT thus finds the optimal engine speed for a situation and holds it there.

There are many different ways to build a CVT, and it’s actually kind of fascinating to theorize about all the different ways an engine can transmit its power to the wheels. What all CVTs have in common is that, instead of the trademark rising engine note and “shifting” sensation of a geared transmission, the computers simply choose the right ratio and keep the cones there even as speed changes. Accelerating in a CVT vehicle is, well, unique. The static sound of the engine and the feeling of acceleration contrast with each other. Many auto enthusiasts hate the “rubbery” feeling and “mooing” noise, but the truth is that a CVT is a very efficient way to get power down, and becoming more popular as new models come out in the present day.

DAF cars made exclusive use of the Variomatic, which means that, unlike nigh on every other European small car, you will never find one with a manual transmission. Automatic transmissions were very rare at the time, so the aging demographic might have been excited by the novel prospect of a car that would shift for them.

Does that kill the appeal for car enthusiasts? Oh, no. See, the Variomatic, while a rather primitive piece of engineering, has a trick up its sleeve. Without gears, there can be no reverse gear, so to reverse a DAF, the entire transmission went into reverse, meaning that these slow little cars could go just as fast backwards as forwards. What do we get from this? Reverse racing! The Dutch reverse racing (achteruit rijden) league had to make a separate class for the DAFs because they were simply so speedy. Check below for some links.

Volvo 66. Photo from Honda Brochures on Flickr.

Interestingly, Volvo kept pursuing the CVT well after buying the DAF car business. Volvo engineers overhauled the Variomatic for use in the 400 series of cars. Perhaps they saw the transmission’s potential to attract the sort of people who might buy a Buick sedan here in the States. Whatever the transmission, though, the 400 series benefited from the existence of DAF cars. Engineering expertise and a certain nonconformist spirit probably transferred from the old Dutch firm, and the factory certainly did.

I hope this pair of articles has opened a door on Volvo’s history somewhat. While none of these cars came to the United States, they show a different side to the company than our ubiquitous boxy wagons ever can. I consulted the usual complement of general histories to write this article. Unique Cars and Parts, the DAF Owners’ Club, the DAF Club of America, and DAF itself all have lots of fun information on their websites that would be worth your while. Wikipedia was useful in reminding me of the workings and varieties of the CVT.

I’ll leave you with the best links: reverse racing videos here, here, here, here, and a few other places. There’s some other good “racing” action in those, too, if you care to spend the time. It’s also worth reading Jason Torchinsky’s Jalopnik article on the DAF Kalmar, a mail truck based on the 44. Where might The Glove Box head next? It’s anyone’s guess, but you’ve probably figured out the types of cars I like by now. See you then.

(Cover photo from Evan Karageorgos on Flickr)