The DAF 66 Is a Small Car with Quirky Engineering

The latest Twin-Cam video is on the DAF 66. An unassuming Michelotti-penned saloon with some interesting underpinnings...

4w ago

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I’m sure you’ve all heard of DAF, the Dutch company that makes trucks. Well in the 1950s they also decided to start building little cars, and the DAF 600 was launched in 1958. They always made fine little cars, but they never really captured anyone’s imagination. They were always considered a little slow, driven by older people. Noddy cars, to those who thought driving a small car was beneath them. Under the skin though, there was some really interesting engineering going on, and DAF cars made a much bigger mark on the motor industry than you’d think.

Everything car related in this era boils down to the oil crisis, and this one’s no different. Every manufacturer was suffering and the economic situation led to a number of companies suddenly wanting a new small car to offer their customers. DAF was only a small company, so were a good candidate to be snatched up by a bigger firm. Not only would a buyer be blessed with small cars, but it would also secure DAF’s future. BMW were interested, but were put off by the whole truck thing. Eventually DAF would find a buyer in Volvo, who took control in 1975.

They were the big winners out of this, as not only would they get DAF’s range to play with, but they got the licencing for Renault engines and as Sweden wasn’t yet a member, access to the European Community via DAF’s Dutch plant, but also they got the all new car that DAF was working on. I’ll get back to that later.

Back to this particular car. In 1972, the Dutch company launched the DAF 66. It was a development of the old DAF 55, their first car with a water-cooled engine, and the one that DAF took racing. The new DAF 66 had styling that was a bit more conventional and some well-needed engineering upgrades.

It’s a good looking little car, and it was penned by none other than Giovanni Michelotti. It’s very of its period, but has some lovely little styling touches. It’s definitely utilitarian, but those touches really elevate it. This particular one is in a very 70s beige with very 70s graphics. Somehow in this trim, it does look a little bit Soviet. As a side note, you can instantly tell this is the work of Michelotti. I’m sure I’m not the only one seeing quite a bit of the Triumph Dolomite in the rear end.

Unusually for a small company like DAF you could get the 66 in a number of body styles. This one is the two door saloon, but you could also get a two door estate, and before Volvo took over you could also get a mad little two door coupe. They must’ve been fantastic little things. Curiously, there was also a weird little Mini Moke style thing for the Dutch military, known as the YA 66.

After Volvo’s takeover in 1975, the car was simply rebadged as the Volvo 66, although there were a few Volvo-ey changes under the skin, all in the name of safety. First and most noticeably there was a new grille, bigger bumpers, head restraints, and a softer steering wheel. Hidden were the side impact beams. Very unusual for a small car of the age.

Apart from that though, it was the same as the old DAF, and it was made through to 1980. It was produced at the NedCar factory in the Netherlands, the same plant that made stacks of Volvos, Mitsubishis, and now MINIs.

DAF cars strike me as a weird blend of innovative and antique technology. There’s a bit of both in the underpinnings. By the early 1970s most of the world had made the switch to front wheel drive in small cars, but not the Dutch. This is classic front engine, rear drive, but with the gearbox at the back like a Porsche 944.

Let’s start at the front and work our way back. Under the bonnet is a Renault engine. It’s the same Cleon Fonte unit used in pretty much every Renault from the 60s to the 90s. It’s four cylinders, overhead valves, and you could get it in the 66 in either 1.1 or 1.3 litres, with either 46 or 56 hp. All things considered, that’s not very interesting. Neither is the torsion bar front suspension, but it gets a whole lot more interesting at the back.

First of all is the rear suspension. DAFs beforehand used swing axles. The same system that Volkswagen dropped years before as Beetles had a tendency to switch ends. Swing axles aren’t great. But of course the gearbox was also at the back, so it was a transaxle. Here’s where things get interesting. DAF went and put in a De Dion tube, like a Rover P6 or an Aston Martin. It’s too complicated for a simpleton like me to explain well, but it acts as a dead axle that keeps the two driven wheels in line at all times. The tube rests on good old leaf springs, and through the differential into the transmission, it gets even better. This is the bit you’ve probably all been waiting for.

Variomatic. DAF’s own continuously variable transmission. Much more efficient than a traditional automatic, and of course continuously variable. No set gears. There’s a centrifugal clutch and a pair of belt drives that run on pulleys. The cones move in and out, continuously varying the ratios based on both vacuum and centrifugal force.

Over both DAF and Volvo production, there were about 250,000 built, and that is not much over eight years. Although they were very popular in the Netherlands and a few other European countries, Sweden didn’t take to them as you’d expect once they became a Volvo, and not many at all made it over to the UK. I know it’s not very accurate, but How Many Left shows 11 DAFs and 10 Volvos left on UK roads. These are rare little beasts.

Remember I mentioned that new car DAF was working on? Well that was the DAF 77, but after the Volvo takeover, it was renamed and launched as the Volvo 300 Series. Although a bit bigger, that was the car that would replace this little thing, and as you’d expect it was available with that Variomatic transmission.

So there you go, a look at a car that deserves more recognition. For a little manufacturer to create something so unorthodox is wonderful, and although it’s a shame there aren’t many about, it makes it all the more special when you do encounter one.

If you would like to, please do check my video overview of the DAF!

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