The history article this week is about DAF, a truck maker who branched out into car making after thinking about how they use the propulsion methods of their metal working machines.
The company was founded in 1928 by Hubert Van Doorne and his brother, Wim, as a metalworking shop and were financed by a local businessman to start manufacturing commercial vehicles. Hubert had been maintaining the car of a local brewer who helped them get started and also was a director of the company. Four years later the brothers renamed the venture “Van Doornes Aanhangwagen Fabriek” shortened to DAF and which in English means Van Doornes Trailer Factory. At this time their financier left the business leaving it to etc brothers to manage.
After the Second World War, Europe was in desperate need of trucks and cars, so the company was renamed “Van Doornes Automobiel Fabriek” and started to manufacture fully built trucks. It was during this time that the company started to develop a belt driven transmission system – similar to the ones driving their metal working machines. It took about four years to perfect and when they showed a prototype at a Dutch motor show in 1958, they received several thousand orders.
The prototype went into production as the DAF 600 featuring their new transmission called Variomatic – an early Continuously Variable Transmission using a driveshaft to a transfer box that turned two belts connected to the rear axles. The belts were V shaped and as the car accelerated the ends of the belts were moved to increase the size of the spring loaded pulleys. It was apparently possible to keep accelerating even when you gently took your foot off the accelerator thanks to the inlet manifold vacuums that controlled where the pulleys were.
The 600’s engine was a two cylinder, air-cooled Boxer unit of 590cc producing a modest 22hp. It was in production for four years and over 30,000 were built. In 1961 a sister car was added in the form of the 750, an identical car but with a 746cc variant of the engine.
For export markets, the 750 was badged as the Daffodil and this name replaced the 750 moniker after 1961 in all markets. Through successive face lifts and updates, the Daffodil lasted in production until 1967. About 150,000 units were made of the 750 and Daffodil variants. The Daffodil was also badged as the DAF 30, 31 and 32.
In 1966, DAF launched the 44, a luxury version designed with input from Michelotti, an Italian designer responsible mostly for sports cars like the Triumph Spitfire and GT6. The 44 had an 850cc version of the Boxer two cylinder with a power output of 34hp.
In 1967, the DAF 33 was launched as a replacement for the Daffodil. It was simply an updated Daffodil with all the same mechanicals components and was in production until 1974. Also in 1967, DAF produced the 55, a departure from the original models. It was much bigger, looking very similar to a SIMCA 1000 and was fitted with a Renault sourced 1,100cc engine mated to the Variomatic transmission.
In 1972, the 55 was replaced by the 66 which was also designed by Michelotti and continued the use of Renault engines. It was built in saloon, coupe or estate models. The same year the company was split into two: Volvo bought a stake in the car division with control of the associated factory and the truck business was sold to the US based International Harvester company who bought 33% with the Dutch Government buying 25% and the Van Doorne family retaining the remaining stock. The family also retained the ownership and intellectual property of the Variomatic transmission, licensing its use to Volvo through a new company VDT – Van Doorne’s Transmissie.
The period of the early 1970s was a difficult one for the automotive industry as world was heading to the 1973 Oil Crisis. However for DAF the issues were the opposite from other countries: in many countries, supply was limited, forcing the local fuel prices to rise and this caused economic woes including unemployment. In the Netherlands, the discovery of North Sea Gas put a dent in the local coal industry which caused their economic problems. The Government stepped in to help the company by facilitating the split.
The DAF 46 replaced the 44 in 1974 and was an updated version with some newer design and comfort features but still retaining the 850cc motor. It was in production for just two years. Volvo had increased its stake to 75% and by 1975 had fully acquired the company and converted it to a subsidiary. Very soon, all the DAF models were rebadged as Volvos and the factory replaced the old models with Volvo designed compact models still retaining the innovative transmission and Renault engines – in fact Volvo would go on to develop engines jointly with Renault later on.
The DAF name disappeared on cars through the late 1970s as the factory dropped the older models in favour of newer Volvo cars and in 1991, a new entity was created allowing Volvo to start to extricate itself from the business. The three owners were the Government, Volvo and Mitsubishi. In 1999, the Government sold its portion to the other two partners. Two years later, Volvo bailed out selling their share to the Japanese company.
Mitsubishi used the factory to build their own cars for European consumption and also to build cars for other manufacturers under contract. A Smart car was built in the Netherlands for several years. By 2012, Mitsubishi were also looking to exit the business, so they sold the company and assets to VDL, a local coach manufacturer, who became a full contract assembly plant for the BMW Group.
And finally, in 1995, Robert Bosch, the electronics and manufacturing conglomerate bought VDT with their variable transmission knowledge and this is now part of their Dutch business supplying the modern version of Variomatic to other car manufacturers.
First published: 7th May 2019. Last updated (links): 28th May 2019.