Constant Veracity - 1972 Huron-DAF 4A Variomatic Cosworth
In 1934, Dutch brothers Wim and Hub van Doorne converted their machine factory into a facility for the exclusive production of commercial hauling equipment. With this change, Van Doorne’s Aanhangwagen Fabriek (Van Doorne’s Trailer Factory) was born.
The company quickly branched out into multiple facets of the logistic equipment, including equipment which eased on- and offloading railroad cars. A bigger breakthrough came in 1937, when DAF produced its first vehicle. The M39 Pantradoarmored fighting vehicle based itself on DAF’s Trado six wheel conversion kit for existing trucks, and resulted in a highly lucrative defense contract which would support the company for decades to come.
Following the horrors of the Second World War, DAF found its true calling. In a natural evolution from the Trado kit and the M39, the firm produced the first ever DAF truck in 1949. This A30 was the start of what would become a massively successful division for DAF. In the years that followed, Hub van Doorne took his company into several different markets.
Buses, haulers, fire engines, pickup trucks and light delivery vans marked an aggressive expansion, and the company grew accordingly. However, there was one category of motor vehicle which truly fascinated Van Doorne: the ordinary passenger car.
Inspired by his personal Buick Super 8 and its silky-smooth Dynaflow automatic transmission, he took it upon himself to bring this level of user-friendliness and comfort to the general buying public. But as contemporary automatic transmissions were giant, heavy and expensive contraptions, he needed to think of something completely different.
His eureka-moment came during a solemn moment in his now vast factory. Van Doorne suddenly noticed the giant rubber conveyor belts present all over the place, which gave him an unusual and brilliant idea.
His ingenious design employed a set of four conical pulleys and a drive belt for each wheel. A small driveshaft took power from the engine to the first set of pulleys, which in turn drove the second set mounted at the wheels through the belts.
The conical shape of the split pulleys enabled the transmission to “shift” by moving the belt from the wide to the narrow side and vice versa. This seamless process effectively provided a nearly infinite amount of gear ratios. DAF named the revolutionary unit Variomatic.
Dubbed Het Pientere Pookje (The Clever Lever), the system found a large audience after being fitted to DAF’s first ever passenger car, 1959’s 600. Powered by an air-cooled 600cc two-cylinder engine, the attractive little car was exactly what the Dutch public needed in wake of WWII. The 600 provided a small, practical, cheap and easy to use form of transportation. Following its positive reception, the car was continually improved throughout the 1960’s.
By the end of the decade the dainty two-cylinder was seen as a bit last week though, so DAF hastily formed a relationship with French car maker Renault to supply the 1.1L Cléon four cylinder engine. The bigger unit was put into to what they hoped would be perceived as a more mature machine, 1968’s 55.
The switch to Renault power was motivated by more than just keeping the DAF-range up to date. In his quest to bring the comfort of an automatic transmission to the masses, Hub van Doorne had run into a unexpected problem. His idiot-proof car appealed mainly to those with no interest in driving whatsoever.
The weak, feeble-minded, elderly and plain incapable flocked to DAF’s cars, earning them the unfortunate reputation of being the chariot of choice for the gigantic blithering simpletons of motoring. Some even went as far as having their cars limited to 25 kph to avoid having to get a driving license altogether. “Truttenschudder met jarretel-aandrijving“ (Old hag-shakers with garter belt-drive) quickly became part of the national conscience.
Tired of his proud marque becoming a laughing stock, Hub van Doorne ordered a succession of projects intended to turn around DAF’s dreadful public image. A three pronged attack on the world of motorsport formed his main battle plan. Van Doorne took the 55 model rallying in the London-Sydney Marathon, commissioned a special 555 rallycross version and even started supplying Variomatic transmissions to various Formula Three teams.
Though these efforts were all successful, DAF’s poor standing in the Dutch market didn’t change a bit. By this time, the profile of the average DAF-driver had become so ingrained into the minds of the public, it would take a lot more than British rallycross victories and decent rally finishes to convince them otherwise. With this in mind, Hub van Doorne pushed ahead with his sporting agenda into the new decade.
At the time, hillclimb-racing was just as prestigious and popular as ordinary circuit racing, with the European Championship attracting big name manufacturers and drivers from various top level disciplines. Naturally, Hub van Doorne had accounted for this. As there were very little hills to climb in Holland, he had delegated an official team to contest the Belgian National Hillclimb Championship.
One day, driver Jean-Louis Haxhe rang up DAF with a request for a more competitive car for the 1972 season. Haxhe had been campaigning a 555 up to that point, which had originally been designed for rallycross. With more and more dedicated sports prototypes entering the series, the 555 was no longer competitive. His request was met in a very unusual way.
The previous year, a small Canadian firm by the name of Huron had started running their 4A 2L sportscar. The car was powered by a 1.8L Cosworth FVC engine, and managed to contest a single race before the company folded. A broken differential ruined its chances of finishing this one event, the BOAC 1000 at Brands Hatch.
As it happened, Huron received sponsorship from British multinational Reynolds Tobacco, proprietor of the Camel Cigarettes brand. At the same time, Reynolds also sponsored DAF’s motorsport programs.
Reynolds Tobacco traditionally paid out at the end of each season, but this time their contribution would not be purely monetary. Realizing DAF’s need for a competent sports prototype, the tobacco giant offered the two 4A chassis to the Dutchmen, since they had repossessed them after Huron’s demise.
DAF was intrigued by the offer, but sent rally project manager Rob Koch over to London to evaluate the possibility of using the cars first. Koch’s main concern was the 4A’s potential compatibility with DAF’s trademark Variomatic-system. His findings confirmed the Huron chassis was a viable candidate, so he got the green light to bring one of the cars back to the continent.
The Huron 4A had been drawn up by Swiss designer Jo Marquart, who had previously provided his services to winning teams like McLaren and Lotus.
His experienced showed, as the otherwise conventional aluminium monocoque featured radiators mounted on the sills, an unusual position at the time. Because of the location of the radiators, the car’s fiberglass body sported two massive “nostrils” which gave it a very distinctive appearance
Back at DAF the traditional Hewland FT200 five-speed gearbox was thrown out, and the car was fitted with a Formula Three-spec Variomatic instead. Shorter belts were necessary to make the complicated pulley system compact enough to fit the back of the 4A.
To improve performance, the outdated FVC engine was replaced with a more modern BDA of identical displacement. Fueled by Weber DCOE 45 carburetors feisty four cylinder produced a hefty 210 horsepower. Thanks to a truly microscopical 575 kg (1267 lbs), this made for hair-raising performance. Later on in the season, power was even bumped up to 265 horsepower after the fitment of a Lucas fuel injection system.
The Variomatic had been a good transmission in virtually all of DAF’s racing efforts, but hillclimb racing suited it more than anything. Thanks to the continuous drive from the system, the engine was always in its optimum rev range. Once at speed, all Haxhe had to do was hold on tight and focus on his lines. Since he had no need to take his hands off the wheel, leaving him with far more control of his car.
Jean-Louis Haxhe and the modified Huron made history by taking several victories during the 1972 Belgian National Hillclimb Championship. At Condroz, Haxhe not only won, but immediately took the course record. Once again Hub van Doorne’s clever invention had proven its worth in competition. Jean-Louis Haxhe comfortably took the title that year, leaving DAF with no more incentives to continue.
As a result, the car was immediately retired after the end of the season. Besides the achievement of their goals, DAF shelved the car to scavenge its F3-spec Variomatic to keep Jan de Rooy’s rallycross car going. With no further use for it, the company returned the car to Reynolds Tobacco. Shortly after this the car disappeared without a trace.
Following the buyout of DAF’s passenger car division by Volvo in 1975, DAF-president Martien van Doorne and his son Paul started trying to assemble a collection of historically significant DAF’s. The pair weren’t able to track down the Huron until 2009, when they found Haxhe’s chassis #002 and its sister car in the hands of historic racer and preparation specialist Simon Hadfield.
The Van Doorne’s were able to purchase the ex-Variomatic car, and commissioned Hadfield to perform a full restoration. A test at Mallory Park proved the car was better than ever. Adding to the fun, Goodwood-organizer Lord March noticed the reborn sportscar, and invited it to run at the 2010 edition of the famous Festival of Speed. Paul van Doorne took the honor of driving the 4A, wearing a replica helmet of the one Jean-Louis Haxhe scored his title in.
The Huron-DAF 4A Variomatic was a struggling car company’s last attempt to break away from its questionable image. DAF’s passenger car division proved successful, but their customers gave their genuinely good runabouts a terrible reputation.
Hub van Doorne’s bright idea failed to make it with the cool kids, so he started lashing out in the most rebellious way possible. DAF’s large-scale assault on motorsport was completed by the failure of a small Canadian racecar factory, a helpful tobacco magnate and an eager Belgian looking to score his first hillclimb title.
Although the CVT-powered wedge quickly dispatched its opposition, it failed to burn the image of the elderly, dim, terribly unskilled DAF driver out of the minds of the buying public. As it turned out, nothing could ever save the DAF name in the heavily image-sensitive world of family motoring.