Forward Thinking - 1967 DAF 55 Variomatic "Achterwaartse Arend"
During the late 1950’s, Dutch truck manufacturer DAF was looking for a change. Business was booming in the trucking business, which left the company with plenty of budget to explore new markets. So soon after the horrors of the Second World War, the most lucrative opportunity laid in the small car market.
Continental Europe had been torn apart by the effects of the war, which left vital resources like steel in short supply. As the rebuilding process began, the European public was in dire need of personal transportation. With the lack of resources and narrow city streets in mind, this resulted in a flood of small vehicles to fill the void. This development was in stark contrast to the excesses of the American car market and its “bigger is better“ philosophy.
By 1958, DAF’s first car was ready. Dubbed the 600, the stylish little two-door sedan caused quite a stir at the Amsterdam Motor Show. From an engineering perspective the car seemed to be fairly traditional, featuring a 600 cc flat twin driving the rear wheels. The key to the 600’s brilliance however, was how the diminutive engine transferred its 22 horsepower to the wheels.
Instead of a conventional transmission, DAF had invented a totally new concept. This design employed a set of conical pulleys and a drive belt for each wheel. A small driveshaft powered the first set of pulleys, which transferred power to the second set through the belts. The conical shape of the pulleys enabled the transmission to “shift” by moving the belt from the wide to the narrow side and vice versa. This step-less process provided a nearly infinite amount of gear ratios. DAF named the revolutionary unit Variomatic.
Because of the seamless nature of the transmission, there was no need for conventional gears. Instead the engine reached a certain amount of revs to activate the transmission, and then simply stayed there. All the driver had to do was keep his foot planted to the floor, and the transmission would do the rest. With his invention DAF president Hub van Doorne had intended to make driving a car more accessible to the masses, especially people with little interest or ability in driving a traditional car
The Variomatic was standard equipment on the 600, and no other transmission option was available. Soon Van Doorne’s vision came to fruition, as his vehicles were bought in droves by housewives, nurses, the disabled and the elderly. As his car business became a success, the brand’s negative image was starting to bother Hub.
His mission to bring motoring to the people of had succeeded, the hum-drum nature of the various DAF models that followed was starting to badly affect the company. Rather than selling cars to everyone and including those lesser inclined to motoring, his cars were being sold exclusively to such people. DAF quickly gained the unfortunate reputation for producing tiny boxy road hazards.
The brand became a byword for dangerously unqualified idiotic drivers. This image was exacerbated by privately modified cars limited to 25 kph to avoid the need for a driver’s licence, and the exclusive use of DAF’s by the government’s unemployment agency. Anyone seen driving a DAF was automatically assumed to be a feeble-minded drooling moron.
Jokes about the DAF and its fool-proof transmission entered the public conscience soon after. As most DAF owners were old ladies, the cars were commonly referred to as Truttenschudders met jarretelaandrijving (Old hag-shakers with suspender drive).
Watching this unfold with wary eyes, Hub van Doorne decided enough was enough. In an effort to save his brand from eternal mockery, he assembled a task force tot turn its image around. The team concluded the best way to elevate the brand would be to engage in the art of racing. If DAF could succeed there, it would prove the cars far more than geriatric grocery-getters.
As luck would have it the new DAF 55 was finishing its development cycle. The new car did away with the underpowered flat twin seen in its predecessors, and instead utilized a 1.1L Cléon-Fonte four cylinder engine developed with Renault. The engine swap gave the 55 a hefty 50 horsepower to play with, more than double the power of the original 600. DAF’s management decided this car would be the one to create a sporty image for the company on the national racing scene.
But right away there was a problem. Even though the more powerful Renault was a substantial improvement, it was from from a competitive racing engine. With faltering sales resulting from DAF’s bad reputation, the company lacked the resources and know-how to properly develop it, and Renault refused to help for fear the car would threaten their R8 Gordini. The dire situation lead Van Doorne to a radical new direction.
The key feature of his Variomatic design was its seamless acceleration. This offered a slight advantage off the line, but was not enough to offset the DAF’s power disadvantage. But then Van Doorne had an epiphany. As the Variomatic lacked traditional gears, he had designed it to simple rotate backwards to allow the car to travel in reverse. A side effect of this arrangement was that the car could now reach the same speed backwards as it did forwards.
Van Doorne reasoned his cars would never be able to beat the more competitive machines from Renault, Abarth, Opel and Ford while travelling in the right direction. Despite this he was determined to save his car business, leading hi to order a special aerodynamic coupé version of the 55 designed to make the car lightning fast in reverse. If Hub couldn’t beat them the right way, he’d do it the wrong way. Van Doorne was convinced racing the car in reverse would put his company back on the map.
After four months the prototype of the 55 Coupé was ready. Pleased with the new design, Hub van Doorne gave it the nickname “Achterwaartse Arend“ (Backwards Eagle). It was then given to local motorcross champion and future Dakar legend Jan de Rooy. De Rooy put the car through its paces, and found it handled really well for a car constantly travelling in reverse. He called the steering light and responsive, and prized the Variomatic gearbox for its rapid acceleration and excellent traction. After a few sessions at the Tyvushoër club circuit, he was setting times only two seconds slower than an R8 Gordini DAF had secretly brought in as a benchmark.
As the session drew to a close however, tragedy struck. De Rooy was travelling at 130 kph down the main straight when he was blinded by the low standing sun. Unable to see, he smashed into the wall in reverse. The force of the impact knocked his helmet off, and rendered De Rooy unconscious. He was rushed to hospital, where he was treated for severe injuries to his head, neck and three broken ribs. As he recovered he was kept in an artificial coma for eight days.
An investigation into the accident found that the 55 Coupé’s aerodynamic sloping rear window had badly reflected sunlight into De Rooy’s specialized rear view mirror arrangement, which allowed him to see where he was going without having to turn his head. It was determined this caused him to miss his braking point and plow into the wall. Fortunately Jan de Rooy survived his ordeal, although his injuries left him with a permanent speech impediment.
The awful accident sent DAF into high alert. It was bad enough their cars were considered boring, let alone potentially lethally dangerous. In response to devastating accident suffered by Jan de Rooy, the Coupé version was abandoned due to its unsafe rear window arrangement. Instead DAF reverted to the two-door sedan, which wasn’t affected by the same reflection problems because of its steeper rear window.
Unfortunately, DAF’s star driver walked away from the ambitious project. The effects of the crash had taken its toll on Jan de Rooy, and his trust in the company had been shattered along with his teeth. Left without a driver, DAF’s management began to panic. There was no money left to hire another capable backwards driver.
Then board member Michael Nicht came up with a brilliant solution. Instead of hiring someone from the established Dutch racing drivers, they could simply hold public auditions. As DAF cars were still very common in the Netherlands, the company would simply rent off Circuit Park Zandvoort and place announcements in the biggest papers asking for capable backwards drivers.
The idea proved to be a monumental success, as hundreds of eager young Dutchmen showed up with various DAF models. The campaign ran for over a year due to unrelenting public interest. The Achteruitrijden (Backwards Driving) events proved so popular DAF was able to make a lucrative publicity deal with national TV-channel TROS. Soon the whole country watched in awe as Holland’s finest battled for the coveted spot as a factory backwards driver, narrated by famous comedian André van Duin.
The backwards racing craze reached its peak at the fifth event, with widespread reports of stolen DAF cars all over the Netherlands, as eager young Dutchmen desperate for success roamed the streets for a suitable racing vehicle.
Sadly the campaign failed to reach its intended goal, as the inexperienced contestants either proved far too slow or simply crashed out. The amount of crashes and injuries sustained during the DAF Achteruitrijden weekends reached such high levels national health insurance premiums skyrocketed.
This development lead to the Dutch government eventually stepping in to put a stop to it late in 1968, despite the obvious entertainment value and cultural significance of the events. DAF responded by abandoning the project, as its purpose to elevate the brand had succeeded, albeit in a very different way. With the money and publicity gained from the successful Achteruitrijden weekends, DAF was able to make it through a little longer before being bought by Volvo in 1975.
The DAF 55 Coupé “Achterwaartse Arend“ was a bold idea from a struggling manufacturer. Hub van Doorne was severely bothered by the awful reputation of the car firm he had built up, and was looking for a way to turn its fortunes around. After discovering he had no chance of developing his machines into viable race cars due to budget deficits and interference from engine partner Renault, he did what was thought to be impossible.
Utilizing the seamless brilliance of his Variomatic continuously variable transmission, he managed to build a car that was to beat his opposition to a pulp, in reverse. The marketing potential of a lightning fast backwards racer was enormous, but dangerous design flaws with the Coupé prototype and a near fatal accident for their start driver threatened to derail the project. Intheir desperation the company turned to the Dutch public for help, and inadvertently created a cultural phenomenon forever ingrained into Dutch history.