Daf 555 – Dutch courage
To boost its dreary image DAF built a madcap works prototype to shake up Group 6 rallying. We drive a rare survivor of the DAF 555
DAF – van Doorne’s Automobile Factory – was founded by brothers Wim and Hubert ‘Hub’ van Doorne, who had built trailers before World War Two. With the return of peace demand for cheap personal transport was high, so Hub decided to make a simple but smart car. The result was the DAF 600, launched in 1959. The small four-seater was revolutionary because of its Variomatic automatic transmission. More models followed and within a decade DAF was established as the Netherlands’ largest carmaker. But while DAF models fulfilled Hub’s dreams to mobilise the Dutch, his cars’ plain styling and air-cooled two-cylinder engine producing a mere 19bhp didn’t do much for the company’s image – and that was a thorn in the flesh of Martien van Doorne, Hub’s eldest son who loved all things motoring, especially if they were fast. He decided DAF needed a works competition department and created it in 1964. To run it DAF hired 28-year-old Rob Koch, who is still surprised by his sudden career move.
‘I used to draw cars for a motoring magazine and Martien van Doorne must have seen my name,’ he recalls. ‘DAF was a delightful task, but a very comprehensive one: I was responsible for just about everything from contracting drivers to helping make pace notes.’
The highlight of Koch’s career at DAF was the company’s 555 works rally car project. ‘DAF privateers had been pretty successful in Group 2 rallying and the 1100cc DAF 55 proved to be a reliable competitor in the international rally scene,’ he says. Two works 55s driven by Rob Slotemaker and David van Lennep came 17th and 56th overall in the gruelling 1968 London to Sydney Marathon, while Belgian Jean-Louis Haxhe finished fourth overall in that year’s Tulip Rally. And there were more successes; Frenchman Claude Laurent drove a works 55M to third overall at the ’69 Acropolis Rally, behind Roger Clark in a Lotus-powered Ford Escort and Pauli Toivonen in a works- supported Porsche 911.
It was Laurent who came up with the idea to develop a DAF for Group 6 rallying. Martien van Doorne liked the idea and in summer 1969 Koch and chief engineer Wim Hendriks started designing what was to become the ultimate DAF rally car. The Giovanni Michelotti-styled 55 Coupe provided the basis for the new car. Its standard Variomatic made way for a heavy-duty race version with central differential, titanium pulleys and Kevlar- reinforced belts, as used on DAF’s earlier F3 cars. The suspension was tweaked too, with the 55′s front arrangement largely retained but a completely revamped rear with a de Dion tube, leaf springs and Panhard rod.
Koch wanted the standard llOOcc Renault engine to be replaced by a Gordini-tweaked version and went to Amedee Gordini in Paris. But Gordini had signed a contract with Renault’s competitions department and was not allowed to supply the DAF team. The same went for tuner Marc Mignot, who was contracted to Alpine, and Koch turned to independent Renault tuner Bernard Collomb in Nice, who built up 1440cc engines producing 135bhp.
The 55 Coupe bodyshell was given a glassfibre bonnet and boot lid but otherwise remained untouched. Van Doorne asked Koch to come up with a name without spending a lot of money fabricating new badges, and Koch came up with ’555′ by simply joining one and a half’55′badges.
The plan was to enter three cars in Group 6 rallying from the 1970 season on, and they were registered ’70-76-MF’, ’70-77-MF’ and ’70-78-MF’ in late ’69. The 555 debuted in the French Rally du Nord but didn’t do well: works drivers Laurent and Haxhe failed to finish because of problems with the Variomatic’s lubrication system. Similar difficulties blighted the Rally de Lorraine, Rally du Touquet, Ronde Cevenole and Tulip Rally. By the end of the season the car’s technical set-up seemed to be under control, but on the Tour de Corse in November 1970 one of the works 555s was wrecked; its mechanical components were salvaged and used to build up the only spare bodyshell.
Improvements made over the winter produced a more reliable car for the 1971 season and DAF finally got some podium placings, mostly in The Netherlands and Belgium. Haxhe also entered Belgian hill climbing events, while he and Laurent shared the car featured here on the Targa Florio of that year. Says Koch: ‘We’d done the Ronde Cevenole, which was a similar road race but much shorter. The 555 did well there and we thought it would be a good idea to enter it for the Targa.’ The car was remarkably quick on the legendary Sicilian road race, but sadly it was forced out by a blown engine.
According to Laurent the 555 could have been much more successful had it been fully developed. After the 1971 season DAF switched its focus to sports car racing and rallycross. All three 555s ended up in the rallycross scene where they were very successful, each heavily modified with Ford Cosworth engines and a unique Variomatic-driven 4×4 configuration. Local motocross champion Jan de Rooy gained tremendous popularity in one of these cars, painted in bright yellow Camel livery. Koch remembers: ‘De Rooy’s family had a transport company with quite a few DAF trucks. The local dealer who supplied the cars told us that he could sell some more, but we would have to let his youngest son drive one of our racing cars. And so we did.
‘We met Jan at the track and he was a big lad in a leather bike suit. He didn’t fit in the seat and so had to drive without. He told us he only knew racing cars from watching them on television, but within ten laps he drove a time that was similar to our best works driver’s.’
Most people know the 555 from its 4×4 rallycross heyday, and when the example featured here was restored many people thought it should have gone back into rallycross livery. ‘Of course, they were often unaware of the 555′s works rally history,’ Koch notes.
Both he and Paul van Doorne, today’s custodians of the DAF heritage, are happy this illustrious 555 is once again back in its original guise after a painstaking 12-year restoration. Koch says there may be another survivor, as the car wrecked on the 1970 Tour de Corse appears to have survived. A third (of four, including the spare car) 555 is also said to have lived on. There are also 555 replicas: ‘People who want to build up such a car are best grafting in a Volvo 340 Variomatic as it is the biggest available,’ advises Koch. Some sources say around 20 race Variomatics were made, but Koch is certain there were fewer: ‘We had titanium parts cast for them, and just six sets were made, so it can’t be more than that.’
Being Dutch myself, I feel a little thrill when stepping into the 555′s spartan cockpit. The bucket seats and simple dashboard have a very authentic Seventies look and feel. Unfortunately the car isn’t fitted with a race-spec Variomatic. The one kit left in the Van Doorne collection was destined to go into this car, but when Paul van Doorne bought one of DAF’s original 1972 Huron sports racers he decided it should go into that car instead. It makes a big difference as the race system made the 555 accelerate exceptionally quickly. The standard Variomatic was designed to allow as few revolutions per minute as possible in order to economise on fuel, while the race version loved high revs. In full spec the 555 started shifting at around 5000rpm, but this car’s standard Variomatic does so at 2500-3000rpm. At more than that the car feels tremendously quick. At speed on unpaved roads I can feel its potential. And hear it too. The Weber carburettors emit a greedy slurping sound, and the side exhaust a strident bark.
Moving on to tarmac the surface suddenly feels like a drag strip as I finally feel the car’s previously hidden performance. Once the tuned 1440cc engine exceeds 4000rpm this DAF changes into a mean machine – not quite the sensation a turbo-driven Group В missile gives, but it does make you think of one. The road-holding is remarkable too. I go faster and faster on roundabouts, but have trouble forcing the 13in wheels into oversteer, even in the wet.
Dashing along Dutch country roads, I can understand Laurent’s frustrations. The 555′s mediocre rally achievements could easily have turned into the sort of big successes Saab enjoyed in the same era. But there was pay-off of a different kind: by the time the 555s were plugging mud at Lydden Hill and Croft, DAF’s research department had discovered a technical layout that gave much better driving characteristics and made the Variomatic system more durable too, and the system was productionised for the DAF 66. So even the humble runabout turned out to be a thoroughbred in the end.