Thursday, 14 August 2008

Classic - DAF 600

The auto industry, as with every other industry, is driven by innovation, experimentation and sparks of genius. Take the seatbelt, for instance. Adaptations of aircraft-spec safety-belts popped up here and there in cars in the forties, and the three-point car safety belt was patented in 1951. In ‘58, Saab became the first auto manufacturer to fit seatbelts as standard – a move that revolutionised car safety. Ditto Henry Ford’s introduction of laminated windscreens in 1919, a move that marked the end of facefuls of pointy shards resulting from tiny stone chips.

Not all ideas are good ideas, of course. Look at Ford’s Nucleon concept of 1958. While Sweden was saving lives with cunning strips of canvas, Detroit was trying to convince people that strapping yourself and your family to a big fuck-off nuclear reactor was a bold stride into the future and not, as was pointed out by certain detractors, a bloody stupid idea. The potential for turning a cancerous green after a rear-end shunt was perhaps a little too high to see the idea move anywhere beyond the ‘ooh, aren’t we clever’ stage. Although it was quite pretty to look at.

There’s a middle ground between these two extremes where a certain set of ideas exist: ideas that were pretty good but entirely failed to revolutionise any aspect of the industry. The archetypal example of such sidelined notions is the Variomatic system as fitted to DAF cars. It was the first ever CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission), featuring one constantly shifting gear rather than a series of separate ones, working on the principle that torque was constantly optimised and rev-stall on gearchanges was eliminated. Given that it had a reverse function, it could go just as fast backwards as it could forwards.

The first model to feature the revolutionary Variomatic system was the DAF 600, first appearing at the Amsterdam Motor Show in 1958 (my, that was a busy year wasn’t it?) and rolling off the production lines a year later. This was, quite frankly, an amazing automobile. The first car for truck manufacturer DAF, it featured an innovative unitary steel construction and an aircooled twin-cylinder boxer engine – a sort of baby Porsche motor, if you will. The drivebelts took up the difference in speed between the driven rear wheels under cornering, thus eliminating the need for a differential; indeed, the belts themselves gave the effect of a limited-slip differential, meaning that you could have great fun hanging the arse out if you were so inclined.

While most of their competitors were still grappling with stone-age cart-springs, the 600 featured independent suspension all round. So, it could handle well, it had a throaty two-stroke-esque bark, it was strong and light, it was compact, and it had incredibly clever transmission… this should be a landmark car, right? As important as the Mini or the Mustang or the Topolino? Well, in theory, yes. But have you ever seen one? And when was the last time you even heard someone talk about one?

It’s a shame that the 600 (and it’s successors; the 750, 33, 44, 55, 66 et al) has sunk into obscurity, particularly as it can perform two very neat tricks. Number one: imagine you’ve driven from a standstill, kept your foot planted to the floor and have reached the top speed. Gently ease the accelerator up and what happens? You go even faster! The increased manifold vacuum from easing off shifted the transmission to an even higher ratio, making this the only car ever produced that goes faster when you stop accelerating. Number two: put this car side by side with pretty much any car in production today and have a race. There’s a very good chance that the DAF will win. (Of course, for this to happen it’s necessary for both of the cars to be racing in reverse but hey, it still counts as a victory.)

OK, so I lied. The Variomatic system didn’t ‘entirely fail to revolutionise any aspect of the industry’. Audi introduced their Multitronic system in 2000, based on the fundamental CVT principles of the DAF system. It’s not compatible with their quattro drivetrain but you’ll find it in A4s, A5s and A6s. Variants of CVT also appear in Mercs and all sorts now. It’s finally come of age… but it took a long bloody time to happen. Long enough for DAF to become a minor footnote in the history of the system, anyway.

Unfortunately Multitronic doesn’t directly mimic all of the mechanical functions of Variomatic. Can you imagine an Audi A8 3.7 doing 150mph in reverse? Now that would be a legacy that DAF could be hugely proud of…

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