In late 1968 the noble and sophisticated people of England invented the exquisitely tasteful art of rallycross. In those very early years the races were contested with mostly stock, two-wheel drive, stripped out family cars. The racing was fast, hard and extremely competitive. Relatively standard cars meant it was easy to join in on the fun. Merely taking your mum’s car, stripping it out and fiddling with it a bit would get you a hell of an afternoon and a decent finish.
Meanwhile Dutch truck company turned small car manufacturer DAF saw the exciting new category as a perfect opportunity to get rid of their bad image. DAF’s “Variomatic” CVT rear wheel driven small cars were known to be very slow and driven by elderly ladies and other people who didn’t really know how to drive. The many jokes and derisive comments that DAf-drivers received severely bothered the company. Seeking to silence it’s critics, DAF turned to the most extreme racing category known at the time. Rallycross’ rebellious nature was deemed very useful to hopefully turn DAF’s spectacularly dreary reputation around.
The 55 Marathon coupe model had already been successful on the traditional rally circuit. With help from ex-motocross champion Jan de Rooy (later of Dakar truck fame) DAF developed the cutesy little coupe into a firebireathing all-terrain monster. DAF decided to use a 120 hp 1.3L Gordini version of the standard 50 hp 1.1L Renault engine for 1970.With Jan de Rooy at the wheel the car immediately won both the National and International championships. Soon however, the search for even more power and traction began, leading to some truly exotic concepts.
By 1971 the power from the 1.3L Gordini engine was deemed insufficient. DAF instead sourced a 1.8L Ford Cosworth FVC engine also used in sportscar racing at the time. The unit provided a hefty 180 horsepower, 60 more than the Gordini engine. To contain all these wild new horses Jan de Rooy and DAF developed a four wheel drive version of the standard rear wheel drive CVT gearbox. For added strength and reliability a stronger unit leftover from the cancelled Formula 3-project was used.
The engine and transmission were placed in the middle of the car, with the driver seated right next to it, putting most of the weight in the middle of the car. This greatly aided weight distribution and handling, a key asset on the tight and twisty rallycross tracks. Vastly improved power, traction and weight distribution meant the car was virtually unbeatable that season.
1973 saw a new variation that placed the FVC back in the front to make the seating position a bit more comfortable for the driver. The new layout greatly reduced noise, vibrations and provided better shielding against the engine’s enormous heat. A downside was a heavier nose, which affected the balance of the car. DAF saw this as a minor problem, as the margin over its competitors was great enough.
As DAF’s competitors had found out, the 555 4WD’s traction advantage could not be beat on any surface. Simple two-wheel driver cars like the Ford escort, the Mini and VW Beetle were no match for the Dutch all wheel drive monster. On top of that, the CVT eliminated the need for a conventional clutch and gears, which gave the 555 instant linear acceleration. This guaranteed that the DAF was first off the line at every single race start. Race control realized this quite quickly and decided to delay the car 5 seconds at the start of each heat.
But even starting 5 seconds later didn’t stop the little rockets at all. After one or two laps the superior handling and traction would catapult the little 555 right back to the front again, which it would often not let go. Competitors John Taylor (Escort MkI) and future World Rally Champion Stig Blomqvist (Saab 96 V4) rarely managed to beat De Rooy’s DAF. They would know the burly Dutchman in his quirky city car would catch them very soon every time they set off on the first lap.
After the overwhelming DAF dominance of the 1971-1973 seasons, the 555 4WD was effectively banned. Because no other manufacturer could develop a system similar to DAF’s amazingly complicated CVT 4WD unit, new regulations banned the usage of both four wheel drive and CVT’s in rallycross racing. Persistent complaints from the rest of the field had sealed the little grocery getter’s fate, but DAF had made its point quite clear. This was no granny’s car any longer, but a formidable racer that needed to be taken very seriously.
The DAF 555’s revolutionary all conquering drivetrain had shown the rallying world that four wheel drive was the way to go in rally racing. However, the home-grown and very complicated CVT-technology made it too weird and exotic for mainstream manufacturers to follow in droves. Complaints from those same manufacturers the sidelined the concept for good. It would take until the start of the next decade before a little company called Audi tried their hand at it again, albeit in a much more conventional way.