Even an Italian design, tuneable engine and automatic gearbox don’t seem enough to place this little charmer on many classic car wish lists. Maybe it’s time for a rethink?
How much to pay
• Project £500-1500 • Good £2000-3000 • Concours £3000-5000 •
Running costs ★★★★
DIY friendly ★★★★
You may have heard jokes about the little Dutch car ‘driven by rubber bands’, but in fact the diminutive DAF was a remarkable trend setter. The auto maker was the first to introduce CVT transmission on a mass-produced scale, and these basic fundamentals are still used on vehicles to this day. Driven by reinforced rubber-toothed belts, the Variomatic transmission was way ahead of its time, yet this isn’t the model’s only noteworthy achievement.
This ‘people’s car’ started life in 1959 as the DAF Daffodil. Later known as the DAF 33, it essentially competed against the Citroen 2CV and Fiat Topolino. In September 1966, the 44 replaced the preceding 33, its body made larger with an updated design by Italian Triumph designer Michelotti.
Mechanically, the DAF 44 also had a larger air-cooled two-cylinder boxer engine, now with a displacement of 844cc. The DAF 44 was then made available as a standard Sedan, Sedan Luxe, station wagon and even a panel van.
The tail-happy handling, direct-drive transmission and tuneability of the engine led to the DAF being a class winner on the world rally scene. This later led to a special ‘Marathon’ handling and power upgrade kit, and its own model. In reality, though, the car lacks the popular reputation of other diminutive classics of the time, and although it drives smoothly it offers little else beyond the quirky concept and aspirational Italian design.
The 44 could feel surprisingly fast, due not only to its light weight but also to the smooth Variomatic transmission. The latter even allowed the little car to move just as quickly in reverse as forwards, if the driver was brave enough.
In standard form, the Italian-designed air-cooled classic with a motorsport heritage is a great little city car with enough appeal to silence those ‘rubber band’ jokes.
Your AutoClassics DAF 44 inspection checklist
The 44 is powered by an air-cooled two-cylinder boxer engine, which means there will be no coolant-related issues. Initially, check for any abnormal noises. The unit should run regularly, smoothly and without too much vibration when stationary. If it runs rough at idle, there is probably a valve leak. Replacement parts are not too expensive. If in doubt, use a compression tester.
It’s not uncommon to see some lubricant ‘sweating’ from the engine, but check for any excessive leaks from the oil and pushrods seals, and possibly from around the pressure switch. Blue exhaust smoke during acceleration indicates extreme consumption.
One engine weak point is the intake manifold. The small pipes that run to the heat exchanger and cross damper must be snugly fitted and not leak. Check that repair sealant hasn’t been used in the past. Also check the heat exchangers, especially the left one, as the upright pipe to the intake manifold is often corroded. A damaged manifold and rusted-out heat exchanger can be costly to source and replace.
The Variomatic transmission should move up and down its range smoothly; any unusual sounds must be viewed as suspicious. Check for abnormal noises and vibration when stationary. The clutch should start to slip at about 1200rpm, and by about 2000rpm it must be fully engaged. If you have to use a lot of throttle to accelerate without the transmission doing its job, it’s likely there is clutch slip, pointing to a worn-out clutch. The engine must come out to replace this unit.
When accelerating, the DAF 44 should not pull to the left or right. This behaviour can be as much about a problem with the Variomatic belts as the braking or steering geometry. At 40mph, when using a light touch on the throttle to maintain momentum, the sound of the engine speed should reduce. The Variomatic should then switch to an ‘overdrive’ mode. If the engine speed remains audibly high, then there could be something wrong, such as a diaphragm leak. This can be complex, but is not costly to fix.
Suspension and brakes
At the front, the transverse leaf spring may have started to sag. If this is the case, check that at least an inch of rubber bush is still in one piece. Replacing the rubber isn’t easy, but doable. If the leaf spring has seen better days, it could be difficult to find a good substitute. Rust around the spring mounts can also cause sagging. At the rear, inspect the bearing arms for cracks, close to the pivot point in the middle of the car. This is a DAF 44 weak point.
As with any vehicle, check for correct brake balance. The car obviously shouldn’t move to one side or the other when slowing and stopping. The 44’s drum system is much better than the 33’s, and a dual-circuit set-up was introduced in 1969. If a car has been left standing for prolonged periods the brakes have been known to seize quite easily, so do factor in replacement parts. Other areas to check are the brake-adjusting bolts, for corrosion and operation, and possible leaks from the master cylinder.
As with any car that was built for cities, towns and daily use, the DAF 44’s bodywork may be subject to corrosion from road salt. The list of crucial locations to inspect starts with the front wings, particularly close to the lower inner wheel area and quarter near the door. Equally, pay attention to the rear arches and inner arch areas.
Around the headlights may also have taken the full force of European weather, so check the circumference and the bowls, particularly the area hidden under the trim. Doors very often require attention along the bottom and underside, around the seams. Also, look for rust festering under the trim moulding around the door frame.
Inspect the underside; the floor pan, seams and jacking points. Lift out any mats and carpet, and check the internal pan, especially where it meets the bulkhead and interior wheelarch panels. Open the boot lid and lift the mat. You’ll often find corrosion in the seams around the rear panel and the lights, from moisture entering the load area. Some body panels are still available via the European club networks. Also check the petrol-tank fixing brackets.
The interior is spartan and reminiscent of a Trabant’s. A single-gauge binnacle stands proud on the dashboard behind the steering wheel, and some nice brushed chrome trim adds a touch of elegance. Otherwise, the vinyl-clad interior may not have worn well with the passing of the miles.
Later cars will have more black plastic trim. Over the years plastic interior features, primitive wiring and the aforementioned vinyl break down and become more brittle, so be wary of what you may need to source. Door cards and more complex trim may be irreplaceable. Rubber mats around the driver’s feet were pretty much standard fit, and would have suffered at the heels of even the most careful owner.
The early steering wheel looks quite sporty, especially with its chrome roundel and number ‘33’, but check for cracks in the thin plastic. DAF wanted to make driver safety a selling point, so your potential buy will probably have front seatbelts. Again, what isn’t there or needs replacing may be hard to source.
- 1966: DAF 44 is launched to the public in September.
- 1967: Production moves to Born, Netherlands in July, and a lower trim level ‘standard’ model is introduced.
- 1969: DAF 44 gets a cosmetic makeover of its trim in August.
- 1972: 12v electrical system is introduced and replaces the 6v set-up.
- 1974: Last run of models has a new headlight design and one-piece windows. Production of 44 ends in November 1974.
The DAF 44 is a rare sight both on the roads and in the classifieds. Yet although it doesn’t have the appreciating appeal of the classic Mini, Fiat 500 or even the Hillman Imp, the little Dutch automatic ‘people’s car’ has a competition pedigree that suits the growing market for historic motorsport.
This usable classic is made more desirable as an alternative city car. Its tall stance, due to the compromises required to squeeze the transmission into the body, might look a little ungainly, but it’s worth considering as a classy classic. It’s a slice of technological history, too, as a forerunner of every CVT gearbox on the road today.
Try to buy one that’s been regularly used and maintained, and join the helpful owners’ club. The air-cooled engine and running gear can be adapted easily, and they’re relatively easy to work on despite some hard-to-find parts. You could park a couple of ‘rubber band’-driven DAF 33s in place of an E-type Jaguar on your drive. Okay, that’s stretching the point a little…
Picture courtesy of MagicCarPics
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