In 1969, Dutch broadcaster AVRO brought RallyCross to the Netherlands, inspired by the British, as well as the fact that stage rallying was becoming too expensive. Shorty after this, a new star was about to rise in this sport. Or actually two stars, one of flesh and blood, and the other of metal and rubber.
The former was ex motocross rider and transport entrepreneur Jan de Rooy, who later went on to race trucks in the Dakar rally, mainly racing DAF trucks, where he earned the nickname ‘l’ours’ because of his posture. In rallycross however, he got the nickname ‘Ome Jan’ which translates to Uncle Jan, showing the role he had in the development of the sport.
After entering his first rallycross in a Mini, he soon switched to a DAF 55 Marathon for the 1970 season, which became the second rising star. This DAF 55 was powered by a 1290cc Renault-Gordini engine, which paired to the DAF’s Variomatic gearbox (a very rudimentary CVT, based on cones and rubber belts) proved to be a car capable of earning both national and international championships, especially in the hands of young Jan de Rooy.
Halfway into the 1971 season, however, he upgraded from the 55 to a DAF 555, as the 55 wasn’t always quick enough to keep up with the lighter Austin Coopers. Together with DAF engineer W. Hendriks, a DAF 555, a successful former group 6 rally car, was converted. Gone, however, was its front mounted engine, as well as its rear wheel drive. What hadn’t vanished was the CVT, it’s function and position had changed, though.
Looking a the picture above, it can be seen that the position of Jan de Rooy (who apparently used the same number as Kenny from the Block) is slightly awkward. The reason for that is that the engine and Variomatic were moved inside the cabin. Yes, that’s right, the driver was sitting next to the engine, and on top of the gearbox, necessitating a modification of the roof. This modification earned the car its nickname ‘het bultje’ or ‘the little bump’.
From the schematic of the drivetrain, it becomes clear that they rotated the Variomatic of the DAF 555 by 90 degrees, and moved it forward, to where the driver would sit. When mounted in its normal position, it acts as a differential between the two rear wheels. However, that functioning made it perfectly fit as a 50:50 centre differential and gearbox in one, especially as the 555 used a beefier unit stemming from a DAF Formula 3 car, meaning it could handle more power. The Variomatic powered the wheels though two BMW 2002 sourced limited slip differentials. On the other end of the drivetrain, next to the driver, was the same Renault-Gordini engine, and later 1800cc Ford BDA with round about 180hp.
So in short it was a 180hp, 4 wheel-drive rally car, with a CVT gearbox, giving it acceleration without shifting. Needless to say, it was much quicker than anything else, again earning Jan de Rooy some national and internation titles. It did have some downside though, as the driver position was rather awkward, and sitting next to the engine lead to a lot of heat being present in the cabin.
For the 1972 season, these problems were solved by moving the engine back to the front of the car, however still mounting it transversely. This solved the heat problem, while still using the Variomatic in the same way. It is not fully clear how the the engine was connected to the gearbox, however, I suspect some kind of shaft connecting the side of the engine, to the input of the Variomatic. The drivers now basically took the spot where the engine used to be, as they now were on the right side of the car. Another difference for 1972 is that Jan’s brother Harry will be driving an identical car, now with Camel as a sponsor. (Jan is quite the smoker, and often had sponsors related to that, Hofnar as seen on the earlier car was a cigar manufacturer, and later in his Dakar days he would run a Gauloises livery.)
This newest evolution of the DAF 555, with between 180 and 200 hp on tap, was so much faster than the other cars, that both cars had to start 5 seconds behind the other cars. Every race, and even then the organisers were thinking about furher penalties, as they were still able to win race after race. And they weren’t racing against some low-grade drivers, as Jan de Rooy and his brother regularly battled it out against rallycross legends like John Taylor and Stig Blomqvist, with many battles ending in the Dutchman’s favour.
After the succesfull 1971 and 1972 seasons, the FIA however banned the 4 wheel drive system used in the 555. This meant a move back to 2wd rallycross DAFs. Jan de Rooy, however, decided to continue racing the 555 in open-class races all around Europe, without an official sponsor, but just in the colour of his transport company, and his country, bright orange.
This would be the last races the DAF 555 would participate in, as some of its BDA engines were donated to rear wheel drive 55s and later to a DAF 66, called the tube-66 (after its tube frame), which was Jan de Rooy’s re-entry into the championship for DAF in 1974. He was supposed to continue racing that in 1975, however didn’t start the season. Later he went on to rallycross Escort RS1800s and Audi Quattros among others, before making the switch to driving trucks in rally raids.
As for the 555s, some of them were used for ice racing during the 1973 season, after which records of them stop. It is known that DAF produced four 555s for stage rallies, with license plates 70-76-MF, 70-77-MF, 70-78-MF and 81-89-SE. From these 70-77-MF, 70-78-MF and 81-89-SE have definitely been used for rallycross, as picture evidence of this has been found(and has been scattered throughout this post). According to some sources all 555s were even converted to 4 wheel drive rallycross spec at some point. Today, both 70-77-MF and 70-78-MF have been restored to their stage-rally spec, with both 70-76-MF and 81-89-SE dropping of the radar after their rallycross years. Surprisingly enough, 70-76-MF is also still registered, so hopefully is still is around in some form or other (there is no talk about it on forums). Jan de Rooy is rumoured to own 70-77-MF, while 70-78-MF is in the DAF factory museum. Apparently restauration of both, which took place at the same time, was a pain, as the floors were completely cut to bits for the rallycross drivetrains.
The uncertainty if 76 has ever been converted, 77 and 78 being converted back to stage-rally spec, and 81-89-SE being unaccounted for means that possibly none of the 4 wheel drive rallycross DAFs remain to exist today. Which is a shame, as it was a true marvel of engineering. Hopefully 81-89-SE is still hiding somewhere, waiting for a day to return to the sand and tarmac of the Eurocircuit, or 70-76-MF was converted to rallycross spec after all and kept that way. If not, I think my mission will be to someday build a replica of it, to remind the world of the wonders of Dutch engineering. Anybody have a racing Variomatic, DAF 55 Coupe body shell or BDA laying around?
Without these brilliant sources writing this article would have been way harder, so special thanks goes out to the authors of these. (All sources are in Dutch, obviously.)