An Encounter with the Tiniest Volvo Ever

By Andy Bannister

10.09.2008

One interesting aspect of the current economic slowdown and the apparent seismic shift in vehicle buying habits is to ponder how quickly and in what way makers will respond.

Last time this happened, in the fuel crisis of the mid-1970s, some unusual vehicles hit the market. Earlier this week I was in Geneva in Switzerland and came across a well-preserved example of one of the strangest examples from that era, in the shape of the Volvo 66.

Nowadays Volvo has quite a broad range, although sales are falling and Ford is apparently struggling to decide what to do with the brand it acquired a few years ago. Back in the mid-1970s, however, it was effectively a one-model independent Swedish company, selling big and resolutely square saloons and estates which were extremely vulnerable to a change in buyer preferences.

With no prospect of quickly developing its own smaller car, Volvo’s management decided to look at buying in a model from elsewhere, and its eyes settled on DAF, a Dutch producer which since 1959 had been selling small two-door notchbacks with an innovative continuously variable transmission (CVT, more commonly known by the DAF trademark Variomatic) which certanly wasn’t to everyone’s taste.

DAF was and is best-known for its commercial vehicles, and was happy to gain additional investment from Volvo, and then offload the slightly troublesome car-making division entirely to allow it to concentrate on the more profitable and successful heavy trucks.

This behind-the-scenes action culminated in 1975 with the launch of the Volvo 66, a tiny saloon and estate which were effectively rebadged versions of DAF’s own 66 model. The 66 was the pinnacle of the not-very-extensive DAF small car range, featuring 1.1-litre and 1.3-litre Renault engines. Soon after, the DAF car brand was ditched altogether.

The arrival of the 66 must have been a shock to Volvo salesmen and customers alike, for in the 1970s the company was known for its rock-solid, conventional and rather safety-obsessed cars. Adapting an ancient Dutch design with a peculiar transmission as its own hardly fitted with this carefully-cultivated image.

Volvo attempted to stamp its identity on its newest acquisition with a safety steering wheel, different seats with headrests, side impact bars in the doors and some improvements to the CVT transmission (unkindly nicknamed the “rubber band” in some countries). The looks hardly changed except for the addition of Volvo badges and heftier bumpers.

The Swedes didn’t help the 66’s chances by abandoning the only vaguely interesting bodystyle, the coupé, as well as DAF’s sporty Marathon versions of the car, which referenced a rather unlikely rallying career for the Dutch marque.

The 66 design was indirectly penned by the Italian Michelotti styling house, as it evolved from the company’s 55 model, which in turn was a larger engined version of the DAF 44. By 1975, however, it was looking old, particularly compared to cheaper and much more interesting small cars from the likes of Fiat and Renault, which offered the bonus of useful hatchback versatility.

Despite its age, and the almost total indifference of buyers, the 66 was nominally sold right across Europe until as late as 1979, by which time Volvo’s other reason to buy DAF was beginning to find its feet.

This was the model the Dutch firm had had under development at the time of the takeover, a VW-Golf sized three-door hatchback, unveiled to the world as the Volvo 343. It was launched in 1976 with a 1.4-litre Renault engine and, naturally, the CVT transmission, Early on it was overpriced, ugly and struggled in the market, being famously labelled “lemon of the decade” by Britain’s Car magazine.

Volvo persevered, however, introducing a five-door and later a saloon as well as models with conventional manual transmission and larger engines. These eventually helped the 300-series became one of the company’s biggest success stories. They paved the way for the later 400 and S40 models, all of which indirectly owed something to the strange little Volvo 66.

DAF’s former Dutch auto plant, now known as NedCar, incidentally, no longer makes smaller Volvos, with production now taking place across the border in Belgium. NedCar is currently an underemployed factory making European versions of Mitsubishi’s Colt hatchback, having seen its unfortunate twin, the five-door Smart ForFour, unceremoniously cancelled.

As for Volvo’s funny little 66, it was never sold in huge numbers and there can’t be more than a few examples still in everyday use. Time and nostalgic sentiment play funny tricks, and what was a deeply undesirable car, and a dire warning of the consequences of indiscriminate badge engineering, now looks rather charming in retrospect.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Andy Bannister

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