WANT ONE:// Small family cult cars of the 60s

This month in the WANT ONE mini buyers guide we'll discus three small family cars from the sixties. They have all become cult cars, all for different reasons. For starters the DAF 55; Group2 rally champ from Holland that ended in demolition derbies . . . a lot. The Trabant, the most beloved and at the same time hated car that fetched more money second hand than it did new. And Finally the NSU Prinz; Beetle killer and sportscar - VW needed to get rid of it, and they did . . . just in time. So here we go.

Fancy a DAF 55 (1966 - 1976) for a rally

DAF 55 in Rally liveryThe story of the DAF 55 is a bit peculiar – maybe even a bit sad as the DAF 55 probably came to little to late to change DAF's reputation for the better. The Dutch car company DAF - mainly known for its Trucks - was quite ambitious back in 50's and 60's in producing small family cars that were "easy to drive". The whole idea came from company founder Hub van Doorne who was a huge fan of American cars and their automatic gear boxes. Instead of attaching a heavy automatic gearbox he developed quite a clever step-less automatic transmission he called the Variomatic or "Pientere pookje" (Smart Gear Stick) to all DAF cars.
But this "Easy to drive" selling point was actually counterproductive, since a manual transmissions weren't (and still aren't) considered to be sporty in Europe. The underpowered 22 HP two cylinder engine fitted to the 600, 750, Daffodil, 33 and 44 models didn't do any good to its reputation either. Soon DAF cars were given all sorts of nicknames like 'ladies cars with garter drive' referring to the belts of the Variomatic.
In 1966 the DAF 55 appeared with a 45 HP 1108 CC 4 cylinder Renault engine. To further improve on its image of being slow, DAF started rallying in which the nifty 55's proved to be quite successful. The Variomatic ensured optimum traction and torque on sandy, mountainous, muddy, well basically on any terrain and by the early 70s it had rallying successes to prove it. E.g. both cars entered in the 1968 monster London to Sydney rally made it; and finished 17th and 56th respectively. Then there were two consecutive group 2 rally victories in the prestigious '68 and '69 "Coupe des Alpes" and in the '69, '70 "Rally of Monte Carlo" just to name a few.

Buying one:
Since the poor little DAF drove as fast backwards as it did forwards, hundreds of them were wrecked in the Dutch version of a demolition derby. The so called "driving backwards race" – was a quite entertaining TV show back in the 70s and 80s. But since 164.000 were made, you should be able to find one (in the Netherlands or Belgium that is). Prices range from € 1.000 for a project barn find, to € 3.000 for a real descent one. 

Why you want one
Despite its slow and feminine reputation, the 55 model really isn't any of that. Once converted to the 55 HP 'marathon' spec. it is a sweet performer that can do well over 80 mph.

We like about it
Especially in coupé guise the DAF 55 is a pretty little family car. There are loads of fans to share the hobby and are quite willing to lend a helping hand when you get into any mechanical trouble.

We dislike about it
The Variomatic transmission is this cars strongest asset but also its Achilles heel. The rubber belts do tend to wear and with more horsepower this problem gets increasingly worse.


How about a Trabant P601 (1964 – 1991)

Trabant P601The ‘companion’ or Trabant in Slavic dialect was quite an innovative little family car when it first rolled out of the factory in P50 guise in 1958. It featured a unitary steel body, front wheel drive and independent suspension all round. Not bad for that era. However the power came from a very modestly powered 18 HP two cylinder 2-stroke engine – inherited form the pre war DKW company. Once evolved into the P601 by 1964 the engine was a 600 cc 23HP unit powering a fully synchronized gearbox, and an exterior made from Duroplast, styled a tad more modern than its predecesor. Duroplast is a plastic / resin mixture reinforced by waste cotton or wool from the Russian textile industry and if the Russians didn't deliver, it wasn't uncommon that paper and cardboard was used. 

According to the period VEB Sachsenring commercial the Trabi 601 was a spacious, agile and fast, modern and robust motor: “your reliable travel companion . . . the all new Trabant 601”. Clever advertising, but there are one or two things to be said about that. 
On the upside, due to the unitary body, Trabi’s are quite spacious for small family cars. As for Robustness; no tin worm liked any of the plastic exterior and . . . although people feared the plastic shell in the event of a crash, it actually outperformed period Western motors. Was this the first (unintended) crumple zone?
On the downside: the Trabi did turn corners and had a reverse gear and all that, but it didn’t have the engine to make it go. Talking about which; 0 to 60 mph . . . the poor smoky stone age engine barely made it to 60mph.

Still the Trabant became the symbol for freedom for East Germans. It was therefore very popular and to get one there was a waiting list that could grow up to several years. And that is why the Trabi is the only car whose second hand prices were higher than those of a new one. 
But after the fall of the Berlin wall the Trabi became the epitome of all things bad in communist governments. Their popularity diminished and a Trabi’s changed hands for only some change.  Nowadays Trabi’s have a whole new fan base and prices are back to normal.

Buying one
Trabant technology is simple and reliable and most parts of the body don't rot. However, check for the floorpan which is steel and check for leakages round window seals. Prices hover around 2.000 euro's for a real nice one.

Why you want one
This is a car with character. It has not only been though historically important times, but it is actually a product of it.

We like about it
This car' engine doesn't roar or rumble, it hums like a bumblebee. And doesn't that add up to its charm?

We dislike about it
The hassle of mixing oil with petrol and its extremely modest power makes Trabi's fail their 'Daily driver' test.


Or maybe the lovely NSU Prinz (4, 1000 (TTS)) (1961-1973)

NSU Prinz 4

Just like DAF and Trabant; NSU focused on producing small family car at the end of the 50s. The Prinz 30 of 1957 was the first post war production car made by the NSU brand. Like the early DAF’s, the Prinz’ 600 CC 2 cylinder 4 stroke engine lived in the back of the car. It was praised for its reliability and its ease of maintenance – an oil change serviced the engine, gearbox and rear axle - but the car was a nuisance to drive due to its non synchro gearbox, impractical use (2+2 seats) and on top of that it was quite an ugly appearance. Except for the Bertone designed Sportpinz of course.

Instead of commissioning an Italian designer for its successor, like DAF did for all of its cars, NSU most likely looked across the Atlantic for inspiration for its new models. The result was the Prinz 4, which looked very much like a baby version of the Chevrolet Corvair. Still powered by a parallel twin engine, the 30 HP Prinz 4 was very popular across Central Europe. With the sixties economy booming the market for higher powered cars grew rapidly and NSU quickly responded with the NSU 1000. It was its first 4 cylinder air cooled straight 4 engine for NSU that still lived in the back of the car. It could do 75 mph, offered great road handling and was a very well built and reliable car. It was cheaper to build and easier to service than other German cars with a boxer engine at the back. Only one cylinder head, one carburettor to tend to when thing went wrong enginewise.

Although the Prinz 1000 has got sporty potential, the real fun started in 1965 with the TT and TTS models. Not only did these models offer more power and speed. The double headlights really make these little - I will go fast round any circuit - cars look rather sexy.

1969 marked the beginning of the end for the magnificent Prinzs’. NSU was acquired by VW and merged with Auto Union (to form Audi) already under VW’s control. Sadly production of the Prinz seized in 1973.  probably because the Prinz was way to competitive for the VW beetle. . . Get this: a NSU Prinz 4 could be had for only two thirds of the money required for a Beetle, it offered more cabin space and much better road handling.


Buying one
Rust is the enemy of most classic cars and the Prinz is no exception. Pay special notice to the floors and the wings. The Prinz is also the most expensive car in this WANT ONE with prices starting 2K euro for a reasonable one, up to 5K for a mint Prinz 4. Easily add 2K for TT spec. cars.

Why you want one
The NSU Prinz offers almost limitless motoring fun, great handling and reliability all packed in a small sixties family car.

We like about it
The easy to drive, throw me about hairy chest-ed handling together with the sporty looks of the TT Prinz'.

We dislike about it
The Prinz' are becoming rare nowadays and with it prices are going skywards. Did we mention the rather noisy parallel twin four stroke 2 cylinder powerplant?


The verdict


  DAF 55 Trabant Prinz 4
Running costs / parts
Purchase price
Daily driver certificate
Overall score 20 / 30 17 / 30 18 / 30


Words: MG Robin