It was a beautiful car then, and it’s a beautiful car now. But beneath its shapely skin lurked the germ of its makers’ destruction, as well as some technology that plenty of car-makers would fruitlessly spend millions on.
NSU, which made the 1967 Ro80 saloon (which was to become Car of the Year soon after launch), was better known for its affordable-to-cheap motorbikes. Only 20 years earlier it had become the world’s biggest maker of motorcycles and mopeds, including a device named the Quickly, this moped providing its rider with ample time to ponder on its manufacturer’s cruel choice of name. Despite this, over a million were sold between 1953 and 1963.
NSU started life in 1873 as a sewing machine maker, had completely switched to bicycles 20 years later and produced its first motorbike in 1901. The first NSU car was produced in 1905. But the company struggled with four wheels, and in 1932 was forced by its bank to sell its new car plant, which was bought by Fiat.
Fit for a Prinz
Its automotive ambitions resurfaced in 1957 with the Prinz, a small rear-engined, twin-cylinder saloon that was noisy if well-made, and did little to threaten the near-total domination enjoyed by the larger VW Beetle.
The Prinz evolved into a decent enough device that came to resemble our own Hillman Imp, the styling of both heavily influenced by Chevrolet’s rear-engined ’59 Corvair.During this evolution NSU adventured down an interesting side-street with the 1958 Sport Prinz coupe, a shapely variation styled by Bertone.
This adventure became a whole lot more intriguing when the company launched the world’s first rotary engined car, the NSU Spider (pictured above). A convertible version of the Sport Prinz, it was propelled by an engine designed by consultant Dr Felix Wankel and NSU’s Walter Frode, the latter doing much to make Wankel’s idea workable.
‘Unbelievably smooth’ engine
The rotary engine ingeniously did away with the reciprocating engine’s pistons, conrods, camshaft and valves, replacing them all with a curve-sided triangle that rotated eccentrically within a near-oval, or trochoidal, void that provided the combustion chambers and valves.
It was a brilliantly clever design that eliminated the energy-wasting need to convert the reciprocating motion of pistons into the rotary motion of the crankshaft.
The result was an engine that was far more compact, lighter, had fewer moving parts and was unbelievably smooth compared to most of the wheezingly vibratory motors of the day.
It also made the Spider quick in a way that few NSUs, two-wheeled or four, had ever been.
But not for long.
Disastrous NSU rotary engine reliability
The forces and heat applied to the tips of that eccentrically rotating triangle were greater than their constituent materials could stand, premature wear draining the Wankel engine’s energy away. Replacing these so-called apex seals cost NSU dear, even though it made only 2375 Spiders over the three years from 1964.
Despite this, the emergence of the rotary Prinz Spider rushed many manufacturers into buying technology licences from NSU, believing that Wankels were the future.
Among them were Citroen, which formed a partnership with NSU, and General Motors, which produced a beautiful rotary Corvette concept car but ultimately no production machines.
Citroen field-tested two batches of rotaries while Mazda got much further, its 1967 Cosmo (pictured above) triggering a Wankel-engined production run that did not stop until the demise of the RX-8. And it may yet restart.
But no other maker took up the option to make the engine, denying NSU the anticipated royalties that it would soon badly need.
The Spider’s troubles, which it believed it could fix, didn’t deter the company from leaping ahead with its most audacious plan yet. And that was to produce a saloon to challenge Mercedes and a fast-growing BMW.
Enter the NSU R080
The Ro80 was designed by the highly talented Claus Luthe, who had previously created the Spider out of the Sport Prinz and would go on to have an impressive career at Audi and BMW.
The Ro80’s curved nose, wedge-shaped waist, clean-cut flanks, deep glasshouse and neatly truncated boot were almost as adventurous as Citroen’s DS had been 12 years earlier, and like the French car it was very aerodynamic, recording a low-for-the-day Cd of 0.36.
It was beautifully detailed, too. Its headlights sat beneath shapely glass covers, as is fashionable today, its windows were elegantly bordered with polished stainless steel trim, its taillights were funkily frameless lozenges and its indulgently sculpted alloy wheels worthy of a Porsche.
The innovation didn’t end there. Under the bonnet was a larger, more powerful twin rotor 115hp Wankel engine that drove a three-speed semi-automatic transmission whose H-pattern gearlever contained a microswitch operating an electrically-triggered clutch. So it was two-pedal car, but you chose when to shift gears.
A brilliant driver’s car
The NSU was suspended by MacPherson struts at the front and semi-trailing arms at the year, previewing a layout common today, and it had disc brakes on all four wheels, the front pair mounted in-board to reduce unsprung mass.
Despite the engine’s inherent lightness, power steering was standard, the aim being to reduce driver effort, as with the transmission.
Not that keen drivers didn’t like the Ro80. Its excellent weight distribution, well-planted wheels, sophisticated suspension and super-smooth engine produced a car that responded brilliantly to keen pedalling, its agile chassis and rev-hungry engine producing quite a sporty drive.
And a civilised one too, the NSU’s pliant ride and general quiet making it a great long distance machine. Mostly.
Trouble was that many owners over-revved that revvy rotary, accelerating wear of its internal tips, the mix of metals used on the early cars causing further degeneration.
A badly abused engine could fail after just 15,000 miles, and even better cared-for motors were dying at 30,000 miles, their worn tips sabotaging the combustion process.
NSU finances: a tsunami of red ink
NSU behaved honourably over these failures, replacing hundreds of engines under warranty. Unsurprisingly this washed a tsunami of red ink through its ledgers, and two years later the company was bought by Volkswagen, not because it wanted the Ro80, but because it was increasingly desperate to find a replacement for its Beetle.
NSU, it reckoned, had a good stopgap in its development shed with a new saloon that slotted between the Ro80 and the baby Prinz.
That car became the VW K70 (pictured above), but had nowhere near the visual appeal of the Ro80 and was priced too expensively to succeed. NSU itself was rolled into the clumsily named Audi NSU Auto Union AG subsidiary of VW, which would in time simply become Audi, killing NSU in the process.
The Ro80 didn’t die yet however. NSU had managed to sort the rotary’s durability issues, and the car’s brilliant styling meant that it stayed perpetually fresh. VW allowed it to live on, but its early troubles and the fuel addiction of a tyre-smoking American muscle car slowed sales to the pace of a Prinz, especially when 1973’s energy crisis struck.
The legacy of the NSU Ro80
Production finally stopped in 1977 after 37,406 had been made – a modest number given its 10-year life.
But the impact of the Ro80, and NSU’s adventures with rotaries, still have resonance today. Look hard at an Audi A4, an A6 or an A8, and you can still see the elegant bones of the Ro 80 in their proportions, from their six-light glasshouse to their smooth flanks and wide-planted wheels. So far-sighted was its design that it wouldn’t take much to update the Ro 80 for today.
The rotary engine, meanwhile, is taking a rest, but Mazda says that it is still developing the engine for a possible return.