Cult Classic, Not Best Seller – The NSU Ro80

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By Chris Pollitt

NSU started out as, of all things, a manufacturer of knitting machines way back in the 1870s. However, the company was forward-thinking and soon moved into making bicycles and by 1892, that’s all the company made. By 1901, the company had started bolting engines to its two-wheeled offerings, but it wasn’t going to stop there.

There were plans afoot to start making cars. However, despite impressive gusto from the NSU workers, the reality was that the company simply couldn’t compete in the highly competitive mass-made automotive market. Sadly, for NSU, this meant it had to sell its purpose-built car manufacturing facility to Fiat before it had even got going – the competition was just too strong. 

NSU, NSU Ro80, Rotary, Wankel, Auto Union, Ro80 bonnet

NSU wasn’t going to roll over and give in though. After World War 2 the company got back to making cars, and in the process made a reasonable name for itself. NSU was never the biggest hitter in the German car market, but it did have a following and sales were more than enough to sustain the business. This moderate sales success also afforded NSU to opportunity to do what it did best and innovate.

NSU, NSU Ro80, Rotary, Wankel, Auto Union, Ro80 side

In 1964 NSU stunned the motoring world by moving away from the conventional inline engine design, and instead introduced the world’s first car with a rotary Wankel engine, the hilariously named Wankel Spider. Stop laughing. No, stop it. Wankel refers to Felix Wankel, the engineer behind the rotary Wankel engine.

NSU, NSU Ro80, Rotary, Wankel, Auto Union, Wankel Spider

If you’re not familiar with the technology, allow us to explain. A conventional engine works on the basis of pistons going up and down. With a Wankel engine, there is no piston. Instead, there is a triangular rotor that rotates on an eccentric pivot. Fuel and air are delivered as you’d expect, however, the rotor is pushed around by combustion, meaning the chambers in fact move location. It’s quite a complicated system, but it results in rev-happy engines with a decent power output. The only downsides are less than pleasing fuel consumption, and a low output of torque.

NSU had incredibly high hopes for this revolutionary new engine. The goal was to generate considerable revenue by licencing the technology to other manufacturers. In order to do that though, it would need a better car than the Wankel Spider. That car was a proof of concept, but that’s all. As a car it wasn’t particularly exciting, nor was it ground-breaking (other than the engine).

NSU, NSU Ro80, Rotary, Wankel, Auto Union, Ro80 engine

Enter stage left, the Ro80 of 1967. This would be the car that showed the world what NSU was capable of, and it would also be the car that would motivate other companies to buy the licence for the engine technology used. And for a very short time, that’s exactly what it did.

The uneducated will mock the NSU Ro80, but if they do, more fool them. The Ro80 was a car so ahead of its time, so revolutionary and intelligent in design. It was a masterclass in what could be done when building a car. The world just wasn’t ready for it. 

NSU, NSU Ro80, Rotary, Wankel, Auto Union, Ro80 cutaway

Designed by Claus Luthe (who would later go on to be the head of design for BMW), the NSU was a sleek and incredibly smooth four-door saloon. Klaus wanted there to be no unnecessary protrusions or line breaks within the design. Clean cut would be a good way to describe it. It was also spacious. The interior could happily play host to four adults without compromise, and with a tall band of glass all the way around the cabin thanks to thin pillars, it was light and airy. We’ve owned an Ro80 and we can happily report that the cabin is a beautiful place to be. Or at least in our case, it was once we had removed the mouldy seats. Urgh. 

Of course, the Ro80 wasn’t just an exercise in aesthetics. There was some serious mechanical meat to back up its pretty face. For starters, it had fully independent suspension care of MacPherson struts up front and a semi-trailing arm arrangement at the rear. It had disc brakes at every corner care of the Dunlop ATE system. Four-wheel disc brakes were revolutionary for 1967. The fact the front brakes were mounted inboard to reduce un-sprung weight, well, that was straight off a race car. Yes, the NSU Ro80 was a very clever car indeed.

NSU, NSU Ro80, Rotary, Wankel, Auto Union, Ro80 advert

Of course, the crowning technological glory was that rotary Wankel engine. 995cc in capacity, it featured a twin-rotor design and produced 107hp at 6,500rpm – remember, this was a rev-happy engine. Power was delivered to the front wheels, which further served to make the cabin more spacious by removing the need for an intrusive transmission tunnel.

The clever tech didn’t stop there. NSU didn’t want to go for a conventional transmission, so instead opted for a cutting-edge semi-automatic system. Get in a Ro80 and you’ll be faced with an initially confusing set up. There is a brake pedal and a throttle pedal as per any automatic car, but there is also a manual gear shifter. But with no clutch pedal, how does it work? Well, within the shifter knob there is a micro-switch. When it senses pressure from the driver’s hand, it engages a vacuum system that disengages the clutch, allowing the driver to shift gears with the lever in the traditional fashion. Clever stuff.

NSU, NSU Ro80, Rotary, Wankel, Auto Union, Ro80 blue

The NSU was an instant hit with the press. They lauded it for its revolutionary technology, the deeply impressive ride and handling and of course, the fastidious nature of the fit and finish. As such, in 1968 the NSU Ro80 was given the title of ‘Car of the Year’. With that, manufacturers the globe over clambered around the doors of NSU and bought licences to the Wankel engine. The plan was coming together for NSU, and the future looked bright, but only for a short time.

Once out on the roads, cars soon started to suffer from catastrophic failure. By its very nature, the rotary engine is keen to rev and rev high. However, it’s at that high revving speed that damage is done. NSU started to fitted a buzzer and light to the dash that would warn owners if they were revving the engine too much. However, this was far too little, far too late.

The main damage, aside from poor build quality of the engines, came from the rotor tips failing. The tips, or apex seals, were responsible for maintaining compression between the individual champers as the rotor moved. If they gave out, and they did, repeatedly, the car would suffer from a loss of compression and as such, would stop running. NSU developed new seals but fitting them meant removal of the engine. If that wasn’t bad enough, the technicians and dealers were poorly educated in this alternative engine configuration, so in trying to fix cars they would inevitably cause more problems.

NSU, NSU Ro80, Rotary, Wankel, Auto Union, Ro80 driving

NSU was honourable throughout and repaired or replaced engines under warranty as and when needed. However, in doing so the funds at NSU’s disposal were significantly depleted. As such, over the ten-year run of the Ro80, the car remained the same bar a few small visual changes. NSU simply didn’t have the money to develop it further.

By 1970, NSU had successfully ironed out all of the faults, but it was too late. Not only has the car ruined the company’s finances, it had also significantly undermined its reputation, too. NSU was no longer perceived as being a revolutionary carmaker. It was, if anything, a laughing stock. And that was reflected in the wider motoring world – those companies who had bought a licence to the Wankel engine would never act on them, with the exception of Mazda.

NSU, NSU Ro80, Rotary, Wankel, Auto Union, Ro80 rear

On its knees, the future looked bleak for NSU. However, Volkswagen offered it an olive branch and in 1969 it bought NSU. It would later go on to merge with Auto Union, in turn creating Audi. So, while NSU’s endeavours were flawed, they weren’t without merit or recognition and in the end, they secured its future in the form of a merger. However, as a brand in its own right, there is no disputing that NSU was killed by its own creation, the fatally flawed Ro80.

 

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