As we leave 2017 behind, reflections on two cars, both launched 50 years ago in 1967, both, in their own way, unique failures – with much money spent – and little to show.

Here we consider one of yesterday’s most promising cars of tomorrow, likely to  linger long in dark corners of automotive memory. The other, unloved, unmourned, resting in total obscurity. Read the wake in a separate feature coming soon.

The Neckarsulmer Strickmaschinen Union first made bicycles in Germany in the 1870’s, progressing to motorcycles, and, by 1909, to cars, only to abandon them  during the 1920’s financial crisis. Its entire non-wartime output then comprised only NSU badged motorcycles – until a return to car production in 1957 with the 600cc motorcycle-engined Prinz. Shortly before this appeared, a deal was signed with Dr Felix Wankel to develop his revolutionary rotary engine design for car use. Stylist Claus Luthe – better known for some key 1970’s BMW models – joined the company in time to pen the company’s first rotary engined car – the NSU spider, a neat, apparently Pininfarina-influenced, soft top convertible. 

With the very first rotary engine potentially suitable for vehicle use not running until 1958, question marks hang heavily over how much road proving mileage was achieved before the Spider appeared at the Autumn 1963 Frankfurt Motor Show. It was offered until 1967, though only some 3200 were sold – perhaps unsurprising given that customers found engine life short, oil consumption prodigious, and performance delivery somewhat unconventional.

NSU must have had its own damning evidence of these problems, but incredibly the warning signs went entirely unheeded, and at the 1964 Frankfurt show, with plans then well advanced to end motorcycle production – its only secure source of income – managing director Gerd Stieler von Heydekampf announced that all future NSU engines would be of the Wankel Rotary type.  

The company was staking its future on its promising but underdeveloped engine – in an all-new executive saloon, previewed in 1965 as the Ro80, with an advanced specification including front wheel drive, independent suspension, and all-disc brakes. A redeveloped twin-rotor 995cc power unit offered 115PS (113.5 bhp) via an equallly unconventional Fitchel and Sachs “Saxomat” transmission, combining a three-speed manual gearbox with both a torque converter and semi-automated manual clutch, operated by a touch-sensitive switch atop the gearlever. 

In recent years its emerged that even as production began in August 1967, engineers were concerned  that the engine was not ready, but the Ro80 launch went ahead at the Frankfurt show in September 1967, priced noticeably higher than more conventional competition. 

Initially, the car drew only minor press criticisms. Claus Luthe’s four door saloon styling was modernistic, attractively suave and notably aerodynamic, while the spacious flat-floored interior was efficiently executed in then-typical rather austere Germanic style. Seats lacking lateral support and poor ventilation were particular grumbles, while low noise levels, and a chassis offering good ride and handling, received praise.

The engine’s smoothness and ability to rev contrasted with limited low-down pulling power not helped by widely spaced gears and running weight over 1200kg. Published tests reported 0 to 60mph between 14 and 15 secs, though the engine provided smooth cruising and brisk overtaking response, and a claimed 180 km/h (108mph) top speed. 

The Ro80 took the 1968 Car of the year award, and around 6500 examples were sold in the first year. But the motoring public quickly discovered some less endearing features, particularly excessive oil consumption, an appetite for (expensive) spark plugs – and poor fuel economy. Things turned serious with growing reports of failed internal bearings and rotor apex seals, often between 13,000 and 20,000km, where the warranty ended. The company apparently usually chose to replace complete power units in such cases – while working ever harder on engine development.

Some improvements were effected… but it all came too late. With motorcycle production ended, rapidly rising warranty costs, promising engine licensing deals stalled, increasingly reluctant customers and a fatally wounded reputation, parlous finances and insufficient cashflow forced the issue. The company had always fought to remain independent, but unrelenting single-minded tunnel vision over the Wankel engine pushed NSU over the edge. In March 1969, Volkswagen owned Auto Union GmBH took 60% of its shares, and a new Audi-NSU Auto Union AG subsidiary was formed.

Though Audi announced their conventional but competing new 100 saloon that year, the Ro80 continued in production – somehow weathering the 1970’s oil crisis – until Spring 1977, when a new generation Audi 100 arrived. The Ro80 was then unceremoniously axed – and though ultimately over 37,000 examples were built, the return on sales can hardly have dented the vast amounts racked up in development and warranty costs. The NSU marque has not surfaced since.  

NSU took its place in history as the first of just three companies to offer Wankel-engined production cars, though several major car makers took technology licences in the 1960’s. Citroen, like NSU then also an independent company, undertook years of road proving, but under 900 examples of its production GS Bi-rotor were eventually sold.

One or two survive, but Citroen bought most of them back… Failed joint ventures with NSU (as well as buying Maserati) were instrumental in forcing major shareholder Michelin into negotiating rescue by Peugeot in December 1974. 

Futuristic design and a twin rotor engine were the main characteristics of the “Car of the Year 1967”. Between 1967 and 1977, 37,398 NSU Ro 80 were built.

Only Mazda persevered, steadily refining the rotary engine into a genuine success in its RX sports car line. RX8 production ended in 2012, inherently high fuel consumption and exhaust emissions becoming increasingly significant in ecologically sensitive times.

But… in 2010 Audi revisited its NSU heritage, choosing a single rotor Wankel engine driving a 15kW generator to provide range-extender capability in its A1 e-tron concept. More recently, Mazda has run real-world testing of hydrogen fuelled rotary-engined cars. Neither maker has hinted at future plans, but, as the world spurns petrol and diesel in coming years, maybe, just maybe, the unique, company-breaking rotary engine has another life ahead of it.   

© Dave Moss


Official background on the NSU and Audi merger :

Car of the year winner

Dave Moss
Dave Moss

Dave Moss has a lifetime connection with the world of motoring. His father was a time-served skilled engineer from an age when car repairs really meant repairs: he ran his own garage from the 1930’s to the 60’s, while Mum was the boss’s secretary at a big Austin distributor. Both worked their entire lives in the motor trade, so if motor oil’s not in Dave’s blood, its surely a very close thing.

Though qualified in Electronics, for Dave it seemed a natural step into restoring a succession of classic cars, culminating in a variety of Minis. Writing and broadcasting about these, and a widening range of motoring matters ancient and modern, gathered pace in the 1970’s and has taken over since. Topics nowadays range across the modern motoring mainstream to the offbeat and more arcane aspects of motoring history, and outlets embrace books, websites national and international magazines, newspapers, radio programmes, phone-ins and guest appearances. Spare time: hard graft on the garage floor attending to vehicles old and new. Latest projects: that 1968 Mini Cooper S has finally moved again after 30 years, and when the paint is finished, the 1960 Morris Mini 850 will also soon be ready for the road again…

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