The 1967-1977 NSU Ro80 has been called an exercise in futility and a lost cause. Some have even gone so far as to term it a glorious failure. But the German-built, Wankel-powered NSU Ro80 was none of those things. Rather, it was a car without tradition that managed to leapfrog the technology of much more established and respected makes like Mercedes-Benz and BMW -- and by at least a decade. This modern milestone deserves not only our scrutiny but all due respect.
As many enthusiasts know, the Ro80's poor reputation stemmed directly from its twin-chamber rotary engine. Based on principles laid down by Dr. Felix Wankel, this newer type of internal-combustion power has become a familiar, if still uncommon, item. But when the radical Ro80 burst on the scene in the late Sixties, it was very much an unknown quantity.
In light of that, it may seem amazing that NSU did not fully field-test the engine before release.
Of course, there was a reason. Basically, it was lack of money. NSU was not only small but a relative newcomer to the automotive field. By the time the Ro80 was ready, the firm was faltering, and it was thought that delays would cost badly needed sales. Ironically, NSU already had more Wankel engineering and production experience than anyone else.
Indeed, it had pioneered this engine design by building a limited run of tiny, single-rotor convertibles in 1963-1966, about 5,000 in all. But the Ro80 was far more ambitious: the first NSU that begged to be taken seriously. As a result, the car critically acclaimed for its advanced engineering and superbly balanced performance was just as roundly condemned when its powerplant proved cantankerously unreliable.
Continue to the next page to learn about all the problems that plagued the NSU Ro80.
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Problems and Pluses of the NSU Ro80
The NSU Ro80's problems weren't long in surfacing. Most highly publicized were the short-lived rotor tip seals and resulting oil leaks, plus chamber-wall distortion and other maladies that sometimes necessitated a replacement engine or a complete rebuild as early as 30,000 miles. Some engines failed totally, the cars grinding to a stop in a cloud of oil smoke. But that was rare.
The most frequent complaint was a gradual loss of power and rising fuel and oil consumption. A tune-up and new rotor seals would usually put things right, but few believed it. In fact, some disgruntled owners, especially Britons, resorted to substituting European Ford V-4 or V-6 engines once word on the Wankel got out.
That word spelled trouble for NSU -- big trouble. Determined to salvage the situation, the firm instituted an extremely liberal warranty program, and many engines that simply needed minor attention were replaced free of charge. But instead of stemming the adverse publicity, this action only made the Ro80, its engine, and the company the laughingstock of German motordom.
People kept laughing long after the engine defects were corrected, not realizing that the Ro80 represented the wave of the future for the entire industry. Aside from a compact, lightweight power unit, it boasted front-wheel drive, all-independent suspension (coil-sprung MacPherson struts at each corner, plus rear trailing arms), power steering (ZF rack-and-pinion), and four-wheel power disc brakes. We take these features for granted now, but they were far from universal back then.
Or consider the wind-cheating, four-door sedan body: huge, upwardly curved windshield; low, rectangular grille; flowing fender contours; rounded "six-light" greenhouse; short, high tail. Here was the shape of the Eighties more than a decade before its time, and its 0.355 drag coefficient was sensationally low for the day. The 112.5-inch wheelbase was relatively long for a late-Sixties European, and combined with minimal front and rear overhang for exceptional interior space and the proverbial velvet ride.
Continue to the next page to learn about the features found on the forward-thinking NSU Ro80.
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NSU Ro80 Features
The NSU Ro80, with front drive and a fairly broad stance, delivered fine cornering, even though its tires were only 175x14s on five-inch-wide rims. And despite being saddled with a three-speed semi-automatic transmission and fairly short final gearing (4.857:1, giving 18.8 mph/1,000 rpm in top), performance was creditable, reflecting the slippery shape, a decent power-to-weight ratio, and good -- though not exceptional -- torque (118 pounds-feet).
For the record, a healthy Ro80 could hit 112 mph flat out and dash from 0 to 100 km/h (62 mph) in less than 14 seconds -- not bad for 115 horsepower pulling 2,668 pounds. But overshadowing all was the refinement of that rotary engine: revvy, quiet, nearly vibration-free. To a public weaned on noisy, rough-running reciprocating fours, it was a revelation.
The Ro80 was said to be a gas-guzzler. Actually, it was nothing of the sort. As with the first rotary Mazdas, consumption seemed high relative to engine size -- the combined chamber volume swept by the epitrochoidal rotors was a mere 995cc (60 cubic inches) -- but didn't look at all bad next to the available power and performance. Early examples typically returned 15.7 miles per gallon, but this author saw an actual 20.6 mpg on a 5,000-kilometer (3,100-mile) trip in a 1974 model, and that included crossing the Alps -- twice. The 1976 was even better: around 25 mpg at a steady 100 km/h.
Critics also branded the Ro80 an oil-burner. At first it was, with reported consumption as high as 1 liter/225 km (140 miles/quart). But after the aforementioned engine modifications, carried out in 1969 and 1971, this was lowered to within normal limits.
Looking back, the one main riddle still surrounding the Ro80 is not why it had troubles but why it was built at all. How could a marginal outfit like NSU, with such a skimpy automaking background, ever think it could tackle something so advanced? More to the point, since everything was riding on its first "proper" car, why didn't the firm field a more conventional package that would likely have proved more reliable and probably more profitable?
On the next page, read about how the NSU Ro80 was conceived and carried out by NSU's visionaries.
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1967 NSU Ro80 Origins
The NSU Ro80 began with NSU president Gerd Stieler von Heydekampf, who had joined the company as an advisor in 1948 and was named to its board of directors two years later. NSU had abandoned automaking in 1933, when its plant in Heilbronn was sold to Fiat, and had since concentrated mainly on motorcycles. After some 25 years, Heydekampf decided it was time to get NSU back into the car business, then beginning to boom in the economic “miracle” of postwar Germany.
The result duly appeared in 1958. Dubbed Prinz, it was a boxy minicar mounting an air-cooled twin at the rear in the manner of the increasingly popular Volkswagen Beetle. The initial 500cc model was soon joined by larger four-cylinder variants with more displacement and power.
Meantime, Heydekampf became interested in and encouraged the experiments of staff engineer Dr. Wankel, and soon committed NSU to further development of his rotary concept. That, in turn, led to the production Wankel Spider, based on the Prinz platform.
By 1962, Heydekampf and his sales executives had concluded that the minicar was doomed. What NSU needed now was a larger, less austere product to compete in the growing family-car market, the sector that traditionally generates the greatest sales volume. A year later, the company sold its motorcycle operations to Marshal Tito in Yugoslavia, leaving NSU entirely dependent on the auto business for the first time. Heydekampf promptly gave the go-ahead for a new car that was to be designed expressly for the Wankel, which looked ever more promising, and it was this program that would culminate in the Ro80.
Initially, the design brief called for a smaller, lighter machine than the one that ultimately emerged, with 80 horsepower and a curb weight of 800 kg (1,760 pounds). Heydekampf and chief engineer Ewald Praxl realized that their new volume entry need only be perhaps two steps up from the Prinz in size, price, and performance to match such established favorites as the Opel Rekord and Ford Taunus. But somewhere along the way, the target was moved.
The new twin-rotor Wankel proved more powerful than expected, so engineers relaxed their watch on the scales. By the time the dust settled, the car had ballooned into a rival for the junior Mercedes and BMWs, about five steps up from the Prinz and far more complicated and costly than anything Heydekampf had envisioned.
The Ro80’s semi-automatic transmission reflected Praxl’s desire that the new car be easy to drive. Unfortunately, it proved as quirky as the engine, having neither the convenience of a true automatic nor the sportiness and flexibility of a manual. As with Volkswagen’s “Automatic Stickshift” and Porsche’s “Sportomatic,” both of which appeared at about the same time, the Ro80 unit offered two-pedal control, but you still had to swap ratios by hand.
Grasping the knob of the floor-mounted lever triggered a solenoid that disengaged the vacuum-operated clutch (supplemented by a hydraulic torque converter). Once the shift was made and the knob fully released, the clutch would engage automatically. It was a good idea in theory, but most drivers never quite got the hang of it -- even with practice.
On the next page, find out where the NSU Ro80's design team got their car-building know-how.
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The NSU Ro80 Design Team
Aside from the engine, developed under the direction of Walter Froede and Georg Jungbluth, the NSU Ro80 was designed almost entirely by Praxl: general architecture, suspension, even the body shape. The final production-model body drawings were done by Klaus Luthe, who later became chief of BMW styling. Philip Schmidt, principal chassis design engineer, did the drawing board work on the Ro80 chassis, assisted by Herbert Brockhaus, under the supervision of Rudolf Strobel. Testing and development were in the hands of Hans Georg Wenderoth.
And what were the qualifications of the NSU Ro80’s creators? Curiously, two came from the petroleum industry. Wenderoth had been an automobile specialist with Shell, Brockhaus a research engineer with Esso. Jungbluth had formerly worked in engine design at Daimler-Benz and Deutz, while Strobel was an experienced motorcycle engineer under Albert Roder and Viktor Frankenberg at NSU. Praxl had been at NSU since 1939, when his first assignment had been designing the K-Rad, a track-laying “crawler” military motorcycle. He continued as a motorcycle engineer until Heydekampf put him in charge of the Prinz program in 1955.
Considering its advanced design, plus NSU’s small size and limited resources, the Ro80 came together quickly. Wind tunnel tests with scale models were started at the Stuttgart Polytechnic Institute in August 1963, concluding once the measured drag coefficient had been pared to 0.34.
Construction of a full-scale model began that October, and it was presented to the board the following May. Road testing, however, didn’t commence until almost two years later, April 1966. Pilot assembly got underway in February 1967, with the first production units coming off the line in August.
All good things must come to an end. On the next page, read about how the NSU Ro80 finally gave up the ghost in 1977.
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The NSU Ro80's Demise
The NSU Ro80 should have been a winner. Instead, it sounded the death knell for NSU Motorenwerke. Advanced engineering typically makes for high manufacturing costs, which in turn means high retail prices. The Ro80 was no exception, and sales suffered accordingly.
Arriving at 18,600 deutsche marks (up to DM 23,000 eight years later), it was pitched squarely in Mercedes and BMW territory. And though it was more modern, it lacked their outright performance, not to mention their prestige, two very important factors for buyers in that class.
Then came the engine problems, forever tainting it as an "underdeveloped" car and further depressing demand. Going overboard on honoring warranty claims simply accelerated NSU's decline, its financial position already weakened by the new model's formidable development and tooling expenses.
The result was almost anticlimactic. Volkswagen took control of NSU in February 1969, merging it with recently acquired Audi (Auto Union) to form a separate new Audi-NSU division. Though its name wasn't removed from that title until 1984, NSU's minicars disappeared soon after the takeover. Shortly before this, NSU's conventionally powered, front-drive K70 was nearing completion, conceived as a smaller, Ro80 running mate and styled along similar lines.
VW saw this as the answer to its own upmarket aspirations, and the K70 made a belated debut under the Wolfsburg banner in 1971. Though we'll never know how it might have fared as a "little" Ro80, it found scant acceptance as a "big VW" and was dropped a few years later.
Somehow, the Ro80 itself soldiered on all the way through March 1977, which is, perhaps, surprising in view of its checkered history. After that, the NSU plant at Neckarsulm was converted for assembly of the new Porsche 924. Total Ro80 production amounted to 47,400 units, a sad epitaph for a car that promised -- and generally delivered -- so much.
Today, the Ro80's forward-thinking design and historical significance have at last been recognized, making this a rapidly rising collectible automobile. Partly because of limited imports, it's always been a scarce commodity in the U.S., yet prices remain quite reasonable and you can still find Ro80s running regularly on the roads of Europe.
Like so many ill-starred cars, this one had lessons to teach. Happily, they haven't been lost. Even while NSU was dying, Mazda of Japan took up the Ro80's cause by building Dr. Wankel's engine under license, eventually working out the bugs and improving it in almost every respect: better economy, longer life, and more power. In the process, Mazda nearly met the same fate as the German company, but it was a much stronger and better-run outfit, and it's bounced back handsomely.
Mazda became the world's most visible Wankel advocate with its swift 1986 RX-7 Turbo. You can thank the Ro80 for those performance enhancements. Little loved in its own time, it deserves a place of honor in ours.