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.