The cars we loved.
NSU was a small company that made cars, motorcycles and bicycles in Germany. Established in 1873, it was known for technical innovations that later became widespread. It’s most notorious example of innovation came in the form of the Ro80,the last car to bear the NSU name. The Ro80 was a large (by European standards)front wheel drive sedan with a insanely small 1.0 L rotary engine. The unusual powertrain was just the beginning of what set the Ro80 apart from almost every other car in the world at the time.
Sleek and aerodynamic by even 80’s standards, the Ro80 had a wedge-shaped design that had become the foundation of modern sedan design by the 80’s. Designed by Clas Luthe, who later went to BMW, the Ro80’s shape was tested in a wind tunnel after it was built. The low drag coefficient of .35 was excellent for the time. The slippery shape helped the 113 hp twin rotor Wankel engine get the Ro80 to a top speed of 112 mph, suprising for a car promoted for advance styling and utility. Despite having so small an engine, it was never all that efficient with fuel mileage in the 15 to 18 mpg range. Inside was more conventional, with a stark and efficient dash layout with vinyl seats.
There actually is a long list of features on the Ro80 that have become common place on today’s cars, but in the late 60’s seemed like the domain of expensive luxury or concept cars. These included a fully independent suspension, clutchless 3 speed semi automatic transmission, four-wheel disc brakes and a power ZF rack and pinion steering system (needed, due to engine being ahead of front wheels). In fact, the Ro80 was so far ahead of its time that when Audi bought NSU in 1969, it had looked like the basis of the future Audi 100 sedan had already been tested.
Unfortunately, so much innovation was bound to have some problems. Shortly after being the European Car of the Year in its debut year of 1967, problems began to surface as owners approached the first year anniversaries of ownership. Most issues centered around the rotary engine. Many buyers of early cars had to get engine rebuilds at 30,000k miles due to rotor tip seal problems among other things. The Ro80 had gained a terrible reputation for reliabliability, compounded by most dealers inexperience with rotary engines. NSU wasn’t alone, over in Japan Mazda had problems with the Wankel rotary design and was making slow inroads to making it work. Out of desperation, many owners swapped out the Wankel for rough Ford transit engines and other engines that were small enough to fit in the Ro80’s diminutive engine bay.
The problems were for the most part resolved by the early 70’s, thanks to Audi, but not before Ro80’s reputation tanked. Audi’s involvement with NSU was evident in post 1970 cars where the worst of the rotary issues were solved. In 1977, Audi quietly folded NSU and the company was integrated into the VW Group. The legacy of the rotary engine lives on with Mazda, who strangely enough offers solutions for those who hang on to the early cars for their escalating collector status.