4-Car NSU Ro80

The NSU Ro80 is a lost cause of heroic proportions. Launched in 1967 it was a new big saloon from a company that had never made anything other than economy run-abouts and mopeds.
That would have been enough of a risk but the NSU Ro80 (‘Ro’ stood for rotary, ‘80’ the factory design number) was also the worlds first purpose-built twin rotor Wankel engined saloon.
Not only was it fast – 115mph – and super-smooth but it was beautiful too, with a futuristic and slippery five seater body that pointed the way to the best styling of the 1980s and 90s.
The list of novelties seemed endless: front wheel drive, superb power steering and four wheel disc brakes gave it top drawer handling, long travel strut suspension a comfortable, absorbent ride.
To mask the Wankel’s poor low down torque NSU specified a 3 speed semi automatic transmission that was precursor to today’s self shifters; there was no clutch pedal but instead an electric switch in the top of the gear knob that operated a vacuum system.
The car was a masterpiece but with one fatal flaw: its engine. Inadequately developed it suffered from acute wear of its rotor tip seals and after 15,000 miles (or less) owners of early models began to notice a lack of power and increased fuel consumption.
Engines became difficult to start and smoked heavily. NSU were generous with warranty claims and many cars had as many as nine new engines. Owners didn’t wave to each other but raised fingers to indicate the number of new engines they’d had…
The costs sent NSU into the arms of Volkswagen in 1969 and as word got around about the Wankel engines problems sales plummeted. Production, at a lower level, lasted until 1977 when the NSU marque died and its place on the production lines was taken by the Porsche 924.
Mention the name today and the uninitiated think you are talking about an obscure variation of an irritating female genital infection.
Those that do recall the Ro80 define it today, nearly 40 years on, less by its engine problems and more by its fabulous shape, an elegant raising wedge with a high tail and a low nose from the pen of one of the great unsung heroes of car design Claus Luthe.
The slender roof with that huge screen seems to hover above a clean sculptured body riding a long wheelbase and a wide track. It was clean, ethereal and so timeless that it almost seems to get better with the passing years rather than more dated.
It showed an astonishingly sure touch from a company that had never built a large car before. Only the chrome detailing and slender tyres seem to date the Ro80 which is still sited by numerous high profile design gurus – Bruno Sacco of Mercedes among them – as the car they would most like to have in their own portfolios.
Claus Luthe’s story is a tragic one personally – he hit the headlines in recent years for killing his alcoholic son – though his career was an undoubted success. The Ro80 made his reputation and after styling the unloved VWK70 (a kind of cheapened, simplified Ro80 with a piston engine which had been originally launched, but never produced, as an NSU K70) and the first Polo he moved to BMW in the late 70s. His first complete car was the second generation 7-Series of 1986 followed by the 8 Series coupe, the 1990 3 Series and the 1994 7-Series. But it is the Ro80 he will be best remembered for.
In ten years of production NSU hardly raised a pencil to the shape of the car apart from adding a boot handle in 1970 and new bigger rear light clusters, a different ‘Ro80’ badge and rubber faced bumpers in 1975.
Acceptance of the shape at its 1967 Frankfurt show introduction was by no means universal in an era of sharp, angular styling and when sales of cars like the Morris Minor were still in full swing.
But enlightened connoisseurs recognized the Ro80 for the masterpiece it was, a car with a timeless quality shared only with its nearest rival the Citroen DS. Ignorant of its engine problems some sections of the press called it ‘car of the decade’ and the tragedy of this prophetic saloon is that it would have been a great car even without its engine, so refined and well sorted was its handling and ride.
Much was made at the time of the cars aerodynamics, that it had been designed in a wind tunnel. The drag coefficient was 0.355; 30-40 percent lower than most modern saloons in 1967.
All things considered the 37,000 production total for the Ro80 was surprisingly healthy. The UK was a good market for the car and those examples that survived salty winter roads and dodgy Ford V4 conversions are cherished if not especially valuable.
Somehow the big NSU has avoided the designer-chic appeal of the Citroen DS and if you can find a really lovely one with a sorted engine it is unlike to command more than £5000.
I joined the ranks of Ro80 admirers in 1995. The 1974 car I bought still ranks as one of the best classics I’ve owned. I had the car, on and off, for the next ten years and clocked up 50,000 miles as my daily smoke. It commuted me across London, it streamed me down motorways and took me and my family on holiday several times. I got to the stage where I was getting in the car – a  Mexico blue example with blue cloth, alloys and a sunroof – and not even thinking that I might break down. It was almost as if it was a modern executive car, accept a lot sexier and capable of generating a lot more interest. I often returned to it with people gawping at the thing, wondering what it was or eager to tell me about how they owned one or that their dad had driven one in the 70s.
It was astonishingly reliable: all it ever did was fowl its spark plugs but it only had two of them and I became adept at swapping them over to a spare clean set I always kept in the glove box. It helped that I got to know a good specialist and a few local Ro80 boffins like Phil Blake (who still has a dozen of them two his name) but really it required very little maintenance. It had been restored at some stage but keeping the rot out of the car was a headache. The sunroof was a nightmare, blocking up with water, generating corrosion elsewhere in the car and regularly pouring two pints of cold rain water down my passenger’s neck under hard cornering.
Perhaps the cars worst crime was locking itself in second gear while we were on holiday in France one year (my fault as has I had been shifting ratios too violently) but even this did not halt its progress. Without a clutch it was easy to pull away in the middle gear and do anything up to 80mph if need be, so that’s what we did for the rest of the trip being careful not to get into situations that required reverse…
It was not a fast car in any absolute sense yet 100-110mph cruising was its comfort zone with the capability of 125 when felt the need. It was hugely stable and forgiving. Once, driving down the M1 more than a little in excess of the legal limit, I sensed something was not quite right and pulled into the next services. I’d been doing ninety on a flat left hand rear tyre.
That the Ro80 was killed off relatively young probably has as much to do with the Wankels endemic thirst and emission problems as it did reliability. The firm and the talent that created the Ro80 was absorbed into Audi.
It was left up to Mazda to develop the rotary and its perseverance with these deceptively simple, smooth, compact but still thirsty engines might yet pay off; rotary’s run better on hydrogen than any piston engine.
I often wished my Ro80 were running on hydrogen. The main downside of life with the car was its thirst: 20mpg at best but often as little as 12. It was with this in mind that eventually a pal persuaded me to part with it.
He liked the idea of it rather than using it and simply parked it on some wet grass for a couple of years. But he was sensitive and seeing my increasing distress as it gently went to seed eventually gave it back to me.
Later I sold it on again as a restoration project (with the engine still strong and healthy) to a local Stroud NSU obsessive.
He restored it and effectively gave it back to me in an internecine deal, the details of which would only bore you. Eventually it ended up in an auction and then on Ebay, where it sold for surprisingly strong money especially considering the last ‘restoration’ had involved blocking up the offending sunroof with P38 body filler.
The Ro80 might not have brought NSU much luck but that car – HYM 354N – always looked after me.

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