Automotive History: German Deadly Sins (The Neckarsulm Chronicles, Part 3) – The NSU Ro 80, Todsünde Durch Technik

Thank you for your patience: I realize this is the moment some of you were waiting for, our final chapter, the death of NSU. Unlike the two previous installments, which had a Buddhist / reincarnation feel to them, this one is the very essence of a Deadly Sin. The rapid rise and precipitous fall of NSU, which essentially only ever made two cars (the Prinz and the Ro 80), has been documented by a number of people. Time to give it the CC treatment.

As we have seen in Part 1 of these “Chronicles”, NSU have quite the automotive back story. Once they sold their car factory to Fiat in the late ‘20s, it seemed their involvement in four-wheeled transport was behind them. However, the Neckarsulm motorcycle maker did dabble in cars in the ‘30s, albeit briefly: a certain Dr Porsche knocked on their door in 1933 and persuaded them to use their facilities to make a bug-shaped rear-engined prototype. Yes, NSU’s Typ 32 was one of Porsche’s early drafts for the “people’s car” he had been tasked to do by Hitler. But Porsche was soon on his way: NSU were not interested in pursuing the matter at that juncture.

The firm became a true bicycle and motorcycle success story, though. NSU two-wheelers were extremely popular, both at home and abroad. NSU were the biggest motorcycle manufacturer in the world in the ‘30s and ‘50s. With success came money, and with money came the need to invest more in the business to continue its growth. This led NSU back to cars almost inevitably.

By the early ‘50s, a small four-wheeled prototype was being tested around Neckarsulm. It had a secret weapon in its tail: a brilliant 600cc NSU air-cooled twin. Seeing the success of Lloyd, Goggomobil, BMW’s Isetta and a dozen other tiny cars, NSU were compelled to give their design a shot at the big time. The NSU Prinz began series production in March 1958 and sales took off instantly.

The Prinz was a cut above the rest. It was relatively cheap, had very good dynamics, great performance and a whole network of dealers ready to sell it. By early 1959, a slightly better-trimmed Prinz II was unveiled and a 30 hp (DIN) version was available – as much power as a VW 1200 for DM600 less, not to mention much better fuel economy. In 1960, the Prinz III came out with further refinements. But NSU knew that they wouldn’t be able to fight VW (and DKW, Glas, Neckar, etc.) with the Prinz as it was. The styling had already aged quite a bit and the interior space was insufficient for a growing number of German families. A new Prinz was about to ascend the throne.

Launched in late 1961, the NSU Prinz 4 was perhaps the starkest example of the ground-braking Chevrolet Corvair’s stylistic influence in the ‘60s. There were many others, but somehow NSU’s Corvair-lookalike was the most clear-cut, perhaps because it too was rear-engined. It may not have been quite as pretty as the BMW 700, but it was more timeless – indeed, this shape created by Claus Luthe was not one NSU would ever improve on for its rear-engined cars.

The boxy and utilitarian Prinz 4 was perfect for the family-minded, but there were a number of bachelors to be catered for too. NSU, like many of its esteemed rivals, contracted an Italian house to make a sporty and trendy coupé / cabriolet – something with panache, lots of brightwork and a pointy tail. Bertone obliged and the Prinz Sport was born.

Dr Felix Wankel (1902-1988)

 

Time, at this point in the story, to introduce a particularly shady and bizarre character (cue spooky theremin music), Dr Felix Wankel. The man had a sulfurous history, having been kicked out of the Nazi Party in 1932 (he had joined in 1922) for being a bit too extreme. During the war, he was an officer in the SS for a couple of years, but was discharged for unknown reasons (one shudders to think…). But if the subjects of politics, culture and philosophy were not broached, he could be seen as a gifted engineer. In particular, Dr Wankel had been working on a revolutionary engine design since the mid-‘20s, something truly innovative. But the original design was impossibly complex, as both the trichodoidal piston and its housing rotated within another (static) housing. In 1951, Felix Wankel was hired by NSU as a technical consultant and the design was changed to something less improbable, with a rotating piston spinning within a distinctively shaped stator.

It’s not my place to educate the few CC readers who would not be familiar with the rotary engine – others (especially Aaron Severson) have done it with far more competence than I ever could. Suffice to say that Wankel’s design, after three decades of development, was still not ready for prime time. But NSU’s engineering staff worked with Felix Wankel and, with subtle but essential changes in the design, things seemed to be very promising. The engine was first tested by 1957 and NSU soon began to issue licenses to a number of interested parties, including Alfa Romeo, Curtiss-Wright, Deere, GM, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Norton, Rolls-Royce, Suzuki and others. From circa 1978 to around 2000, some rotary-powered cars were also made by AvtoVAZ (a.k.a Lada), but it’s unclear whether they acquired the NSU license.

Rolls-Royce’s two-stage Diesel rotary research did not result in production engines. ‘A’ for effort, though.

 

The rotary engine promised to be a great improvement on the reciprocating piston engine, both much more compact and with far fewer moving parts, and consequently – it was hoped – higher revving capabilities, as well as easier manufacture and servicing, not to mention a significant noise reduction. Known drawbacks included metallurgical issues, rotor tips wearing out, high fuel and oil consumption, problems in effectively cooling the stator and imperfect combustion. NSU were going it alone for the “beta” version, but already Citroën were showing tremendous interest in teaming up with Neckarsulm to develop the Wankel engine further. In 1964, NSU and Citroën co-founded the Comobil, based in Geneva, to share rotary-related engineering tasks and resources. Both firms would come to regret this, but at the time, other automakers’ engineers were green with envy.

But NSU had got there first and wanted to show it. So despite the Wankel engine’s lack of development, NSU decided to launch the world’s first rotary-powered car in 1964. It was, quite simply, a Prinz Sport convertible with a single rotor in its tail. There was little to distinguish it from its “normal” brethren, aside from the completely different engine note. And the price. Cutting-edge technology doesn’t come cheap, and this little drop-top was pretty expensive. The motoring press and the public at large saw it for what it was: a Bertone-styled convertible test-bed for the rotary.

NSU did not neglect the rest of their range while the Wankel experiment was going on. The Prinz 4’s little twin was good, but a larger engine would enable NSU to increase its market share and give VW something to be really worried about. The NSU Prinz 1000, launched in 1963 with an air-cooled 969cc 4-cyl. providing 43 PS (DIN), was another hit for NSU. It also spawned a number of interesting developments, both within NSU and elsewhere.

The NSU 1000 TT (above) was quick, but the TTS (below) was the proverbial pocket rocket.

Within the company, the 1-litre car was seen as an obvious contender for a bit of a tune-up, not unlike the Mini Cooper, the Fiat 600 Abarth or the Renault 8 Gordini. The 1965 1000 TT (with a 55 PS 1.1 litre 4-cyl.) and 1000 TTS (with a 70 PS version of the 1 litre that could be further souped up to 85 PS for rally use) became the most fun one could have with one’s clothes on. These little proto-GTIs were successful on many a track and helped further NSU’s image as an exciting brand.

The family-oriented 1000 also spawned the Typ 110, whose revised front end sported rectangular headlamps and a full-width fake grille, as well as a 49 PS version of the 1000 TT’s engine. By 1967, a 1.2 litre engine was devised and installed in the Typ 110 (which became the NSU 1200) and the 1200 TT.

Mummy mia!

 

Let’s take a look at NSU’s influence beyond West Germany for a bit. Time for some weird cars you’ve probably not heard much about. First stop: Egypt. Huge country, but no automotive industry to speak of? NSU to the rescue! The Egyptian Light Transport Manufacturing Co. teamed up with NSU to foist the Ramses on an unsuspecting public. Several iterations of this Prinz-based design were made. The convertible above, the Ramses Gamila, was designed (if one could call it that) by none other than Vignale.

A Ramses II saloon, based on the Prinz 4, was also proposed in the mid-‘60s. Build quality was perhaps not up to scratch, so few have made it to this century. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the Israeli Rom Carmel, from a stylistic point of view, though the underpinnings are completely unrelated.

The NSU P-6, or why Uruguayan coachbuilders never really made it big internationally.

 

NSUs were assembled in various foreign countries, and CKD Prinz 4s and 1000s soon found their way to Uruguay, where local industrial firm NORDEX put them together. But the Uruguayan market seemed to be hungry for more interior space, so NORDEX devised a home-grown wagon on the Prinz’s platform. The result was not exactly beautiful to look at (nor practical, given the engine’s location), but this unique variant was sold for a few years in the late ‘60s, both as the P-6 (2-cyl.) and the P-10 (4-cyl.).

Finally, a complete copycat made in the USSR: the ZAZ Zaporozhets 966/968. This was decidedly not an NSU, as the underpinnings and the body were Soviet-made and unrelated to the original. But the Zapo was an obvious copy of the Prinz 4 / 1000: rear-engined (with an air-cooled V4) with a mini-Corvair body, it came out in 1966. The car lost its cute Mickey-Mouse-ear air intakes in 1979, along with most of its chrome, but ZAZ kept on making them until 1994 – making it the longest-lived Corvair-inspired car in the world.

 

That’s all well and good, T87, but get to the Ro 80 already!” Yes, yes, yes, we’re almost there…

 

Above: a forgotten forerunner of the MPV, the Autonova Fam; below, the sleek GT.

In a foretaste of what was to come, NSU presented the Autonova prototypes in 1965, designed by Michael Conrad and Pio Manzù. Based on the NSU 1000 floorpan, the Autonova GT coupé and the Glas 1304-based Autonova Fam proto-MPV wowed the public with their highly innovative and clean lines. Something big was going to come out of Neckasrulm.

Crudely camouflaged Ro 80 prototypes in cold weather trials in the winter of 1966/67.

 

NSU started working on a completely new executive-class car in 1962. Not unlike Glas, NSU’s strategy was a relentless climb up the ladder of engine displacement and car segments. And not unlike Glas again, they were going at it very quickly indeed. But whereas the Dingolfing firm’s technical innovation, while laudable, was somewhat prudent, NSU wanted to push the envelope well beyond the likes of BMW or Mercedes and into the risky realm of the Citroën DS: a big front-drive spaceship of a car, with an aerodynamic body – and the Wankel engine, of course. The DS was already ten years old, though it didn’t look it. NSU’s car needed to be at least ten years ahead of its time – suddenly, it’s 1980!

In 1967, NSU launched its bombshell and the world was stunned. Immediately, automotive critics waxed lyrical on virtually all aspects of the Ro 80. The twin-rotor engine, the superb roadholding, the slippery yet handsome shape, the build quality – everything about the car was superlative.

Well, almost everything. Some found the interior to be less than perfect for this segment. The dashboard was a little barren, perhaps even boring. It did not match the exterior’s sophisticated detailing, that’s for sure. The Saxomat 3-speed semiautomatic transmission was also deemed less than perfect by some. Why not have four or five gears? Why have this unlikely set-up, with the clutch being engaged electrically? How durable and reliable would that be? Why not a fully automatic transmission?

But the rest of the car won most critics over. The styling was particularly well done – modern, owing virtually nothing to then-current trends, yet providing an airy cabin and a large trunk. Touches such as the flush-fitted windows, integrated door handles, the overall wedge-like shape (yet devoid of straight lines), the sculpted headlamps and the diminutive grille were well ahead of their time. The car’s slippery lines weren’t just for show: the Ro 80’s 0.35 Cd was leagues ahead of its time.

The twin-rotor engine was a delight to use. Producing 113 hp (DIN) out of only 995cc, it had an uncanny ability to rev up beyond its 6500 rpm redline while producing a very distinctive and discreet whirring noise. It was so smooth and seemed so at ease that it was impossible for the driver to detect that the engine was revving too fast, with potentially disastrous consequences. Critics soon noted the Wankel’s appetite though – that was a clear weakness of the design from the get-go. On average, it drank an impressive 18 litres / 100 km (13 mpg US), which seemed at odds with its relatively small displacement. But then, everything about the Wankel was so different that comparing it with a 1000cc piston engine was completely pointless. It was more comparable to (at least) a 2-litre or more 6-cyl. in terms of power – and comparable to a V8 in terms of fuel consumption.

RHD markets and the US received the Ro 80 with quad headlamps.

 

The rest of the car was up to date as well – no drum brakes on this baby. The compact engine sat ahead of the front wheels, which used McPherson struts, coupled with BMW-inspired rear semi-trailing arms. This, along with a stiff monocoque body, FWD and ZF-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, made for a very competent and comfortable package on the Autobahn. The launch price of DM 14,150 was a bit on the expensive side, reflecting NSU’s precarious financial situation and the car’s long and costly development. What did that kind of money represent in West Germany in early 1968? Well, competition was pretty fierce, as the table below will show.

For space reasons, the comparison is limited to 11 models, but several others would have been in contention, such as the Glas 1700 TS or the Opel Commodore 2500 (both just under DM 10,000), or imports such as the Triumph 2000, the Fiat 2300 or the BMC “Landcrab” saloons. The new Mercedes-Benz “stroke-8” series were especially dangerous rivals: the dearest 4-cyl. and the cheapest 6-cyl. were less expensive than the Ro 80 – and the bigger 6-cyl., the 250, cost just DM500 more than the NSU. Fuel injection was starting to appear in these later ‘60s, soon to be used by BMW, Citroën and others to boost power and limit fuel consumption. This would also erode the Wankel’s appeal over time.

Above: Brutally honest UK ad; below: French ad stressed quietness.

In export markets, the situation was even more challenging: in the UK, the NSU cost about £1900 (as much as a Jaguar 420); the base list price in France was FF24,000 – a Citroën DS 21 cost about FF8000 less. And most folks knew NSU as a maker of mopeds and small cars. The marque did not exactly have the cachet that its product required. So it took some devotion to new technology to buy a R0 80 in 1967-68.

Nevertheless, the NSU Ro 80 won the coveted European Car of the Year award for 1968. But now that it was out in the wild, it did not take long for the first signs of trouble to appear. Engine failures were beginning to take place even before the car’s first birthday – careless owners perhaps? By mid-1968 though, the extent of the Ro 80’s fragility were becoming too stark to ignore.

The main issue was the rotor’s seal tips, which tended to wear at an excessive rate. The boffins at Comobil were already working on a solution, but it wasn’t quite production-ready as of yet. The other Wankel-engine car (also launched in 1967, but hardly known in Europe), the Mazda Cosmo 110 S coupé, was experiencing similar issues, albeit to a lesser extent: Hiroshima’s twin-rotary engines had been bench-tested more thoroughly than Neckarsulm’s and their apex seals, lubrication and transmission were different. But at least the Mazda was an expensive sports car, which limited the problem to enthusiasts. NSU had gone for the most competitive segment of the market, the large family saloon, after its Wankel sports car had dipped its toe in the water. It’s not like the head of testing at NSU, Herbert Brockhaus, hadn’t warned the top brass, either: he had told them in late 1966 that the twin-rotor needed at least a couple more years to be sorted out.

Some folks obviously hedged their bets by carrying a second mode of transport on their Ro 80.

 

NSU had few options but to replace the engines under warranty, sometimes beyond warranty and often more than once per car. The scale of the epidemic led to increasing bad publicity, as more and more Ro 80s were seen sitting on the edges of the Autobahn, motionless and smoking. The NSU’s distinctive body shape and the PR campaign that had accompanied its launch meant that nobody could mistake it for something else. The lifespan of the twin-rotor, when used by a driver with a heavy right foot, could be as low as 15,000 km. Folks who were more careful with their precious NSU could hope to reach 30,000 km on average before the inevitable happened. In city driving, the Wankel’s expensive spark plugs would quickly foul up and require to be replaced, usually around the 8000 km mark. The Ro 80 was quickly becoming a big problem for NSU.

NSU’s last great hope: the K70. Unfortunately, the K stood for Kancelled.

 

By the beginning of 1969, NSU’s finances were in tatters. The rear-engined cars were still selling well, but it was not like they had much of a future. Ro 80 sales peaked in 1969 at around 7300 units, well below break-even – and constantly fitting new engines under warranty was also draining the company’s finances. NSU’s third all-new car, the K70, was about to be launched, so development costs for that were also adding to the red ink. On top of that, another joint-venture with Citroën, the Comotor, had already started making a revised Wankel in its entirely new factory in Germany for the Ro 80, soon to be followed by a single-rotor motor for the Citroën M35.

NSU’s K70 adverts were ready to go in early ’69, but got pulled at the last minute.

 

Volkswagen smelled blood on the water. NSU were keener on striking a deal with Citroën, but the French weren’t interested. Out of options, the NSU top brass went to Wolfsburg. VW had taken over Auto-Union / Audi but four years previously, and fancied merging Audi and NSU, as both operations were comparable in size and output. Another benefit of using Audi to swallow NSU was that VW did not have to get the deal signed off by its stockholders, meaning the Federal and State authorities. VW’s number one concern was to get their hands on the new K70, which was ready to be launched at the 1969 Geneva Motor Show. The K70 was a ready-made way out of VW’s rear-engined / air-cooled monoculture, which by the end of the ‘60s increasingly looked like a dead end – the Typ 4 debacle was proving that unequivocally.

Neckarsulm factory, circa 1970 – Audis now shared the Ro 80’s assembly line.

 

The boards of NSU and VW announced that merger talks were under way in March 1969. VW CEO Kurt Lotz sweetened the deal by allowing NSU shareholders to keep a portion of the Wankel licensing arm in their possession, as this was NSU’s cash cow. But the Israeli British Bank (IBB) managed to gain a blocking minority, forcing VW to increase the dividends allocated to NSU shareholders via the Wankel licenses. This led to a strange parallel market in NSU-Wankel “ghost shares” (no shares having been certified), which collapsed when the Federal authorities declared this speculative innovation null and void.

After a June 1969 visit to the NSU factory, VW’s Kurt Lotz (right) is leaving Neckarsulm in style.

 

Meanwhile, Lotz tried to buy as much genuine NSU shares as he could on the cheap, soon owning 60%. On 26 April 1969, a long shareholders’ meeting took place to iron out the deal. Minority shareholders learned of the shenanigans VW and IBB had been up to and things got rather stormy. The merger went ahead in practice, but IBB and their proxies ended up siding against VW, which held up the legal takeover of NSU for a couple of years, until VW settled out of court and bought IBB’s stake in NSU for three times the amount that was offered originally. NSU and Audi “properly” merged in 1971.

1971: One big happy family…

 

Audi-NSU-Auto Union AG, headquartered in Neckarsulm, was headed by NSU’s former CEO, Dr Gerd Stieler von Heydekampf. It was clear that NSU’s smaller cars were going to be axed in the near future, as they were competing with the Beetle. By the end of 1972, the rear-engined NSUs were no more; the Neckarsulm factory’s main output was now Audis.

The K70 was launched in 1970 as a Volkswagen, despite its stark family resemblance with the Ro 80. Around 210,000 were built for five model years, which hardly made it a hit. But then it did compete with the VW Typ 4 and the Audi 100, so perhaps this might have been expected.

The NSU Ro 80 carried on regardless. Europe’s only Wankel-powered car was perhaps too symbolic to be thrown to the dustbin of history. It was briefly joined by the Citroën GS Birotor, but the 1973 Oil Shock put a definite nail in the Wankel engine’s coffin in most places – Mazda being a notable exception, as well as a handful of motorcycle makers. Mercedes-Benz and GM both gave up on the rotary engine by the mid-‘70s, despite having spent considerable time and money trying to develop it. Citroën went bankrupt and also gave up on the Wankel around this time. The NSU Ro 80 got an unexpected butt lift in 1975, with larger tail lamps and new badging set in ominously black blocks.

One of the few specials on the NSU Ro 80 platform, made by Pininfarina in 1971.

 

The plus was finally pulled on the Ro 80 in 1977, after around 37,000 units in ten years. The automaker kept the name “Audi-NSU AG” until 1983, when it became Audi AG; the company’s HQ went back to Ingolstadt, though the Neckarsulm factory is still very much in operation. It is said that some of the later Ro 80s were kept in the company’s motor pool until the mid-‘80s, as they were still seen as something to be intensely proud of by the Audi top brass. The NSU Ro 80’s genes were plainly evident in Audi car design of the ‘80s and ’90s, which is also a testament to the car’s avant-garde nature. All except the dreaded rotary, which never did live up to its hype.

Literally the best Ro 80 ad ever published.

 

If there ever was a poster child for the Deadly Sins, here it is. The NSU Ro 80 – a brilliant car in so many ways, yet so flawed that it killed its maker in three years. The NSU story (and, to a lesser extent, the 1975 Citroën takeover by Peugeot) served as a warning for other automakers: rotary engines are poison, and only Mazda are immune. It’s fair to say Audi owes its current place as one of the most innovative automakers to NSU’s engineering staff, but it could also be argued that NSU could have survived if it had launched its revolutionary car around 1969 instead of 1967. Not a few Deadly Sins were committed by over-confident executives who pushed out a product that was half-baked.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading! This is the end of the Neckarslum Chronicles and of the German Deadly Sins (for now). Our next stop on the European DS Tour will probably take us to the one country we have yet to visit. And no, it’s not Luxembourg or Portugal. Think of a nation whose outstanding contributions to European history, art, science and culture include the very concept of “Deadly Sin”. Yes, we will go to Italy, ragazzi, for the most beautiful DSs ever made. Ciao tutti!

 

Related CC posts:

Automotive History: The Cars Of Claus Luthe, by Perry Shoar

Cohort Classic: NSU TT/TTS – A Legendary Giant-Killer, by PN

Automotive History Capsule: NSU Ro80–The Tragic Automotive Goddess, by PN