(first posted 5/29/2017) Grüẞe, Kurbivoren! This is the second trilogy on German Deadly Sins, now focusing on the Baden-Württemberg town of Neckarsulm (though we will visit Bavaria again during our little journey). Why Neckarsulm? Because NSU, the famously brilliant automaker that Wankeled itself to an early grave in the ‘70s, hails from there. “NSU” is a contraction of “NeckarSUlm”, apparently. But the NSU story is more complex than that, so let’s start by having a look at the forgotten Italian cousins: NSU-Fiat, otherwise known as Neckar.
The long industrial history of Neckarsulmer Motorenwerk AG (NSU) began in the late 19th Century, when gentlemen sported frightening facial hair and ladies wore crippling corsets. NSU made knitting machines in the 1880s, then progressing to bicycles and, by 1901, motorcycles. The first NSU cars came out in 1905, with larger models from Belgian automaker Pipe built under license. Business continued after the First World War, with NSU’s diverse range of 4- and 6-cyl. cars finding a dwindling amount of takers in the troubled Weimar Republic. Cars were made in a second factory in Heilbronn, a few kilometers upstream of the river Neckar.
By 1928, NSU were finding themselves in a bit of financial trouble. The cause was the new car factory, which was underutilized. Pressured by their creditors, NSU decided to sell the whole thing (then called NSU-Automobil AG Heilbronn) and refocus on their profitable bicycle and motorcycle business. The plant was bought wholesale by Fiat, already one of Europe’s automotive giants, in January 1929. It wasn’t a dissimilar move from GM, who also bought Opel and Vauxhall that same year. Slow-selling NSU “legacy” cars continued to be built in 1930-31, but new Turin-based models were introduced as NSU-Fiat by 1932.
Thus the NSU acronym became a synonym for German-built Fiats for the next three decades. NSU-Fiat models differed a bit from their Italian cousins, due to their components being sourced in Germany. The popular 1100s, for instance, had distinctive door handles. German coachbuilders also made small series of special bodies (drop-tops, mostly) that were included in the NSU-Fiat catalogue but never seen in Italy.
This continued after the Second World War. A wide range of models were created by the Turin mothership, but NSU-Fiat chiefly focused on small and mid-range cars. Bigger models were usually imported from Italy and sold at NSU-Fiat dealerships, but under the Fiat nameplate. The NSU-Fiat range also included a Wendler-made (and designed) 1100 convertible and coupé, the sole NSU-only model in the early ‘50s.
It’s uncanny how many times Fiat followed this pattern. Virtually as soon as they could, Fiat entered a foreign market and set up an assembly line and, more often than not, a local partner was roped in (or created) to build and sell the cars. Fiat created or partnered up with Simca in France, Steyr-Puch in Austria, FSO (Polski-Fiat) in Poland, Zastava in Yugoslavia, SEAT in Spain, VAZ (Lada) in the USSR, Tofaş in Turkey, Premier in India, etc. Most, if not all, of these Fiat factories produced designs or versions of Turin’s cars that were unique to them. Steyr, for instance, used Fiat bodies but made their own engines. SEAT created a 4-door version of the 600. Simca gradually became their own thing, though the Aronde or the 1000 were still designed in Turin.
The German Fiats were therefore more than just copies of the original, they had their own intrinsic identity and qualities. One of the most popular ones, the 1100, was sold as the NSU-Fiat Neckar from 1955. Compared to Turin-made 1100s, the German version eventually had a big central chromed grille insert, Bosch electrics and a generally higher level of build quality.
Bespoke 500s were certainly not unknown in Italy. Autobianchi made 500-based models that were akin to the NSU-Fiat Weinsberg 500, but the German car was quite distinctive. But by the late ‘50s, the Neckarsulm NSU re-entered the car market. This led to an obvious problem: there couldn’t be two NSUs on the same turf. Also, the Heilbronn factory was undergoing an export boom – something that Fiat hadn’t anticipated. NSU-Fiats were a byword for well-built Italian cars, something that many markets were very keen on. By the late ‘50s, Scandinavia, Benelux and even Britain were importing increasing amounts of German Fiats.
NSU-Fiat’s the biggest market by far (after West Germany, of course) was France. Turin-made cars were officially distributed by Simca, which were still majority-owned by Fiat. But as time went on, Fiats were increasingly seen by Simca dealers and Simca themselves as unwelcome competitors; Fiat “proper” were finding it increasingly difficult to sell their cars in France. Local entrepreneur André Chardonnet saw this as an opportunity to start importing German Fiats – and they were very successful, not only thanks to their intrinsic qualities, but also to Chardonnet’s effective dealer network.
But NSU Neckarsulm, after years of being a successful motorcycle manufacturer, was re-entering the car market with their completely unrelated Prinz, so NSU-Fiat had to re-brand itself. Starting in 1958-59, NSU-Fiats became Neckars (the name hitherto associated with the 1100 range, which became the Europa) for export markets. By 1960, the name change had also been adopted in Germany. The new Neckar badge would include the mention vorm. NSU Heilbronn (“formerly NSU Heilbronn”) for a few model years, à la “Datsun by Nissan”.
In the early ‘60s, Neckars were very popular around Europe. The range now included the 1100 Europa and Europa Special (the 1100 D), the little Weinsberg 500, the Jagst 770 (a.k.a Fiat 600) and soon the 1500 saloon. The brand name was never intended to disguise the Fiat side of the cars – people knew these were Fiats. But the factory’s increasing output and the brand’s presence both at home and abroad allowed Neckar to introduce more “non-Fiat” models like the Weinsberg 500.
Italian coachbuilders and designers came out with a bewildering array of fuoriserie bodies every year, often making only a handful of each design for folks who wanted something a bit different. All Neckar had to do was to select a few of these coachbuilt Fiats and include them in their range. The first of these was the 1961 Jagst 770 Riviera coupé and cabriolet, designed by Vignale. GM did try to object to the use of the Riviera name, but dropped the matter pretty quickly (there’s no mistaking this Neckar for a Buick, after all).
Another interesting Neckar-branded car was the 1500 TS, which was actually built in Italy by SIATA, using the Fiat 1500’s underpinnings. It was marketed as the Neckar Mistral in France, and its SIATA-tuned engine and revised suspension gave it a genuine edge over comparable sports coupés. The Michelotti-penned body was certainly interesting too, though perhaps not the stylist’s best effort.
In 1963, André Chardonnet came across a lovely little two-door design by OSI at the Turin Motor Show based on the Fiat 1300. He immediately went to Heilbronn and made a compelling case for Neckar to license this design from OSI. As the marque’s single most important foreign dealer, Chardonnet had a lot of clout within Neckar, so he also suggested they name the new car “St-Trop” – the nickname of the fashionable Côte d’Azur port of Saint-Tropez.
The new Neckar was naturally launched there, which did not please the local authorities, who balked at the fact that their town’s name had been butchered and placed on a foreign car. But no matter, the St-Trop was a small success, although by now Neckar’s star was already on the wane. 1962 had been peak-Neckar in terms of production, with over 50,000 cars made (compared to an average of 25,000 in the late ‘50s), but signs were already pointing to a downward trend.
In 1963, Fiat sold their remaining stake in Simca to Chrysler and began to establish their own dealer network in France. Brilliant salesman though he was, Chardonnet was not in a position to resist this onslaught: Turin-made Fiats were a good deal cheaper than the German ones. The Neckar Adria (a.k.a the Fiat 850) was the last new German Fiat distributed in France before Chardonnet abandoned the Neckar brand around 1966 in favour of Autobianchi (and later Lancia, Polski-Fiat and others).
The German market was also changing. Heilbronn’s labour and materials costs were structurally higher than Turin’s. This was initially counterbalanced by tariffs, but those were being gradually lowered as the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which instituted the EEC and the Common Market, came into force in the ‘60s. Among the EEC member countries were Germany, Italy and France: Fiat soon realized they were better off centralizing production in Turin rather than having a German subsidiary with spiraling costs. On top of that, the branding was becoming ever more muddled, as Neckar started selling increasing amounts of Fiat-branded cars made in Turin.
The last Neckar-branded cars were sold in 1968. All subsequent cars built in Heilbronn, such as the 128 (above) or the 124, were badged as Fiats. The factory’s output gradually declined and the end finally came in 1972 when it was closed down for good.
It may be unjust to include Neckar into this Deadly Sin series. After all, they did nothing wrong, and the reason they disappeared was due to political/economic decisions well beyond their control. This is completely valid. There is no DS here as such, just the end of the best Fiats ever built (along with the Steyrs), some tasty Italian-styled ‘60s cars and, one hopes, an interesting amuse-bouche to introduce this triptych’s main thrust, NSU.
So keep Neckar tucked away in a corner of your mind for a bit as we call on Bavaria again tomorrow, to the beat of the two-stroke, and visit the city of Ingolstadt – home of DKW / Auto Union.
Related CC post: