Automotive History Capsule: NSU Ro80–The Tragic Automotive Goddess

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(first posted 12/28/2012)    In the Pantheon of automotive gods and godesses, the Ro80 occupies a long-guaranteed spot. Simply put, it is one of the boldest, most influential and revolutionary cars ever–despite being a dismal failure. Its tragic story comes straight from the Greek legends; perhaps it should have been called the Icarus.


NSU was a small maker of little cars and motorcycles. Both their 600cc Prinz and slightly larger 1000/1200 were notable for their Corvair-like looks, as well as for having an air-cooled rear engine tucked in close to the rear wheels. But as consumer income grew throughout the ’60s, the German (and European) market quickly expanded into larger classes, and NSU made a bold double bet.

Their decision to expand up-market with a new four-door sedan was certainly ambitious, and got even more so: What was initially intended as a Ford Taunus competitor was later scaled up to directly compete against the smaller Mercedes models and BMW’s Neue Klasse. Ambitious indeed–but that was the relatively easy part.

NSU Spider

Having signed a development contract with Felix Wankel, NSU co-developed what became the modern rotary engine (Wankel’s original design, which featured a rotating engine case, was scrapped). Their new engine debuted in the limited-production NSU Spider (seen above in an interesting contemporary street shot).

Only 2,375 of the single-rotor, 50 hp cars were built, more or less as rolling test labs. It wasn’t long before the engine exhibited problems, mostly with the tricky apex seals–something that should have given NSU pause about powering the Ro80 with a larger, two-rotor version placed ahead of the front (driving) wheels.

NSU Ro_80_Twin-Rotor_Wankel_Engine

The Ro80’s 995cc, twin-rotor engine was rated at 113 hp (115 PS). Because of the rotary’s tendency to run rough on overrun with a manual transmission, NSU turned to a Saxomat semi-automatic transmission, built by Fichtel and Sachs (and also offered by Porsche as the Sportomatic). It combined an shift-lever actuated automatic clutch with a torque convertor. Although there was no clutch pedal, one shifted through the three gears manually, much like the automatic stick shift found in some contemporary VW Beetles.

Inboard front disc brakes rounded out the very ambitious drive train, which was designed to shine on the German autobahns that were mostly uncrowded in the early- and mid-sixties. Unfortunately, the drive train was less ideally suited to dense traffic and city driving.

NSU Ro80 rq

You already know where this is going: The Ro80’s engine was woefully underdeveloped in terms of durability. It became a nightmare of warranty costs and earned such a bad reputation that NSU was eventually forced to accept a takeover by Audi. That said, let’s focus instead on one of its indisputably superb qualities: The very enduring influence of its body design.

The Ro80 body design was an in-house job executed by Claus Luthe. It is utterly brilliant, even if some of its proportions seem a wee bit eccentric from certain angles. But that just adds to its allure, at least in the eyes of its admirers.

NSU -ro80-02

Needless to say, you’re looking at the mother of all Audis here–and the Taurus and, to some extent, just about every modern sedan. The drooping front nose, the overall wedge shape ending in a tall tail, the gracefully arching roof. The R080’s vast and enduring influence is unmistakable. And its aerodynamic Cd of 0.355 was excellent for the times.

citroen ds19 crop

The Ro80 was the significant link between that other goddess, the 1955 Citroën DS, and just about everything that followed. The  utterly uncompromising shape of the DS was hardly conducive to cribbing; it was certainly revered, but mostly at a distance. In contrast, the R080’s design was seen as a more pragmatic way forward, as it incorporated the key advantages of the Citroën’s long-wheelbase and aerodynamic design in a more palatable and practical solution.

Only 37,398 Ro80s were built over its decade-long lifespan. NSU tried valiantly to address the severe issues involving engine life (some engines showed apex-seal wear after as little as 15,000 miles and were worn out by 30,000). Still, it was a losing battle. Although it would later be fought with relatively greater success by Mazda, similar issues plagued their rotaries as well.

NSU ro80 engines

Many frustrated owners refitted their Ro80s with the little Ford V4, which was the only engine that fit. It was an ironic choice: The rotary’s biggest asset was turbine-smooth running, and the Ford V4 was one of the rougher engines ever built. Of course, Saab took the same road with their two-stroke 96, but did so officially.

NSU Ro_80_green

A modest number of Ro80s were sold in the U.S. I’ve never seen one, nor do I expect to, so the prospect of an in-depth write up here is not terribly likely. But ateupwithmotor has published his article on the Ro80, and it is (as always) very comprehensive–as its historical value is more appreciated than ever (during the late seventies, one could hardly give away an Ro80). The Ro80 was COTY in Europe in 1968, beating out the Fiat 125 (second) and Jensen FF (AWD).

Related: The Cars Of Claus Luthe  by Perry Shoar