Corey Behrens’ contributions to the CC Cohort are something to be savoured and shared by all. Just what we needed at the end of 2020 and the start of 2021. Paul has showed us several over the last few weeks, but for me, one of the highlights of the selection is this 1977 NSU Ro80 – it’s great to see shots from the real world of a car as intriguing and interesting, and, simply, better than most of the opposition, as this one. Has there ever been a better car that was also a dead end for its manufacturer?
CC has covered the history for the Ro80 (as in rotary, 80KW, or 110bhp) extensively, as we rightly should have done. Paul gave us a good Automotive History account and Tatra87 named it as a German Deadly Sin here, so this will not be a full history.
The Ro80 was a large mid size, but not full size, premium saloon. I’d suggest it was a competitor for the BMW 2000 and later 520 and 525, the Mercedes-Benz W115 (200, 220, 240 New Generation range), the Rover 2000 and 3500, Peugeot 504, Volvo 144 and 164, and larger Lancia and Alfa Romeo saloons. NSU had no history in this part of the market, but did have a record of technical competence and ingenuity, and some of us like fresh thinking and ideas rather than predictable solutions.
Certainly, there were original solutions. Front wheel drive, whilst not unique, was very noteworthy in this section of the market. So were the aerodynamic (and superbly elegant and successful) styling by Claus Luthe, and the packaging within the resulting wedge shape.
Add a semi-automatic gearbox, four wheel disc brakes, fully independent suspension, power steering, a drag coefficient of .35 and the package was clearly adding in ingenuity what it lacked in badge prestige……. European Car of the Year in 1968 was a just reward.
The most memorable feature of course was the two rotor Wankel engine, which brought a lower weight, compact powertrain with prodigious power for the size, and exceptional smoothness. Sadly, as we all know, it also brought heavy fuel consumption and poor reliability. Poor, as in disastrous, for owners and NSU. Drivers used to acknowledge each other, holding up as many fingers as they’d had replacement engines…..
So, rather than exploring the history again, I’d like to ask a question. To what can we compare the NSU Ro80? What is a relevant benchmark?
I suggest there may be two comparators we should consider.
I’d suggest, if you’d planned out the Citroen DS in 1966 rather 1956, you could well have got something pretty close to the Ro80. Similar themes of aerodynamics and convention challenging dictated the styling, the semi-automatic gearbox is still there, as well as the excellent packaging, long wheelbase and passenger comfort. The slightly disappointingly dull interior of the Ro80 perhaps betrays its German origins, and the conventional suspension shows it was intended for smoothly surfaced autobahns, not French D roads. But you get my point, I hope.
For the record, Citroen experimented with and indeed marketed a car with a Wankel engine – the GS Birotor. The records are not filed under “commercial success”.
My other comparator is from that stubborn follower of not convention – the SAAB 99. If SAAB had had access to a Wankel engine in 1968, how different to the Ro80 would the 99 have been?
The interiors even look similar.
Again, aerodynamics played a part in the visuals of the car, as did doing things differently in various ways. Ergonomics were a SAAB feature, as well active safety and a huge dose of Scandinavian practicality, including a great heater. The engine was also an individual choice – developed with Ricardo and based on a Triumph design, and was related to the V8 in the Triumph Stag, albeit without the cylinder head issues.
So, there are my suggestions for benchmarks – a latter day German DS or a Wankel engined SAAB? Two cars Curbivores would like?
Of course, we know the outcome. The Ro80 was a commercial failure, NSU were absorbed by VW and the Audi 100 C1 generation was produced on the same line at Neckarsulm. But I feel you can argue that the spirit of this car lived on in the C3 generation of the Audi 100, a car which was at one point intended to host a Wankel engine and featured advanced aero styling. And which sold over 800,000 copies. The Ro80 sold 37,000 in 10 years.
But it wasn’t to be a car to truly match the Ro80. Few do. And it’s not just the Fuchs wheels.
I was surprised to learn these were sold in the U.S. – I’ve never seen one, not even at a car show. They’re beautiful; I can’t think of another 1960s design that looks this modern. It would have been a great car if only the engine was reliable. Well, that and if it offered a transmission choice other than a worst-of-all-worlds 3 speed semi-automatic. The outward visibility over that low hoodline must be phenomenal, matched by the side and rearward views with such thin pillars. How was the ride quality in these? Probably nowhere near the magic carpet ride of the Citroen DS but the long wheelbase should help smooth things out.
I’ve never seen one either. For the few Americans who bought them, I can’t imagine they were easy to keep running, and I shudder to think of what the resale value was.
Here’s an ad from a Chicago area dealer promoting the Ro80… And relevant to the Citroën discussion here, I’m pretty sure that some variation of the tagline “Tomorrow’s Car Here Today” was used by Citroën in the US during that time as well.
I know they were sold here, but I’ve never seen one, including all my years in LA and the Bay Area. The numbers must have been very small.
I’ve never seen one either. There were a few NSU Prinzes and TT/TTS but nary an Ro80.
I know there were dealers in Seattle and Boulder. This car is definitely in my fantasy garage!
Saw one in Calgary ca.15 years ago “visiting” at the Mercedes dealer, looking fine. Wonder whether it is still in town, and running.
I’ve heard of a few Ford V4 transplants, but has anyone fitted a really modern engine with a manual transmission? Or how about a Mazda RX-8 rotary? Now that would be fitting. Beautiful car.
As an eleven year old devouring Road & Track in 1968 (I got a subscription for Christmas, 1967) I thought these were absolutely hideous looking. I still think the long wheelbase and short rear overhang make it look a tad awkward, but hideous? No way! I think my feeling at the time just proves how conservative kids can be.
I think your assessment in 1968 was SPOT-ON. This NSU was a fascinating car engineering-wise, even if the rotary engine was a non-starter.
Good-looking, it was not. It was palatable. It looks like something Panhard might have done if they were not so far out.
But what I really liked about this very interesting article is the picture of the assembly line, where the NSU is being built alongside era-Audis!
I thought it was drop-dead gorgeous when I first saw pictures of it. The car of the future, design wise. And engine-wise too, from the vantage point of 1968.
Design wise, it certainly was profoundly influential, most of all on Audi. One can see its direct influence on all subsequent Audis.
I thought it looked awkward, but not hideous. The main features that made me think that were the ultra-long wheelbase (for the time) and the huge windshield which seemed to wrap up into the roof – obviously not designed with the Australian sun in mind! Of course American headlights would have looked worse.
I searched online for a US-spec Ro80 to see how it looked with federalized headlamps and bumpers but couldn’t find one, but did find this New Zealand model which was fitted with quad round headlights. Though inevitably not as clean, it still looks pretty good.
Ah, that pic’s from Donn Anderson’s test in his Motorman magazine which is languishing somewhere in my garage. Donn’s been an excellent Kiwi motor-noter for over 50 years. Looks like that particular one’s still around but has been off the road since 2003. Of the just over 30 sold new here in NZ, 18 are left; occasionally one pops up on Trade Me. I have the rotor housing from one of the NZ ones in my man cave. Warped, so unusable but still interesting and it fools casual observers who expect to see a Mazda logo on it!
The one design element that strikes me as odd is the rear doors that are get wider towards the bottom, where in most cars they become narrower. The unusual door shape does serve to highlight the long wheelbase though.
Personally, I think it looks stunning still, although I accept the observation that parts may be a little awkward. But we must remember this was 1968, and for 1968 this was unmatched. Nothing contemporary could touch its modernity and elegance and timelessness.
The Ro80 was definitely the most futuristic design this side of the Citroen DS and CX and deserves more attention. You can even see a bit of the C3 Audi 100 in the shapes and forms. As an aside the semi-automatic transmission is the same system as the VW “Automatic Stick Shift” with a torque converter and vacuum operated clutch.
I’d be curious to see how a Mazda 13B or Renesis swapped restomod Ro80 would drive since that would address the reliability if not the fuel consumption.
They sold R080s all over the world Ive seen a couple in use and had a good look at one in Southwards museum in Paraparaumu Mazda engine swaps have been done to some I saw one advertised for sale done that way with the original rotary included in the deal,
Citroen tried a rotary engined CX with imput from NSU but few survive one is back on the road here after extensive restoration, most were destroyed by Citroen after buying them back.
Germanic ride comfort would put me off other than that a very interesting car.
CX – or are you thinking of the GS Birotor?
If you Google Citroen CX rotary engine, you will find several entries detailing how the Citroen CX was developed with a rotary engine in mind. Unfortunately, as GM also discovered, when you design a vehicle for a rotary engine the available space is extremely cramped when you need to substitute an IC engine for the smaller rotary engine.
Yes, Citroen built GS powered Birotors and a few rotary powered CX.
(I would never have known about the the CX rotary without kiwibryce mentioning it. Thank you.)
The CX was a glorious car, let down only by the early 4 cylinder engines. The later V6 versions were better but a rotary………
Was there a V6 CX? Don’t you mean XM?
Always liked these cars, theoretically, but have never seen one in person. I wonder how well both the Ro-80 and NSU would have fared if the car was given a conventional engine.
The Wankel engine is also brilliant in theory, but it has been a millstone around the neck of every company unfortunate enough to have adopted it and a curse upon everyone who owned a car so equipped. I know this very well. My stepdad and I had to rebuilt the engine ourselves on our family ’74 Mazda RX-4, in the street, in the middle of winter, after every local shop refused to touch it when it died.
Curiously, Audi was officially known as “Audi NSU Auto Union AG” as late as 1985 before finally dropping the references to NSU and Auto Union (reminiscent of how Studebaker-Packard Corp. didn’t drop “Packard” from the corporate name until 1962). Audi of course did retain Auto Union’s four-ring logo which symbolized the four companies that merged to create it, one of them being the original Audi.
As a Citroen owner and fan I have met a number of people who own unusual cars. Several years ago I was picking up some parts for my 2CV from a guy in southern Ontario who had a large number of vehicles, largely Peugeot but some other makes. I think they all ran, but not all were licensed or insured. His daily driver was a 505 wagon and his wife had a 205. Apart from the Citroen tow truck, the most interesting was a Ro80. It was in great shape, and he said it ran, but I did not see it running. It was not licensed, but he said he knew of one in Montreal that was on the road. This is the only one I have seen outside a museum. Unfortunately I did not take any photos.
I remember reading an article in the early 1970s in Motor Trend where they interviewed a couple of owners of these and also owners of the NSU rotary-engined Prinz Spyders (ugly cars with truly awkward proportions). As I recall, the owners all seemed to live in Los Angeles and hadn’t had their cars long enough to have developed problems with them. I understand that it was common for owners to replace the rotary engine with something else, but I can’t remember what. Maybe Ford V-4 engines? I also recall reading about an owner who replaced the NSU rotary engine with a more reliable Mazda rotary engine and who had an experience that was probably closer to what was intended by NSU.
The RO80 is without question one of the most beautiful sedans ever designed. Easily in the top ten. I’ve seen several in the metal and they still look striking and modern today. It’s no accidebr that modern Audis are amongst the most handsome of cars
For some reason half of the ones in Australia have the horrible US style headlights and the rest have the trapezoidal lamps.
I can’t imagine a worse engine to fit in a RO80 than a Ford V4.
Many many years ago, I was riding in the front passenger seat of my brother’s 1976 Mazda, 929 wagon (sadly not an RX4 wagon as we didn’t get them here) . We were cruising along so the Mazda engine was characteristicly very quiet and smooth at that speed. And suddenly I heard a screaming buzzing sound from behind on my left. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a RO80 rapidly undertake us.
I don’t remember the colour but the condition was slightly tatty. The window was fully open and the driver had a beard
I turned my head in a millisecond and somehow was able to see its tacho reading at about 7000rpm or something. I was transfixed. It was the first RO80 I’d ever seen and one driven in some anger too. I was by that time somewhat familiar with the uniqueness of the Mazda rotaries, and their design details such as the amazing dashboard of the RX4 but the RO80 was entirely another different matter.
I hope that R080 still survives thrilling it’s current owner.
A RO80 was a late injected 13B and a 5 speed manual would be something
“The RO80 is without question one of the most beautiful sedans ever designed.”
? without Question?
Why not. It has some very awkward design details. Too high on its wheels. Too much front overhang. The 3/4 rear view looks weird. Not things you would expect to see in “one of the most beautiful sedans ever designed”.
The car does have very modern, advanced touches, especially for 1968. The front end with the combined front headlamps, the flush windows.
I remember these being available secondhand for very little money in the 80s. No-one would touch them as you knew the engine would require expensive attention one day. I also remember them from seeing on the streets, that I never found them particularly attractive. Interesting, weird, yes. Great to see some of them are still around.
What you find awkward I find beautiful.
Thhere was a company in UK in about 1974 that swapped the original rotary for a Taunus V4. The Taunus engine was called “agriculturally inelegant” by the motor magazines but did the job.
There was a company in the UK called RoTechnik, IIRC, that swapped Mazda rotary engines (what else would they swap?) into Ro80s. Supposedly it was a very clean installation–you’d never know the car didn’t come from Neckarsulm that way.
I recall as a whipper snipper in 1971 seeing a blue one parked in suburban Labrador on the Gold Coast in Australia. I was 11 and I still recall the car. The HQ Holden was just released and looked ancient compared to the RO80.
Like Bryce, I’ve had a good look at the one in Southward’s museum; fascinating design for the age, and I’d say it be closest to what a 1966 DS would have been. Certainly in left-field thinking, and more so than the Saab I feel. Peter Robinson, long-time editor of Australia’s Wheels magazine, raved about the Ro80 at the time, which puzzled my young impressionable mind as the rear proportions were a tad off to me – the rear axle looks a little too far back. But regardless, still a fascinating design and worthy of COTY.
I’ve seen a handful on the road over the years, and, like Bryce, have had a good look at the one in Southward’s museum; fascinating design for the age, and I’d say it’d be closest to what a 1966 DS could have been. Certainly in left-field thinking, and more so than the Saab I feel. Peter Robinson, long-time editor of Australia’s Wheels magazine, raved about the Ro80 at the time, which puzzled my young impressionable mind as the rear proportions were a tad off to me – the rear axle looks a little too far back. But regardless, still a fascinating design and worthy of COTY.