Cohort Outtake: 1977 NSU Ro80 – Stands the Test Of Time

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.