Curbside Classic: Putting the NSU Prinz on a Pedestal

Attracting customers to Hogeland Auto Plaza in Marshalltown, Iowa.

This was the first NSU Prinz that I saw in the USA after coming to this side of the pond in 1986. The red paint was as faded then as it is now.

posted at the Cohort by canadiancatgreen

A few years later I saw one driving in  Des Moines and taking a turn to the parts store. I wondered what they were trying to find for their NSU Prinz. Blinker Fluid?

The Prinz is stealing the show! Graphics by Rudolf Griffel.



And in 2013, some 20-odd years later, I saw this ’59 NSU Prinz III at the Des Moines car show. Don’t say it’s cute! It’s cute beyond description and deserving of the CC treatment. While I am at it I will include the NSU Prinz 4 as well.

NSU was located in Neckarsulm and not connected to the Neckar Automobilwerke AG Heilbronn, former NSU Automobil AG which produced cars licensed by FIAT.

NSU managed to convert from motorcycles to cars. Maybe it was the only company that did this successfully at least for some time. (BMW, Honda and Suzuki have two legs: motorcycles and cars.) The Prinz was NSU’s own creation leaning on their motorcycle engine technology and employing weight and materials saving strategies.

It featured unibody construction and received a rear-mounted, air-cooled parallel twin cylinder engine displacing 583 cc. It is a crossflow design with a single overhead cam and rockers to actuate the valves. The cam was driven by three connecting rods that were mounted on the eccentric ends of the timing gear and camshaft, just like the single cylinder engine in the NSU Max motorcycle.

It made 20 hp (DIN) and an export version (30E) made 30 hp (DIN). This engine carried a fully synchronized 4-speed manual transmission and the differential in its sump, all sharing the same oil. The flywheel doubled as a cooling fan and housed the dry clutch, all located on the left end of the crankshaft; the Dynastart and ignition points occupied the right end. This eliminated the use of any belts under the hood.

Front suspension and steering. The left tie rod is disconnected.


It featured a rack-and-pinion steering and fully independent suspension with a double wishbone design in the front…

…and tubular swing arms in the rear. It had finned alloy drum brakes with steel liners on all corners.

There was hardly a useful picture of the interior of a 1st generation NSU Prinz to be found on the internet. Luckily 2stroketurbo published a video on Youtube highlighting the interesting details.

The interior was spartan but functional. It also featured some unusual solutions, such as windows that slide back when cranked and vent windows at the B-pillar. The rounded shapes of the design were mainstream for the 50’s but maybe too reminiscent of the Goggomobile.

Prinz III had the vents already at the A-pillar.

From 1957 – 1962 NSU produced a total of 93.945 units of the models Prinz I (base) ,II (luxury) and  III which had the 30E engine.

The Sportprinz was also available with a Wankel engine.

From 1959 – 1967 they cranked out 20,831 NSU Sportprinz.

The Prinz 4 was Claus Luthe’s first design at NSU.

In 1961 the car was redesigned as the “micro Corvair” Prinz 4, of which  a total of 625.171 units rolled of the assembly line from 1961 – 1973.

The redesign was quite the transformation. Gone was the cubbyhole, a proper glove box taking its place. The B-pillar vents migrated to the A-pillars, and now the windows disappeared in the doors when cranked. In other words, it became a respectable car.

The British magazine Autocar subjected the Prinz 4 L to a road test, published June 8, 1962. They concluded that “the Prinz is clearly a thoroughly safe and roadworthy little car which is also agreeable and interesting to drive.” And: “The NSU is completely at home on a winding country road where its compact overall dimensions are invaluable assets.” On dry roads it will only oversteer when driven extremely fast. On wet surfaces it has the tendency to step out in the back. They noted that the brakes needed considerable pedal pressure.

The Prinz 4 L had a curb weight of only 559kg (1232 lbs) ready to go with half a tank of gas. Despite the rear engine 56.8% of the weight was over the front wheels.

Autocar‘s testers really liked the engine. It made 30 hp at 5,500 rpm, yet it is capable of going to 7,000 rpm. It is “an extraordinarily tractable unit, producing strong pulling power from relatively low crankshaft speeds. In top gear the range extends from about 23 mph – a little under 2000 r.p.m. – to a mean maximum of 72 mph, equivalent to almost 5900 r.p.m. Above 23 mph it has no vibration periods and is scarcely distinguishable as a twin.”- “The lower gears are intelligently spaced to give evenly spread maxima of 20, 40 and 60 mph which approximate to 7000 r.p.m.”

Graphics by Rudolf Griffel.

It is “generally quite comfortable, although in no way exceptional”. Autocar praised its roominess that accommodates even very tall drivers.

“Der Spiegel”, the major general interest weekly magazine of Germany, published the results of a survey of about 3,000 Prinz 4 owners who owned their car for one year and averaged 11,730 km. Some 67.6% indicated economy as their number one reason to decide for the Prinz 4. “I don’t want to bend myself financially out of shape to own a car,” was one comment. The article points out that so far only the VW Beetle owners had put economy as the first criterion. To Prinz owners the car was a “necessary device of transportation – nothing more”. Der Spiegel muses if that had been true then Germany’s roads would have been swarmed by the “ugly ducklings” Citroen 2CV. Second and third reasons shed a light on why this was not the case; 50.2 % cited space – this little car seats five – and 33.4 % were smitten by its elegant styling. “You don’t feel like sitting in a motorized jalopy,” wrote a participant of the survey. Was that a sideswipe directed at the 2 CV and the likes of a BMW 600 and Zündapp Janus?

A few things in the very detailed report stood out to me and largely agree with Autocar’s findings: the vision out of the car was second to none. Cornering is by and large neutral. Only in extreme situations the Prinz 4  tended to oversteer. The ride was harsh but just right when the car was fully occupied. Acceleration was sufficient – en par with the VW Beetle. The car was nimble in town and on mountain roads and did that with an engine half the size of Beetle’s.  Fuel economy was excellent: 6.6L /100 km (35.64 mpg) on average.  The gearshift was sloppy but alright once you got used to it. The brakes responded softly and reliably but had room for improvement, particularly when the car was fully loaded. There were only 377 square centimeters of surface when the class average was 500 square centimeters. The heater received some criticism too, as did dealer service. Apparently NSU dealers lacked space after converting to selling cars rather than motorcycles.

“Drive a Prinz and you are a king!” This was NSU’s official slogan. Pay attention to the buzzy yet irrepressible  engine. You will notice the buzz intensify with the frequency of rotation because both pistons move up and down together. This results in one ignition per revolution. Offsetting the cranks by 180 degrees would have resulted in an uneven ignition sequence.

In the following video the most impressive footage starts at 8’00:

The Prinz found its way to North America but was mainly exported to European countries. It was very successful in Italy. From 168 to 1970 123,338 cars of 170,080 produced (72.5%) went to Italy. It’s not hard to understand why. Its interior was significantly more commodious than that of the FIAT Nuovo 500. There was even room for a suitcase. Yet it was just about as nimble and economic as the FIAT 500. The Beetle, on the contrary, was an anomaly in Italy, where taxes made gasoline prices sky high.

The Prinz 4 was produced in Great Britain and Australia (as right-hand drive variants), in Argentina by Autoar, and in Uruguay. There were plans to bring it to Brazil but they fell flat. The Prinz III was also produced in Chile.

A special case was Egypt. Egypt put forth a huge effort to bring its economy into the industrialized era and considered a car manufacturer key to this goal as it spawns a supply industry for the assembly line. They contracted with NSU to import the drive train and to use the car’s design to locally produce the Ramses II. The factory was located near the Great Pyramids and basically hand-built the car in fairly small numbers because they could not afford to purchase the expensive steel presses. The Ramses was a project of national pride for Egypt, a national car but not so much a people’s car as it was too expensive for common Egyptian families. Here is a 32 min Egyptian documentary with English subtitles on the Ramses:

The little Prinz models appeared in the movies too. Here are some IMCDb screenshots of the NSU Prinz in movies:

A Prinz II is parked curbside in this scene of the “Italian Job”.

The NSU Prinz II or III makes an appearance in “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.”

and a Prinz 4 in “James Bond: The Spy Who Loved Me.”

It’s also crowning this junkyard shot in “La mala ordina.” And…

regrettably served as a sacrificial prop in “Paura in Citta”.

However, the Prinz never garnered a starring role. This may be quite fitting, as the car appears to have served as a stepping stone for NSU as it it did for its dealers and customers who had both moved up from motorcycles. In any case, the Prinz with its marvelous parallel twin proved NSU’s engineering mettle and feel for the transportation market. And there would be more to come.

A sequel featuring the NSU Prinz four-cylinder models is in the works.