25 November 2016

BOTTLED IT!: NSU Ro80

An influential car with great design and ideas behind it, that sadly never realised its potential.



THE NSU Ro80 is one car with great ideas and concepts behind its creation. It’s such a great shame that this car never fulfilled the potential it had in spades.

When it was launched back in 1967, there was nothing on the road quite like it with its sharp lines and rakish profile with wind cheating aerodynamics. Which gave it an excellent co-drag efficient of 0.35. A remarkable achievement given that this was a car from the 1960s. Looked unique then, and one that certainly turns heads today.

Under the space-age skin was a front-wheel-drive saloon, having all-round independent suspension, and rack and pinion steering. Other idiosyncrasies the slippery-shaped Ro80 had was a three-speed semi-automatic gearbox. Which had no clutch pedals, and was operated through the gear lever.

The FWD layout and independent suspension also lent for a spacious interior, as did the long wheel base with minimal overhangs. Furthermore, it was a recipe for great handling and road-holding.

Under the bonnet, the NSU Ro80 had an engineering novelty, as they were powered by twin-rotor Wankel engines. They had triangular pistons, which meant more air passed through them that created more power, and gave it decent performance. It was the very first production car to have this unique power plant. The 999cc Wankel units produced an impressive 113bhp, which got the Ro80 from 0-60mph in a very respectable 12 seconds.



All sounds great, right? Yeah, a car that was quite simply ahead of its time bristling with technical innovation. It was evident that there was some forward thinking, and NSU were clearly thinking outside the box on the creation of the Ro80. These merits alone won it the award of being the 1968 European Car of the Year.

The NSU Ro80 clearly had potential of being a success. But it sadly wasn’t to be, because the Ro80 was a commercial flop of epic proportions.

The Ro80's Achilles heel was the rotary Wankel engine. While it was smooth and gave great performance given the engine's cubic capacity. It came at the expense of poor fuel economy returning 15mpg. What didn't help matters was that an oil crisis broke out in the mid 1970s, when the Ro80 was still in production and on sale at that time.

Worse still, the NSU Ro80 was woefully unreliable. The Wankel engines were complex units. That had notoriously fragile rotors, and were prone to breaking at a relatively young age. It was reported that tips on the rotors broke or worn out prematurely, when the cars had covered low mileages - we're talking as little as 10,000 miles. Many Ro80s were in need of major repairs and engine rebuilds. Some even needed engine replacements after covering as little as 30,000 miles.

NSU generously offered owners to fix or replace the Wankel units on the cars through the warranty claims made by owners. They continuously made improvements on the engines to improve its reliability. But the damage was done, as it was too little too late, and the Ro80 never recovered from its casualty.

But with its reliability woes affecting so many Ro80s, that the warranty expenses bled the company dry. So much that it killed the car – and NSU – when it went out of production in 1977. In the end, NSU was bailed out by Volkswagen, and merged NSU with Audi and Auto Union, which formed Audi NSU Auto Union AG, and the creation of Audi.

While the NSU Ro80 was a huge flop, after only selling 37,406 examples in its 10-year production. Despite this, it was a car that made its mark in history, because it really was ahead of its time. It single-handedly pioneered the design of cars for the 1970s and beyond. As you could see on cars from the Citro├źn CX to the Triumph TR7.

The Ro80 was also advanced in its engineering as well as its design, it foresaw features that were to be widely used by the mainstream car makers – even today. Take the Ford Focus for example, it's a car bought and driven by the many. Which is front wheel drive and has all-round independent suspension – just like the Ro80 .

Funnily enough, and to some extent, Audi carries the ethos from NSU with technical innovation on their cars – of which they still do today. Vorsprung Durch Technik - which for many years, has been Audi's tag line with 'Advancement Through Technology'. Like the A2, TT and the legendary Quattro for example.

Mazda has proven that the rotary Wankel engine could become a decent power plant.

As well as NSU's legacy living on through Audi, the rotary Wankel engine lived on. Mazda though, saw the virtues of the rotary Wankel engine in being a compact, lightweight and powerful unit. On that basis, the Japanese manufacturer made a bold move in using Dr. Felix Wankel's invention for powering their sports cars like the Cosmo and the RX-7.

Undeterred by its fragility, Mazda spent a lot of time and money with further development and improving the Wankel power plant. Not just for performance, but also (and most importantly) to make it more robust and improve the car's reliability. Mazda proven that the Wankel engine has the potential to be a great unit, and one that was.

Today, the NSU Ro80 is a car that's held in high esteem. Despite its chequered past, many appreciate that it's an idiosyncratic sporting saloon ahead of its time. A design and engineering marvel that was revolutionary in many ways. Today, they're now highly sought after classics.

In summary, the NSU Ro80 was a flawed gem. One can't help but think had that Wankel engine been properly developed – like Mazda has done – the Ro80 could have (and would have) been a world beater.

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