Like any car mad teenager growing up in the mid 1970s, I was always trying to persuade my father to buy one of these or part exchange for that. Having a Reliant Scimitar GTE at the time was an encouraging sign we might end up with something exciting, albeit with more rear legroom.
There was really only one car I lusted after, and that was the NSU Ro80. Great looking, technically sophisticated and most important of all, the coolest way to arrive at school! Anyway after persistent effort my hopes were dashed when a second- hand Audi 100 appeared on the drive. It was at that point any exotic thoughts were replaced with more practical considerations like learning to drive. Of course I could understand Dad’s decision given the Ro80’s troublesome reputation and heavy fuel consumption, even so that feeling of betrayal lasted many years.
Sadly my father passed away in 2011, so I thought what better way to remember him than by using some of my inheritance to buy the car he never would. And so it was that I became the proud owner of a 1973 NSU Ro80.
The NSU Ro80 was a technically advanced 4 door saloon car designed by Claus Luthe and manufactured by NSU in Neckarsulm, West Germany. If there was ever something which symbolised Harold Wilson’s white heat of technology, then here it was!
By the mid 1950s, NSU was the largest manufacturer of motorcycles in the world and expanded into car production with the small rear engined Prinz. In the early 1960s chief engineer Felix Wankel had designed the rotary engine and in 1967 after a limited production run of Spider Coupes, the company launched the much larger and more sophisticated Ro80.
It had many features which were unheard of in cars from that era. In particular the futuristic styling incorporating a rising waistline, large glass area and efficient aerodynamics, which set a milestone in the development of the modern car and even today look fresh and contemporary.
- Twin rotor Wankel engine 995cc/115bhp/113mph/20mpg
- Total loss lubrication system
- Disc brakes on all four wheels (inboard at the front to reduce unsprung weight)
- Fully independent suspension – MacPherson struts at the front and semi-trailing arms at the rear
- Three speed semi-automatic gearbox
- Power assisted ZF rack and pinion steering
- Drag coefficient of 0.355
- Front wheel drive
The NSU Ro80 was voted Car of the Year in 1968 and was well received by the motoring press. Problems soon emerged – caused by premature wear of the rotor tips. With engines failing after less than 15,000 miles, NSU was forced to honour warranty claims until eventual bankruptcy. The company was taken over by VW in 1969 and merged with Auto Union, later to be known as Audi.
Although the rotor tip issue was subsequently resolved, the car’s reputation, high price and poor fuel consumption meant that sales remained low and production continued in small numbers until 1977. In total only 37,398 were produced, of which about 6,000 were RHD.
Almost all of the major car manufacturers took out licences to produce Wankel engines (with the exception of BMW), but it was only Mazda who persevered with development, most recently with the RX8 model.
The Ro80 is celebrated amongst the car design world as the shape most designers would like to see in their own portfolio – a sentiment most notably echoed by Bruno Sacco, ex head of design at Mercedes-Benz. The form has dated very well, and it is only the brightwork, light units and narrow, tall tyres which indicate its age.
For NSU this was a genuine attempt to produce a radically different car with limited resources, incorporating ground breaking design and technology. It deserved to succeed but sadly was a commercial failure. Along with the Citroen DS and the Mini, the world will probably never see another car so ahead of its time.
So what about my own example? Well it was manufactured on 16th March 1973 and registered on 6th June 1973 in Blackpool, which means it is now tax exempt. According to the website www.howmanyleft.co.uk there are only 23 Ro80s on the road and 39 SORN, making it a very rare sight. It certainly causes quite a stir wherever I go, even had one chap follow me home to get a closer look. The rotary engine is incredibly smooth – like driving a turbine which gets quieter the faster you go, and combined with fantastic road-holding and brakes, makes it great fun to drive. Some cars are just meant to be driven fast and this is one of them!
Via the DVLA vehicle history I’ve been able to confirm it was owned by a garage in Manchester from 1989 to 2004 who took it in part exchange. There were some mechanical issues, but after fitting a replacement engine the proprietor couldn’t bear to sell it so was stored at the back of the workshop all that time. From past MOTs I know it has only covered about 5,000 miles since then and is hopefully good for quite a while. The body is in excellent condition with no corrosion and the interior is virtually mint, so think it’s one of the best out there. The plan is to have a full bare metal respray to bring the paintwork up to showroom standard – watch this space.