When most people think about what the original group of American astronauts were driving back in the ‘60s, usually Corvettes come to mind. This is a safe bet, because six of the original Mercury Seven astronauts drove ‘Vettes. You math whizzes may note that there’s one astronaut left over. That astronaut was John Glenn, and the car he chose over a Corvette had a quarter the number of cylinders and was about half the size. The first American in orbit drove an NSU Prinz.
In the early ‘60s, a tiny, two-cylinder NSU Prinz wasn’t just a weird car for an American astronaut, it was a weird car for an American, period. For those of you improbably unfamiliar with the NSU Prinz, it was a tiny, rear-engined car designed and built by a company better known for their motorcycles.
It was a bit more proper of a car than other German microcars of the era, like the Isetta or the Messerschmitt, in that it could seat four (well, the back seat was really for 5/6 scale humans) but in the United States this little car would have been dwarfed by the only foreign car most Americans actually knew about, a Volkswagen Beetle.
If you’re wondering why John Glenn decided to shun a V8 fiberglass land-rocket in favor of a car so tiny it made his seat in the Mercury capsule almost feel roomy, we actually know exactly why, because John Glenn told us himself.
In a letter to Thomas Wolfe, Glenn proved he would have made a fantastic Jalopnik commenter, because he took the time to correct Wolfe, who mistakenly said Glenn drove a Peugeot in his book The Right Stuff. Here’s what Glenn had to say to set the record straight:
Just for your future records, and reprint corrections later on, the car was a PRINZ, not a Peugeot. The Prinz was a little 2 cylinder car by BMW [he’s wrong here, but whatever, the man was in space –Ed.] that got about 35-40 MPG., an important fact in those days when I drove the Arlington to Langley run once a week or so, all 180 miles of it each way. With my kids being a little older than some of the others at that time, I was already concerned about their college $, so the Prinz seemed like a good idea. Don’t believe the Prinz is in production now – haven’t seen one in years – and good riddance.
So, there you go– that’s what makes an astronaut give up looking badass in a Corvette: he has kids to send to college. What a class act this guy was, right?
The son of the woman who actually sold Glenn his Prinz talks about the astronaut and his car, and even drops a little fact about the car I wasn’t aware of:
When I was about 8 both my mother and father were in the car business, but in different lots in Vancouver, Canada. My mum worked mainly as a bookkeeper at an exclusive lot that specialized in the NSU Prinz and a couple of other rare cars. The Prinz was a small German built car that had great gas mileage. They could float as well.
One day an American came in to buy a car and all the salesmen were busy so my mum took care of him. He was interested in the Prinz, This was in 1959 or 60, my mother was perplexed why he wanted a small car when there were a lot of big cars on the market. She quickly found out that the man was Friendship 7 astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth (1962), so he was quite used to small spaces.
Glenn loved his Prinz, but he received a lot of verbal jabs from the other American muscle car driving astronauts. He became a family friend, and I remember meeting him a couple of times.
Prinzes float, too? Like Beetles? What was with the Germans and making their economy cars seaworthy?
For what it’s worth, I think a Prinz is a pretty fascinating car, and a worthy Earth-capsule for an astronaut.