West German NSU launched the Wankel rotary-engined Ro80 in 1967. Their revolutionary sedan won the European Car of the Year award in 1968, but also left bankrupt NSU by 1969. Almost half a century later, driving it is a unique and surprisingly pleasant experience.
Despite its owner referring to it as "just a big Wartburg" with a smile on his face, this Ro80 is without a doubt the most fascinating car I've driven so far both technologically and historically. Let's start with the latter.
While mostly known for their bikes and motorcycles, NSU also built its first car as early as 1905 but they couldn't turn the venture into a success and were forced to sell their car factory to Fiat in the 1930s. Then came the war to destroy what was left, after which the NSU had to focus on motorbike production to survive.
By 1955, they had become the biggest motorcycle producer in the world, and also scored the Bonneville record of the first bike above 200 mph in 1956 with Wilhelm Herz and his NSU Delphin III streamliner. They went back to Utah several times in the following years. On four wheels.
NSU's first modern car was the rear-engined and air-cooled Prinz introduced in 1957. Powered by a two-stroke engine, its later version sort of looked like a mini Chevy Corvair. At the same time, Felix Wankel, our favorite Nazi nutjob got ready with his first prototype rotary engine, the 21 horsepower DKM 54.
Of course Herr Wankel's rotary happened to be unsuitable for mass production, so NSU's own engineer Hanns Dieter Paschke designed another engine without his knowledge that actually worked for them. Wankel wasn't impressed, but the industry was with everybody from U.S. firms such as Curtiss-Wright, General Motors and Ford to Europeans including Mercedes-Benz, Citroën and Rolls-Royce licensing the Wankel technology from NSU in the early sixties. And, of course, Mazda.
NSU themselves got ready with their first rotary-powered car in 1964. They built 2,375 of the two-seater Wankelspiders in three years, which had a 52 horsepower single-rotor engine under the hood.
They also launched a larger Prinz with a 1000 cc engine for 1964, but by the time the TT and TT/S versions hit the race tracks, NSU pretty much lost interest in its air-cooled OHV four bangers. Instead, they were focusing on a new twin rotor 995 cc Wankel producing 114 horsepower while consuming only roughly 7 ounces of 10w40 oil in every 60 miles.
The Ro80's introduction in 1967 was about as shocking as the Citroën DS was in 1955. The world had really never seen anything like it.
NSU themselves got so carried away by their creation that they invested vast amounts of money in a joint engineering company with Citroën based in Luxembourg called Comotor, with the role of developing and producing future rotaries for both parties.
The Ro80 was a radical departure from the small economy cars NSU was known for since it was a large four-door sedan powered by triangles.
It also featured ATE Dunlop disc brakes on all corners with the front ones mounted inboard to reduce unsprung weight, an independent suspension with MacPherson struts at the front and semi-trailing arms at the rear, power-assisted rack and pinion steering developed by ZF and a three-speed Fichtel & Sachs all-synchro manual gearbox with a torque converter, linked to a vacuum-powered clutch.
All that, plus its wedge-shaped body – designed by Claus Luthe, father of basically all your beloved BMWs from E21 to the E30 and the 8 Series – with a drag coefficient of 0.35 made it look like a spaceship compared to the European competition, not to mention the American cars of that year. I'm not saying it looked better than the first Firebird, but it was about a decade ahead in terms of both technology and design. The same could be said about the Fiat 124, which was the reigning European Car of the Year when the Ro80 came out.
There were two main problems:
NSU used the same alloy for the three-piece rotor tip seals. That meant the center section had a higher abrasion at cold starts than the corner pieces, pushing tip seals together and allowing the gas to blow past. NSU dealers had no idea how to service Wankels, which resulted in engines being replaced after just 15,000 miles. The issue was fixed for the 1970 model year by using Ferrotic (steel alloy bonded titanium carbide) for the center piece.
The other drawback was fuel economy. The Ro80 was designed for high-speed cruising on the Autobahn, yet people kept buying these comfy sedans for their wives who drove it only to the shop and back, revving the engine cold and burning not just a healthy amount of gas and oil, but wearing out those seals too.
After spending all its cash on developing the car and setting up the engine plant with Citroën, NSU's last cents went into a generous warranty policy for the '69 cars. Volkswagen acquired the bankrupt company at the end of the year, creating Audi as we know it by merging NSU with Auto Union.
While second-hand Ro80's were worthless in the early seventies, Audi kept the badge alive and the improved Wankel car stayed in production until 1977.
Finding a good example today is not easy, especially when it comes to Hungary. Although 37,398 cars were built in the ten year run, not more than a few made it behind the Iron Curtain, and in Western Europe, those which didn't get crushed ended up with a different engine, which happened to be Ford's V4 "Essex" in most cases. Subaru flat-fours also fit.
The owner of this particular 1975 Ro80 is a Professor teaching at Budapest University of Technology and Economics. A former student of his described him to me as "a walking engineering encyclopedia." I guess that comes in handy when you have a car like this.
So, why did he buy this, of all the crazy machines out there? Sweet memories. He spotted one on the street in the eighties and got hooked. More then two decades later, he found that car again and bought it. The only problem was that while complete, it also happened to be a rust bucket.
Taking the engine apart was no problem (although he told me the difference between a Mazda rotary and NSU's is that you need special tooling and two people for the German, while Mazda's upgrades turned theirs serviceable by one man), but the bodywork needed an outsider's touch. And since the estimated cost was pretty steep and Professors in Hungary don't get paid as much as they should, the project came to a halt.
Then came the blue car, originally from Germany. The previous owner got it restored rather poorly, only to let it sit for years. The Prof got his cash together, then borrowed some of his wife's to buy a car that didn't idle.
After disassembling most of it and putting some miles on the clock to make those parts dance again, the Ro80 was officially back! So, he gave me the keys for a day.
While explaining me the basics of operating this rotary, he made sure to point out why he isn't satisfied with the car yet. The doors don't fit thanks to those imbeciles not putting them back properly after the paint job was done, and that the transmission is noisy because somebody filled it up with the wrong type of oil before. It's a project on a tight budget, but as far as I could tell, everything what mattered was in order.
I was slightly concerned about using the gearbox with the automated clutch, but in practice, nothing could be easier. It's an H shift pattern 3-speed with park being top left, reverse top middle, a dogleg first, second top right and third down under. The only thing you have to remember is that touching the tilting shift knob activates the electric-vacuum, so you have to move the lever quickly and lift your hand from the knob straight after.
Since this was an Audi-era car, it also came with colored tachometer and an acoustic signal warning of too-high rpms. First gear is rarely needed, the inner green bar is for second gear city traffic while the outer going up to 4,500 is the third gear's optimum range for highway cruising.
Today, 115 horsepower might not sound like a lot, but the Ro80 weights less than what we consider to be a modern compact at 2,800 pounds, and the Wankel has a power curve similar to a two-stroke's. Next to zero torque but all the power as long as you push the pedal. It has no trouble keeping up with modern day traffic, and you don't even need to rev the living hell out of it.
That brings me to fuel consumption. I don't know how hard did the Oil Crisis hit the world in 1973, but since this car seats five, has a massive trunk and can go relatively fast despite originating from the late sixties, the resulting 16 mpg didn't shock me even with the European fuel prices in mind. Then again, I guess 7 ounces of 10w40 oil every 60 miles adds up to a lot eventually.
The most important thing I can say about the Ro80 is that it's a very comfortable car.
Its seats came from a reasonable engineer's study, the suspension is soft as a fresh muffin and the steering feels slower than an aircraft carrier's. Therefore, body roll is to be expected, but this big sedan will turn in just fine as long as you have faith and move that comically thin steering wheel quick enough.
Visibility is amazing, there's no need for a camera upgrade in this one. The greenhouse is massive, the cabin is airy and with the power steering, four disc brakes and the smooth automatic gearbox, you can put all the 188.2 inches of this floating automobile exactly where you want to.
When leaving the city for the open road, you just switch on those double halogens, turn up the heater, open the sunroof by a chromed winder, get those rotors spinning and suddenly, everything comes together.
It doesn't take long until you realize that those German brains at NSU created a brilliant car by over-engineering everything before making a fatal error and nosediving into Volkswagen's hands.
It's ageless. While you can easily tell it came from the last century, its operation isn't as demanding as what you would expect from a 1960s car. You don't have to think about it. Turn it on, the automatic choke will take care of the rest. Once warm, it becomes quiet on the inside (unless you have one with an ill-fitting door and a worn out gearbox).
Engage second gear, it's cruising time with one hand on the steering wheel. By then, the heater made the cabin cosy while the rear window defroster made sure you see everything and feel safe inside.
Their biggest achievement must be that the Ro80 feels kind of ordinary 47 years after its creation. I mean that in a good way.