There are certain cars that have a timeless quality to their designs, a glorious mix of form and shape and proportion, but almost always tethered to their particular era. But at least one car feels like it could be timeless with minimal changes: the NSU Ro80.
Truly timeless designs are incredibly difficult to make, but it has happened. One could argue the fundamental Porsche 911 form is pretty timeless (though it has evolved significantly) or perhaps, in a very different context, the original Jeep, which has evolved to the modern Wrangler.
The Ro80 first appeared in 1967 and was the last rotary car to be built by, well, anyone other than Mazda. The R080 was a technological marvel that received much critical acclaim when it was released but also proved to be an expensive boondoggle for NSU, being a big factor in why the company went bankrupt in 1969, to be swallowed up by Volkswagen.
You could argue that NSU and Auto Union/Audi, which was also bought by VW, didn’t so much get taken over by VW as it took over Volkswagen, technologically. Actually, I have argued just that, so you can just click that link instead of me going into it again.
Let’s just say that the Ro80 was a remarkable car technically (if kind of a dead-end) but was also a remarkable car design-wise, and very much, I think, not a dead end.
In fact, I think you could argue that the Ro80 looked about 25 years ahead of its time, and could still look fresh today, the whole point of why I’m doing any of this.
Let’s look at the Ro80 as it was in 1967:
It’s a great looking car. Fantastic proportions, clean, pleasing lines, a certain crisp technical logic about it all that I find really appealing.
The pillars are thin and chromed, which is interesting, separating the airy greenhouse from the body visually. There’s minimal ornamentation, just a crisp character line down the side. The whole thing feels so tidy and lean and modern and handsome.
There’s period-revealing detailing in the bumpers, mirrors, and lights, and many modern reviewers have suggested that, if those details were updated, the car could pass for a modern car even here in this absurd mess of a year.
I’m in the camp that thinks that, so for some reason today I got the insect up my rectum to give it a try. I figured I’d try to see if I could, fairly quickly, swap out the replaceable bits like bumpers and lights and grille with modern equivalents, and keep all the body metal and proportions the same.
Could it pass for a modern car? Let’s see:
I’m going to say, uh, yeah, I think it could! I mean, the form is a bit taller and more upright than many cars today, but I think it could stand out as a result. We’d paint the chrome pillars black, like every car does today, put on big plastic bumper caps, modern lighting units, wheels, and so on, and I think the result is something that, while it maybe feels a bit off, wouldn’t really be out of place in a parking lot of modern cars.
I’d never pick this over an original Ro80, and I’m certain there are artists out there who could put in real effort and come up with far better results, but this, I think confirms what I’d long wondered: a modernized yet original-stamping Ro80 body could feel modern, even today, about 50 years after it was introduced.
That’s pretty amazing.