The Rare Wankel Rotary-Powered Sedan That Killed Its Maker

Lyle Ellerbee

The NSU Ro80 is an advanced passenger sedan released in the 1960s that would ultimately kill the company that developed it and result in the founding of a company we all know today as Audi.

With a front-mounted twin rotor Wankel engine, a semi-automatic three speed transmission, four wheel independent suspension, four wheel disc brakes, power steering, and excellent aerodynamics, the NSU Ro80 was intended to be a car of the future – but reliability problems with the rotary engine would lead to its demise.

Fast Facts – The NSU Ro80

  • In the 1950s NSU was one of the largest motorcycle manufacturers in the world, they released the world’s first Wankel rotary-engined car, the NSU Spider or “Wankelspider,” in 1964 followed by the rotary engined NSU Ro80 in 1967.
  • NSU were world leaders in Wankel rotary engine technology, selling patent licenses to many of the world’s leading automobile (and some motorcycle) companies – most notably Mazda and Norton.
  • In the 1960s many believed that the Wankel rotary engine was the engine of the future, countless millions were spent refining the design however problems with apex seals, high emissions, and poor fuel economy have dogged the design for decades.
  • The NSR Ro80 is powered by a twin rotor Wankel engine with a displacement of 995cc and 113 bhp at 6,500 rpm and 101 ft lbs of torque at 3,000 rpm. The top speed was 180 km/h (112 mph) and the car had an excellent drag coefficient for the era – just 0.355 Cd.

Developing The NSU Ro80

The engineering team assigned to the NSU Ro80 in the mid-60s developed a car that would still be more technologically advanced than many of its competitors a decade later in the late 1970s.

NSU Ro80 Car 5

Image DescriptionThe interior of the car is reminiscent of many other German cars of the era, particularly Audis and BMWs.

They designed a steel unibody frame and gave it independent front and rear suspension with MacPherson struts up front and semi-trailing arm suspension in the rear.

The body was one of the most aerodynamic four door sedans in the world at the time of its release in 1967 with a drag coefficient of 0.355 Cd, and usually for the era it was fitted with ATE Dunlop disc brakes at each corner, with the front brakes being inboard to reduce unsprung mass.

If a standard Otto cycle engine has been fitted, an engine with normal pistons, valves, cams, connecting rods, etc, it’s likely that the NSU Ro80 would still be celebrated today in the same way as four door sedans like the Jaguar Mk2 and the Citroen DS.

NSU had gambled big on Wankel rotary engine technology, in fact the company had hired Felix Wankel after WWII and funded the development of the first working Wankel engine in 1957. It was hoped that the shortcomings of the engine – namely the wear-prone apex seals, high emissions, and poor fuel economy could be worked out with enough time, money, and engineers assigned to the project.

NSU Ro80 Car 14

Image DescriptionThe NSR Ro80 is powered by a twin rotor Wankel engine with a displacement of 995cc and 113 bhp at 6,500 rpm and 101 ft lbs of torque at 3,000 rpm.

The Release Of The Ro80

The NSU Ro80 was fitted with a twin rotor Wankel engine with a displacement of 995cc, power was sent to the front wheels by way of a three-speed semi-automatic transmission that had a push-down shifter knob for actuating the clutch – rather than the more common third pedal.

Truth be told, when the Ro80 was released in 1967 the engine just wasn’t ready to be used in an automobile that would be driven daily, covering high miles in all manner of weather conditions.

On its release consumer sentiment around the car was glowing, everyone wanted to own one of these futuristic new NSU cars and sales were excellent, the model even won the Car of the Year award for 1968.

Felix Wankel even had one himself, he was never able to drive it as he suffered from extreme shortsightedness however he had a driver to ferry him around in his Ro80 as he listened to the sound of his creation whirring under the hood.

NSU Ro80 Car 3

Image DescriptionThe inventor of the Wankel rotary engine, Felix Wankel, had an NSU Ro80 himself, he was never able to drive it as he suffered from extreme shortsightedness however he had a driver and used the car for regular daily transportation.

The Beginning Of The End

As owners drove their cars and the mileage increased so did the number of failures, apex seals, also known as rotor tip seals, could fail in cars with mileages as low as 25,000 to 50,000 kms (15,500 to 31,100 miles).

NSU engineers worked hard to develop new apex seals that solved the earlier problems, but there was little they could do about the fuel economy problem that led to cars getting somewhere in the region of 13 – 16 L/100 km, or approximately 18 – 15 US mpg.

Bad press and a growing negative reputation did great harm to the NSU R080 and sales never recovered. By the 1977 the writing was on the wall, production of the car ceased and the company was acquired by Volkswagen.

It was then joined together with Auto Union to form Audi NSU Auto Union AG – more commonly known simply as Audi.

NSU Ro80 Car 4

Image DescriptionThe styling of the NSU Ro80 was advanced by the standards of the mid-1960s, it still looked modern over a decade later in the late 1970s.

The NSU Ro80 Shown Here

The car you see here is a 1975 NSU Ro80 from later in the model’s production life, this overwhelmingly original car still has its original NSU rotary engine under the hood, avoiding the fate of many of its contemporaries that were fitted with Ford V4 engines by aftermarket specialists.

With a little over 40,000 miles on the odometer this car is now being offered for sale out of a collection of quirky and interesting cars in the UK. The price guide is £13,000 – £16,000 which works out to approximately $17,600 – $21,700 USD.

If you’d like to read more about this unusual NSU or register to bid you can click here to visit the listing on Historics Auctioneers.

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Images courtesy of Historics Auctioneers

NSU Ro80 Car

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