The NSU Ro 80 of 1967 was not only the first sedan in the world to be powered by a rotary engine but so technically advanced in many other ways it deserved a better fate than being the last car to carry the pioneering German firm’s badge.
The Ro 80 was one result of a friendly rotary engine rivalry begun in the early 1960s and still being played out in the technology development centres of Mazda and Audi (of which NSU later became a part). And the paths these companies decide to follow will likely determine the still uncertain automotive future of the only non-reciprocating internal combustion power plant to be used in a volume production vehicle.
In the 1960s, many thought the rotary, more properly known as the Wankel after its German inventor, was poised to create the biggest engine design revolution in the industry’s history.
A lengthy list of major auto manufacturers – from Porsche to General Motors and even American Motors – had signed licensing agreements with NSU, for whom Felix Wankel had been developing his engine since the early 1950s. Among them was Mazda, which inked a development agreement with NSU in 1961.
NSU was the first to bring a Wankel-powered car to market, the tiny single-rotor-engined Spyder of 1964, which became the world’s first rotary motored production car. Only 2,375 were built before production was stopped in 1967, the year NSU unveiled its Ro 80. Mazda embarked on its rotary adventure that year with its Cosmo sports car.
The flawed Ro 80 would prove to be NSU’s undoing and the rotary engine almost caused Mazda’s demise, too. In the early 1970s, the Japanese auto maker had to switch to conventional engines for most of its products to survive. Not surprisingly, all this scared off the other car companies looking at rotary motors.
Mazda persevered, however, winning Le Mans with a rotary racer in 1991, and it continued to offer a rotary-powered production car through the years. Until now anyway, as it recently pulled the plug wires off its RX-8 sports car, leaving itself rotary engine-less for the first time in 45 years. The company is focusing resources on its new SkyActiv powertrain technologies and isn’t saying where this leaves the rotary in its future plans.
Meanwhile, Audi recently rooted around in its engineering archives and found inspiration for a small rotary engine to serve as the “range extender” for its A1 e-Tron electric car, 20 of which are currently buzzing around the streets of Munich as part of an extended test program. And the rumour mill recently had the two companies discussing plans to share rotary technology resources once again.
So maybe the rotary engine, which has proven its versatility by powering water craft, chainsaws, full-size and model aircraft and motorcycles – and has been built big with twin rotors and 1,100 hp and is currently the focus of research efforts to micro-size it – may still find a niche in the car business. Although, despite its compact size and light weight, it has always proven problematic for car makers because of its thirst and emissions and, in the early days of NSU’s Ro 80, unreliability.
NSU began making motorcycles in 1901 and then cars, but sold its automotive operation to Fiat in the early 1930s. After the Second World War, it began building bikes again, but management steered it back towards cars. The first was the tiny Prinz of 1958, but by the early 1960s the mini-car market was fading and NSU launched ambitious plans for a larger rotary-engined car – that soon became larger still.
In fact, what emerged from the design process was an ultra-modern design, certainly one of the best looking Euro-sedans of the 1960s, which would rival Mercedes and BMW models in size and premium price.
The Ro 80 was a large-ish-for-Europe four-door sedan (a little shorter than most of today’s mid-sizers) with an aero-smooth wedge shape and plenty of glass area to give it an airy cabin, which was nicely if not lavishly fitted out. Its features included four-wheel MacPherson strut-based independent suspension, disc brakes all round, power steering and a semi-automatic transmission.
The latter was a clutch-pedal-less three-speed unit with torque converter. A micro-switch on the gearshift knob disengaged the clutch while the driver shifted to the next gear manually and re-engaged it when his or her hand was removed.
All this was quite advanced for the day, but it was the Wankel engine that was really out there in techno-terms. This was a twin-rotor device displacing 995 cc and producing 113 hp with an uncanny smoothness compared to most reciprocating engines.
It could propel the Ro 80 to a quick-enough 180 km/h, but it also drove the car and the company into ground with its initial lack of reliability and high fuel consumption (about 18 litres/100 km).
The main problem was rotor apex seals that wore rapidly, causing heavy oil consumption and even worse fuel economy, and rebuilds as early as 50,000 kilometres. Paying customers have never liked playing the role of development mule drivers, and despite very generous warranty policies (which NSU couldn’t afford) the Ro 80’s reputation swung down to the empty mark faster than its gas gauge.
The problems (which were also plaguing Mazda) were in large part solved by 1970, but by then the damage was done and NSU had become part of the Volkswagen Group and was operating under the Audi banner. The Ro 80 stayed in production until 1977, but it remained a hard sell and only a total of 37,398 were built.
Back in 1967
The Summer of Love is a “happening” that sees 100,000 descend on Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and thousands of hippies gather in cities across North America, including Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal as part of a counter-culture movement espousing music, free love and drugs.
Canadians celebrate their 100th anniversary with events that included the Expo 67 World’s Fair in Montreal, which we snapped up from the Soviets – who wanted to use the fair to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.
An audience of 400 million sits in front of their TVs to watch Our World – the first live international satellite broadcast – which features among others, opera singer Maria Callas, painter Picasso and the Beatles singing All You Need Is Love (which was written for the show).
The Doors debut album hits store shelves, the Beatles release Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Canadian pianist Glenn Gould records Prokofiev’s Seventh Piano Concerto.