Re­mark­able Ro80

Donn has stayed in ro­tary mode since last month’s col­umn on Mazda’s RX7, and now re­calls driv­ing the NSU Ro80 on loose-sur­face roads, point­ing out that while Mazda made the Wankel en­gine work, NSU’S award-win­ning sa­loon was doomed to fail­ure be­cause of t

New Zealand Classic Car - - Motor Man - The NSU’S trou­ble­some ro­tary en­gine

Ev­ery now and then a car comes along as a ris­ing star, yet a star that some­times fades. Re­cently I was dis­cussing cars with a chap who drives a mod­est Ja­panese sedan now he’s in his se­nior years, but in his younger mo­tor­ing days he owned sev­eral spe­cial­ist ve­hi­cles — and one stood out above all oth­ers.

He was ini­tially im­pressed with the NSU Ro80 dur­ing his test drive, when the dealer put two in­side wheels into the loose gravel at rel­a­tively high speed, be­fore slam­ming on the brakes. The car re­mained to­tally sta­ble, and at no time looked like los­ing con­trol. It was a con­vinc­ing demon­stra­tion that clinched the own­er­ship deal.

The dealer in ques­tion was Jonathan Good­er­ham, sales manager for lo­cal NSU dis­trib­u­tor, P Coutts and Com­pany, of Auck­land. He re­calls the brak­ing test on the west­ern mo­tor­way head­ing for Hen­der­son, and how the out­come was a cer­tain sell­ing tool — how­ever, the car’s elec­tronic gear shift and brake pedal caused some alarm­ing prob­lems. Prospec­tive buy­ers were en­cour­aged to an­chor their left foot against the bulk­head when chang­ing gears, to pre­vent sud­den un­wanted brak­ing.

There were at least two ma­jor rear-end re­builds in Auck­land ini­ti­ated by driv­ers accidentally slam­ming on the Ro80’s stunning in­board-mounted four-wheel Ate-dun­lop disc brakes.

The ro­tary en­gine was linked to a three-speed Fich­tel & Sachs all-syn­chromesh elec­tri­cally op­er­ated clutch used in con­junc­tion with a torque con­verter to give two-pedal con­trol with full man­ual over­ride. Chang­ing gears sim­ply meant eas­ing the ac­cel­er­a­tor and mov­ing the floor-mounted lever, mak­ing the car al­most as lazy to drive as a full au­to­matic.

The clutch dis­en­gages when ac­ti­vated by a touch-sen­si­tive mi­cro-switch on the gear lever, and be­cause of the high-revving abil­ity of the ro­tary, three speeds are more than ad­e­quate for the job. How­ever, just brush­ing your knee against the gear lever can dis­en­gage the elec­tro-pneu­matic clutch — that’s a bit un­set­tling if you hap­pen to be on full throt­tle.

On Test

Those lo­cal brak­ing demon­stra­tions re­minded me of my Ro80 road test on Auck­land roads 46 years ago — which opened with the com­ment: “Any car in which you can take both hands off the steer­ing wheel at 100 miles an hour with nary a whisker of drama is truly out­stand­ing.”

This was a fam­ily car for the ’70s al­ready avail­able in the ’60s,

and a ve­hi­cle that at­tracted the at­ten­tion and wal­lets of sev­eral prom­i­nent Auck­land busi­ness peo­ple who were more used to driv­ing Jaguar XJ6S, but were fas­ci­nated by the tech­ni­cal bril­liance of the up­mar­ket Ger­man sa­loon.

“It was a truly amaz­ing car with that long-travel sus­pen­sion, great ride and fan­tas­tic road­hold­ing as long as you were will­ing to let it re­ally lean into a cor­ner. I have happy mem­o­ries of those cars,” says Jonathan, in spite of nu­mer­ous mo­tor prob­lems that made NSU’S fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion even more pre­car­i­ous than it al­ready was. Good­er­ham re­mem­bers ro­tor-tip wear and lots of en­gine re­builds by Steve Ox­ton, fa­ther of for­mer cham­pion rac­ing driver David, tem­pered by the fact that the ro­tary en­gine was easy to strip down.

Of course, it was not the road man­ners that marked out the NSU as some­thing rather spe­cial but the Wankel twin-ro­tary en­gine, the power unit which ul­ti­mately spelled dis­as­ter for the model. There seemed few signs of un­re­li­a­bil­ity in my 1969 road test when NSU re­ported that the en­gine’s oil seal­ing was now per­fect. Oil con­sump­tion was con­fined to a planned spray through the twin-choke Solex car­bu­ret­tor to help in­ter­nal cool­ing and lu­bri­ca­tion. Never be­fore had I driven a car which sounded so smooth and happy at 6000rpm.

We ran the Ro80 to 130kph in sec­ond gear (6250rpm) and it still felt un­stressed, and at a lazy 115kph (un­der un­der 3800 revs in top), all the win­dows could be low­ered with an ab­sence of cabin draught. My notes read, “The magic 100 miles an hour — 160kph — rep­re­sents 5300rpm, and even at this speed the NSU is just start­ing to use its long legs. A re­mark­able mo­tor car.”

A Rare Clas­sic

De­spite be­ing al­most half a cen­tury old, the Ro80 — Ro for ro­tary and 80 for the NSU drawing-board de­sign num­ber — is a rare clas­sic car with an abil­ity to meet mod­ern-day ma­chin­ery head-on. Lit­tle won­der with its wind-cheat­ing shape, ad­vanced spec­i­fi­ca­tion and unique power plant it was years ahead of its time. Take away the ro­tary and the Ro80 would still have been a rev­o­lu­tion­ary car.

Dur­ing the hon­ey­moon months of its launch in 1967, the Ro80 won the 1968 Euro­pean Car of the Year award, and was hailed by many as the car of the decade. It rep­re­sented a huge up­ward step for NSU, cost­ing more than twice as much as the marque’s other mod­els. In­deed, you could buy four NSU Prinz 4 sa­loons for the same price as one Ro80.

Yet the au­da­cious ro­tary en­gine that was so much ad­mired would her­ald the car’s heroic fail­ure. Although in pro­duc­tion un­til 1977, in the Ro80’s last three years an­nual sales barely amounted to 2000 units, and to­tal pro­duc­tion for the decade was just 37,400. Sec­ond-hand Ro80s were al­most worth­less in the ’70s, prompt­ing some frus­trated own­ers to re­power the car with Ford’s V4 Es­sex re­cip­ro­cat­ing-pis­ton en­gine sim­ply be­cause it fit­ted into the NSU. Only a hand­ful found own­ers in New Zealand, where the first ex­am­ples cost $6000. By 1972 the re­tail had risen to $8950, and when the last new Ro80s ar­rived here in 1974 the

sticker price was $10,900. The to­tal num­ber of new ex­am­ples to hit our shores was barely more than 30.

NSU had first fit­ted the ro­tary to the small Spy­der in 1964, build­ing 2375 of th­ese over a three-year pe­riod, but as the world’s first front-driven Wankel-en­gined luxury sa­loon, the Ro80 was a much big­ger deal. The smooth and light Wankel mo­tor was on the move, with NSU work­ing with Citroën on a small ro­taryengined sa­loon, and Mercedes-benz mak­ing ad­vances with its ap­peal­ing triple-ro­tor ex­per­i­men­tal power plant, even com­ing close to of­fer­ing a four-ro­tor en­gine in the W123 sedan as an op­tional unit be­fore can­celling the project at the 11th hour.

Citroën launched the Biro­tor ver­sion of the popular GS in Oc­to­ber 1973 — un­for­tu­nately, the same month the Mid­dle Eastern oil cri­sis broke, and the car was a dis­mal fail­ure. Only 847 Biro­tors were sold, and they were so trou­ble­some Citroën bought back most cars and crushed them!

Mean­while, NSU slung its 85kw (115bhp) Wankel into the nose of the Ro80, only to be faced with re­li­a­bil­ity and fu­el­con­sump­tion con­cerns that were never truly re­solved. The fu­ture all seemed so much brighter dur­ing my test of the car in mid-1969, when I reck­oned “the ro­tary en­gine is here to stay.”

Weigh­ing up the all-in­de­pen­dent sus­pen­sion, four-wheel disc brakes, three-speed semi-au­to­matic trans­mis­sion, su­perb steer­ing and han­dling and high com­fort lev­els, not to men­tion the Wankel, and the Ro80 made most other luxury cars of the day look dis­tinctly dull.

Dam­aged Goods

The fail­ure of the ro­tary in those early days was fore­told. Her­bert Brock­haus, head of testing at NSU, warned the com­pany board of prob­lems months be­fore the Ro80’s launch. He said there had been in­suf­fi­cient testing of seal in­serts, tro­choid ro­tors, and the ec­cen­tric shaft and bear­ings, be­liev­ing NSU needed two full years to per­fect the en­gine. But en­gi­neers and the board were con­vinced they could solve the prob­lems more quickly.

Un­for­tu­nately for them, and for the brand, Brock­haus was right, and it took pre­cisely two years to fix pre­ma­ture ro­tor-seal wear. By then the dam­age had been done to the marque’s rep­u­ta­tion, and NSU merged with Auto Union in 1969 — both swal­lowed up by Volk­swa­gen. Vw-audi per­se­vered with the Ro80 un­til 1977, but by then the car was only avail­able to spe­cial or­der, and was at­tract­ing few buy­ers.

Things could have been so dif­fer­ent. Styled by Claus Luthe, who later be­came head of de­sign at BMW, the at­ten­tion-get­ting Ro80 was clearly ahead of its time. NSU spent al­most four years testing the car’s shape in a Stuttgart wind tun­nel, and the re­sul­tant dart-like pro­file with a low frontal area ris­ing to a high tail trans­lated into a 0.355 drag co­ef­fi­cient — some 35 per cent lower than the av­er­age sa­loon of the day. In­deed, Audis into the ’80s and ’90s would in­herit much of the styling poise of this NSU.

To­day, the Ro80 still feels light, mod­ern and airy, with a gen­er­ous in­te­rior and a cer­tain amount of am­bi­ence. Good­er­ham re­mem­bers the car’s slip­pery drag co­ef­fi­cient as a ma­jor sell­ing point.

The Driv­ing Ex­pe­ri­ence

Mod­er­ate use of choke is needed from cold, and the en­gine soon set­tles down to a rather noisy two-stroke-sound­ing idle. On the road the 200kph Ro80 seems to be­come qui­eter the faster it goes. Even if the ro­tary could ben­e­fit from more low-end torque, the tur­bine-like smooth­ness is al­ways a treat, and the car’s re­fine­ment means it is quicker than it feels.

With Macpher­son strut front sus­pen­sion and a semi-trail­ing-arm in­de­pen­dent rear with coil springs, both ends were en­gi­neered to give an op­u­lent ride as well as su­perb han­dling and road­hold­ing. On the road you would soon fall in love with this front-wheeldrive sedan with a ZF power-steer­ing sys­tem that gave the sort of feel­ing and sen­si­tiv­ity vir­tu­ally un­known in the ’60s.

Donn finds the NSU Ro80 a treat to drive on loose gravel roads dur­ing his road re­view in 1969 (photo Jack In­wood)

A 1969 ad­ver­tise­ment for the then new Ro80 by the New Zealand dis­trib­u­tor, P Coutts & Co

Donn wouldn’t ar­gue with NSU’S con­tem­po­rary ad­ver­tis­ing when it promised ‘a new ex­pe­ri­ence in mo­tor­ing’

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