With its successor canceled, the NSU Ro80 expired in the spring of 1977, the final car leaving the assembly line on April 19. It was the last NSU production car, although NSU remained part of the corporate name until the mid-1980s and the marque is still owned by Volkswagen AG.
Ro80 production totals differ somewhat from source to source, but the most common figure is 37,402. (Some sources list 37,240, which makes us suspect that one or the other of these figures is actually a typographical error; your guess is as good as ours as to which!) Where most accounts agree is that the Ro80 was never profitable for either NSU or Audi. Even with lower warranty costs, it’s hard to see the car as a money-maker at such a low volume, despite a price that by the end of production had climbed to 23,620 DM (equivalent to more than $10,000).
While the production Audi C2 (1976-1982 Audi 100/200/5000) never received the planned rotary engine, the C2 and subsequent C3 had a lot in common with the NSU Ro80 — and not just because stylist Claus Luthe was Audi’s design director during the C2’s development (although he is generally credited only with the interior; the exterior was the work of Hartmut Warkuß). The C2 lacked the Ro80’s semiautomatic transmission, independent rear suspension, and inboard front brakes, and only the more expensive Audi 200 had rear discs, but in overall size, profile, ride and handling balance, and concern with aerodynamics, the C2 seemed to have studied at the feet of its NSU predecessor. (It’s also easy to see how the 200 could have been the basis of a second-generation Ro80.) The Ro80 remains obscure in the U.S., but its Audi descendants had a strong influence on automotive design in the 1980s and 1990s, in America and Japan as well as in Europe.
With its groundbreaking design and unusual powertrain, it’s tempting to characterize the NSU Ro80 as a car ahead of its time. In some ways that was true, but in others, the future the Ro80 presaged was not ours. The Ro80 was a car designed for an alternate world of light traffic, unrestricted Autobahnen, and moderately priced regular gasoline. For such conditions, the KKM 612 and Saxomat were a fine combination, superior in many respects to contemporary petrol and diesel alternatives. However, by the mid-seventies, such a world was purely a fantasy for most drivers. The reality was gridlock, speed limits, and soaring fuel prices, an environment for which the Wankelmotor was considerably less than ideal.
Doubts about the Wankel’s reliability dogged the Ro80 for many years and the car’s rehabilitation (in the Soviet sense) was a lengthy process. A reputation for early engine failure does nothing good for residuals and so it’s little surprise that the Ro80’s resale values plummeted catastrophically in the 1970s. Since the rest of the car was generally quite sound, some owners resorted to engine swaps. A popular choice was the German Ford V-4, which rivaled the KKM 612 for compactness if not power or refinement. Another obvious substitution was a two-rotor Mazda 12A or 13B; while many surviving Ro80s once again have rotary engines, not all were made in Neckarsulm.
Felix Wankel eventually sold his stake in the engine that bore his name: in the early seventies, he and Ernst Hutzenlaub sold Wankel GmbH to Roland Rowland’s Lonrho for a reported 64 million DM (about $25 million). Wankel’s lab in Lindau closed a few years later, after Wankel GmbH was sold again to Dankwert Eiermann and Jürgan Bax. By then, the auto industry’s interest in the rotary engine was rapidly fading. Development for non-automotive applications like light aircraft continued into the 21st century, but by the time Felix Wankel died in 1988, Mazda was the last holdout in the auto industry. With the production of the final Mazda RENESIS in June 2012, the rotary engine’s passenger car career appears to be over unless Mazda is able to revive its currently inactive 16-X project.
Back in 1956, before the NSU KKM was even invented, Ford Motor Company engineer Donald Frey (quoted a decade later in Motor Trend) opined that for a new engine design to seriously challenge the dominant four-stroke reciprocating (Otto-cycle) format, it was not enough to beat the Otto cycle in a few areas — the newcomer had to be superior in all or most respects. The rotary engine came closer than many challengers, but the Otto-cycle engine was able to close the gap in many of the Wankel’s areas of superiority faster than the Wankel’s limitations could be overcome.
Much the same could be said of the NSU Ro80. It went head to head with some of the toughest competitors in the business and acquitted itself far better than anyone really had a right to expect, but while the Ro80 was good enough to challenge the dominant players, it didn’t have enough of an edge to unseat them. By the time the bugs had been worked out, NSU’s rivals had improved, too, leaving the Ro80 as the brave but risky alternative.
Would the Ro80 have been more successful if NSU had opted for a safer, more orthodox design brief, perhaps with the alternative of a conventional piston engine? Perhaps, perhaps not, but one thing is certain: the results would have been far less interesting.
The author would like to thank Jim Sykes and Andrew Buc for their generous assistance and the use of their photos. (In the interests of full disclosure, Andrew has previously made financial contributions to Ate Up With Motor, albeit not specifically in connection with this or any other individual article.)
Our sources on the history of NSU, the Wankel engine, and the Ro80 included: “2 Car Test: Citroën ID20, NSU Ro80,” Autocar 1 May 1969, reprinted in NSU Ro80: A Brooklands ‘Road Test’ Limited Edition, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books, Ltd., 1999), pp. 36-41; R.F. Ansdale, “Wankel Progress,” Motor Trend Vol. 18, No. 2 (February 1966), pp. 29-31; “Audi 100 C2,” Unique Cars and Parts, www.uniquecarsandparts. com.au, accessed 15 August 2012; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1963-1966 NSU Wankel Spider,” HowStuffWorks.com, 24 July 2007, www.howstuffworks. com/ 1963-1966-nsu-wankel-spider.htm, accessed 7 October 2011, and “1967-1977 NSU Ro80,” HowStuffWorks.com, 29 October 2007, auto.howstuffworks.com/1967-1977-nsu-ro80.htm, accessed 7 July 2012; “Auto Test: NSU Ro80,” Autocar 13 July 1974, reprinted in NSU Ro80, pp. 71-75; Roger Bell and Anthony Curtis, “20,000 Miles on NSU Ro80,” Motor 28 September 1974, reprinted in ibid, pp. 76-79; Stuart Bladon, “Long-Term Report: NSU Ro80 Final report at 23,000 Miles,” Autocar 31 August 1972, reprinted in ibid, pp. 64-67, and “Smoky Rotaries,” Classic Car July 1987, reprinted in ibid, pp. 85-87; Griffith Borgeson, “NSU Wankel Comes of Age,” Motor Trend Vol. 19, No. 12 (December 1967), reprinted in ibid, pp. 10-13; Martin Buckley, “Brave new world,” Classic & Sports Car July 1995, reprinted in ibid, pp. 88-92; Charles Bulmer, “Serious Contender,” The Motor 9 September 1967, reprinted in ibid, pp. 5-9; “Buying Secondhand: NSU Ro80,” Autocar 26 November 1977, reprinted in ibid, pp. 82-84; “Car of the year–or decade? (Motor Road Test No. 5/68 – NSU Ro80),” The Motor 3 February 1968, reprinted in ibid, pp. 19-24; Richard Copping, VW Golf: Five Generations of Fun (Dorchester, Dorset: Veloce Publishing Ltd. 2006); Mike Covello, ed., Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); Anthony Curtis, “Classic Ro80,” Classic Cars August 1975, reprinted in NSU Ro80, pp. 80-81, and “Is cleanliness three-cornered?” New Scientist and Science Journal Vol. 49, No. 740 (25 February 1971), pp. 415-417; “Dual-Wankel coupe,” Popular Science Vol. 203, No. 2 (August 1973), p. 70; “Die Wankelmotoren von NSU,” Der Wankelmotor, 2000-2012, www.der-wankelmotor. de, accessed 13 August 2012; Jim Dunne, “Detroit Report,” Popular Science Vol. 210, No. 4 (April 1977), p. 56; John Ethridge, “Reciprocating Progress,” Motor Trend Vol. 18, No. 2 (February 1966), pp. 26-28; Nicholas Faith, Wankel: The Curious Story Behind the Revolutionary Rotary Engine (New York: Stein and Day, 1975); Joachim Fisher, “I Drove the Wankel-Engine Car at 90 MPH!” Popular Mechanics Vol. 116, No. 6 (December 1961), pp. 69-73, 218; “Giant Test: Jaguar XJ6, BMW 525, NSU Ro80,” CAR August 1974, reprinted in Jaguar XJ6 Gold Portfolio 1968-1979, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books, Ltd., 2008), pp. 107-115; “Giant Test: Lancia Beta 2000ES, Audi 100LS, Citroën CX2400,” CAR March 1977, pp. 54-59; “Giant Test: NSU Ro80 – Citroën DS23 – BMW 520,” CAR July 1973, reprinted with permission at Citronet, ed. Julian Marsh, 2009, www.citroenet. org.uk, accessed 29 July 2012; Heiko Haupt, “NSU Ro80: Wankelmütiges Wunderwerk,” SPIEGEL 8 February 2006, www.spiegel. de, accessed 11 August 2012; John B. Hege, The Wankel Rotary Engine: A History (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2001); “His rare 1970 NSU is a mystery to most,” NWAutos, 27 May 2012, blog.nwautos. com, accessed 20 June 2012; “History of the Volkswagen K70/40 years of VW K70/NSU/AutoUnion,” autolatest, N.d., www.autolatest. ro, accessed 23 July 2012; Kay Hottendorff and Ard op de Weeg, The Fate of the Sleeping Beauties (Dorchester, Dorset: Veloce Publishing Ltd., 2010); Jan Hullegie, NSU-RO80.nl, 5 December 2007, www.ro80. nl/, accessed 14 August 2012; “It’s pull, not push, for the latest VW,” Popular Science Vol. 197, No. 4 (October 1970), p. 85; “First Road Test: The Revolutionary ’69 NSU Wankel Ro80,” Road Test October 1968, reprinted in NSU Ro80, pp. 28-33; “In 1978 the Ro80 may have a little competition,” advertisement, c. 1968, reprinted in NSU Ro80, p. 25; Richard A. Johnson, Six Men Who Built the Modern Auto Industry (St. Paul, MN: Motorbooks/MBI Publishing, 2005); David LaChance, “Whirl Premiere,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #47 (July 2009); Brian Long, RX-7: Mazda’s Rotary Engine Sports Car (Revised 2nd Edition) (Dorchester: Veloce Publishing Ltd., 2004); Karl Ludvigsen, “How Big Are Wankel Engines?” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car April 2008; Julian Marsh, “Citroën GS Birotor,” Citroënët, 2002, www.citroenet. org.uk, accessed 21 August 2012; John Matras, Mazda RX-7 (Sports Car Color History) (Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Company, 1994); Rob Maselko, “Feature Car: ur-TTS,” Fourtitude.com, 25 June 2007, fourtitude. com, accessed 15 August 2012; Patrick McNally, “The NSU Ro80,” Autosport 8 September 1967, reprinted in NSU Ro80, p. 14; Mazda Motor Corporation, “Mazda Spirit: The Rotary Engine,” 13 August 2007, www.mazda. com, last accessed 20 October 2011; Günther Molter, “Wankel-Powered NSU Spider,” Road & Track Vol. 16, No. 4 (December 1964), pp. 50–52; “Modern Motor road test: NSU Ro80,” Modern Motor December 1969, reprinted in NSU Ro80, pp. 48-52; Günther Molter, “NSU Ro80,” Road & Track Vol. 19, No. 2 (October 1967), reprinted in ibid, pp. 15-18; “MOTOR RACING joins the revolution,” Motor Racing, January 1969, reprinted in ibid, pp. 34-35; Jan P. Norbye, “The Front-Drive Cars in VW’s Future,” Popular Science Vol. 199, No. 4 (October 1971), pp. 10-12, “The View Down the Road,” Popular Science Vol. 206, No. 2 (February 1975), p. 52, The Wankel Engine: Design, Development, Applications, 2nd printing (Philadelphia: Chilton Book Company, 1972); and “Why Detroit Is Doing a Double Take on the Wankel,” Popular Science Vol. 198, No. 1 (January 1971), pp. 54-55, 112; “NSU-Audi,” Der WankelMotor, 2012, www.der-wankelmotor. de, accessed 13 August 2012; “NSU Wankel rotary engines and cars,” Craig’s Rotary Page, cp_www.tripod. com/rotary/ pg05.htm, accessed 13 August 2012; “NSU Wankel Spider,” NSU Prinz, 2008, www.nsuprinz. com, accessed 7 October 2011; Robert van Overbeeke, “Unilateral idealism,” GTO Magazine #6 (December 2007); Dieter Renkin, “Birth of the Ro80,” Classic & Sports Car July 1995, reprinted in NSU Ro80, pp. 92; Graham Robson and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Volkswagen Chronicle (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International Ltd., 1996); “Ro80 Reassessment,” CAR August 1970, reprinted in NSU Ro80, pp. 46-47; David Scott, “First Test: NSU’s Twin-Rotor Wankel-Powered Sedan,” Popular Science Vol. 191, No. 3 (September 1967), pp. 90-91, 203; Edoard Seidler, “Dr. Kurt Lotz: Vorstandsvorsitzender of Volkswagen: The man who thinks beyond the Bug,” Motor Trend Vol. 21, No. 8 (August 1969): 18–22, 96, and “Overseas Report: Who Wants NSU?” Motor Trend Vol. 21, No. 5 (May 1969): 46–47; “Statistische Daten,” Ro80-Club International, ro80club. org/das-auto/ statistische-daten, accessed 14 August 2012; Jason Torchinsky, “The Last Mazda Wankel Engine Has Been Built,” Jalopnik, 26 June 2012, jalopnik. com, accessed 29 June 2012; “Trail Blazer, White Elephant or Both?” CAR June 1972, reprinted in NSU Ro80, pp. 60-63; “Upheaval of an empire: How Lotz went out and Leiding came in,” Autocar 25 November 1971, pp. 44-47; Paul Van Valkenburgh, “NSU Ro80,” Sports Car Graphic October 1969, reprinted in NSU Ro80, pp. 42-45; “Volkswagen K70: Sad, unwanted child of a forced marriage,” The Independent 2 March 2004, www.independent.co. uk, accessed 23 July 2012; Christian von Klösterlein, “Claus Luthe – eine Retrospektive,” Ro80-Club International, 2008, ro80club. org, accessed 14 August 2012; “West Germany: The Wankel Wager,” TIME 8 September 1967, p. 110; “What Car? tests/NSU Ro80: Yesterday’s car of tomorrow,” What Car? October 1974, reprinted in NSU Ro80, pp. 68-70; and the Wikipedia® entries for the Audi 100 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audi_100, accessed 15 August 2012), the German Audi 100 page (de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audi_100_C2, accessed 15 August 2012), the German Audi 200 page “Audi 200” (de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audi_200, accessed 22 August 2012), Claus Luthe (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claus_Luthe, accessed 7 July 2012), Felix Wankel (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felix_Wankel, accessed 22 August 2012), Kurt Lotz (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurt_Lotz, 11 August 2012), NSU Motorenwerke (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NSU_Motorenwerke, accessed 14 August 2012), the German NSU Prinz page (de.wikipedia.org/wiki/NSU_Prinz, accessed 23 August 2012), NSU Ro80 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NSU_Ro_80, accessed 7 July 2012), Rudolf Leiding, (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudolf_Leiding, accessed 10 August 2012), and Supervisory Board (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supervisory_Board, 11 August 2012).
Some historical exchange rate data for the dollar, the sterling, and the Deutschmark came from Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies,” MeasuringWorth, 2011, http://www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/, used with permission. Exchange rate values cited in the text represent the approximate equivalence of British, German, and U.S. currency at the time, not contemporary U.S. suggested retail prices, which are cited separately. Please note that all exchange rate equivalencies cited in the text are approximate; this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!
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