Oh dear, what a Wankel

Keith Adams  

NSU Ro80
NSU Ro80

It’s been quite a time since I bought anything resembling a classic car. I know that seems odd given my chosen profession, but there you go… Maybe the financial trauma of getting the SD1 back into fine fettle (and it’s not completed yet) has had an off-putting affect on my enthusiasm, or perhaps it’s because I’ve been lucky enough to drive some of the world’s finest cars while doing the whole Octane thing but, whatever the reason, the last time I bought a pukka classic car (as opposed to an old knacker) was when I stumped up £200 for the Polski-Rover – and that was five years ago!  

Anyway, what happened at work recently really did leave me baffled and I’m still trying to understand it. Editor David Lillywhite bought a Citroen SM from guru Andrew Brodie, after it became clear I didn’t have the financial wherewithal to buy it myself – and that left me jealous. That’s mainly because the SM is probably my favourite car ever and it had been bought at a temptingly reasonable price.  

There was nothing to do but to turn this ugly emotion into something positive and accept colleague Glen Waddington’s offer of his NSU Ro80. Granted it’s no SM, I hear you say, but the Ro80 is one of those glorious cars that – in my world – comes a close second. It was conceived in an era of hope and optimism and created by engineers who didn’t fall back on orthodoxy – in fact, they shunned it, and actively chose the path of innovation.  

The Ro80 appeared on the market in 1967 and it’s no secret that it bankrupted the company – the car’s one of the automotive world’s fattest, biggest white elephants, but that doesn’t stop me loving it. For one, its stylist, Claus Luthe penned a design that’s little short of stunning for its day – a cab-forward wedge, with a glassy six-light body, and a drag co-efficient of 0.355.  

It boasted all-round independent suspension, ZF rack-and-pinion power steering, front wheel drive, clutchless semi-automatic transmission – oh, and that twin-rotor Wankel engine. Maybe, just maybe, had NSU left out that final item and used a conventional V6 instead, we might be be talking about NSU TTs instead of Audi TTs, but that’s a different story.  

One thing’s for sure, the Ro80’s a design that still looked modern well into the 1980s – it’s a forward-thinking, engineer’s flight of passion. That’s why it fits right in with my favoured cars of choice.  

This one ain’t perfect and needs some jobs doing. I don’t have the wonderful Rimmer Bros-like safety net that my Polski-Rover enjoys, but I guess that’s part of the challenge. I’ll let you know how it goes – but, if you run into me, and I look like a gibbering wreck, you’ll know it’s because things aren’t going well. However, if I’m smiling, then you’ll know it’s because I’m enjoying the Ro80’s cerebral delights…  

What a contrast it’ll make to the SD1.  

Keith Adams


  1. I really want to try one, as you know, but will trying one burst the bubble? Once it’s going under its own steam (bad expression I know!), will you go cold Keith?

  2. The SM and Ro80 have one thing in common: they don’t include compromises. Unlike most other cars in their class, they followed a wonderful combination of styling and engineering – in a single word: design – that is quite rare in the world of cars.

    Mercedes still built the fintail cars when the NSU was launched. The Ro80 may not have been as advanced or unconventional as the DS at launch, but it was easily 5 years ahead of the major competition.

    Enjoy it, Keith!

  3. I don’t think I have ever even seen one of these cars before, let alone sat in one.

    It looks like you’ve got a very interesting journey ahead of you, Keith.
    Good luck with this one.

  4. That’s a lovely car. The Ro80 was nearly two decades ahead of the game – it’s a shame that NSU did what many small companies do and rushed it into production with what was a pig of an engine. Has yours got the original NSU unit or an aftermarket Mazda job?

  5. Good luck Keith with the project. I just love these cars – as you say, the looks must have been truly futuristic back in 1967. I think the Ro80 still stacks up as a fabulous design.

  6. A stunning car – and the shape still hasn’t aged – if anything it looks more modern now when compared with the fat, bloated things we generally drive nowadays. Shame on Audi for abandoning the essence of this sublime shape!

    I think that a modernised Ro80, with a classier interior (that featureless dash always let it down IMO) and the engine foibles sorted out would p*ss over any modern day Audi “look at me, I’m a Sales Exec” A6!

  7. What a fabulous car! That publicity shot of the 1971 Audi-NSU range is great – it shows the Ro80 to be a class above the contemporary Audi 100 in my view. Good luck – I hope you don’t need it!

  8. Good luck Keith… I remember that Dinky made a model of the Ro80.

    My dad bought a new rotary-engined Mazda RX4 Coupe in 1973 – it was a beautiful car and had great performance as well as a superb sounding engine. Contrary to popular belief, he had no mechanical troubles at all. However, as he owned it at the time of the oil crisis and it only managed around 20mpg, it depreciated heavily. He kept it until 1978.

  9. HA! Didn’t I tell you that, after the Audi, the VAG bug would bite… I’ll grant you though that the Ro80 is probably the absolute furthest you can get away from VAG without loosing all links…

    Mind you, NSU ultimately became VAG all the same. I give you the NSU/VW K70 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VW_K70

    You’ll be looking for an early Favorit next ;).

  10. What a great car – the Ro80 still looks modern 40 years on.

    Having owned a rotary, albeit a grey-import Mazda, I can honestly say that they’re so smooth everything else feels very agricultural. It wasn’t the nightmare that I’d been told to expect by the prophets of doom either. It did, though, have a voracious appetite for super unleaded.

    Enjoy it Keith. B.T.W. do RX-8 rotor tips fit?

    • I’ve heard that German Ford V4 & 6s were common transplant engines. Supposedly it was hard to fit them in as the rotary engines were compact for their output.

  11. It seems during the development of the Ro80 some NSU technicians did in fact study the use of a conventional piston engine, playing around with a flat-six Boxer engine however the NSU officials stopped this since they thought it to be undesirable compared to the Rotary engine.

    It is not clarified though whether the flat-six Boxer engine was air-cooled or water-cooled, let alone whether it was an in-house design or some joint-project with the likes of Citroen (who themselves looked at flat-4/6 engines even water-cooled designs during development of what became the Citroen CX).

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