At first glance, even second, it is somewhat difficult to believe from the appearance of this motor car that its 50th birthday is approaching, since it was first marketed in 1967. By way of contrast, if one was to set the most advanced car of 1900 against its counterpart of five decades later, the difference between the two in terms of looks would be profound, and to a degree so would the mechanisms within each of them, although both would have conventional internal combustion engines.
In the case of this NSU from Germany, it was what existed beneath the bonnet that made the car so significantly different from the vehicles that had preceded it, because the Ro80 was powered by a twin rotor Wankel engine, initially introduced in single rotor form for the firm’s 1964 Spider model.
In Snapshot 21 we took a look at gas turbine engines, but the Wankel rotary although closer to these in concept is actually markedly different. It should also be mentioned that although referred to as a rotary engine, the Wankel has virtually nothing in common with the early aero engines that bear this descriptive. They rotate as a complete unit whereas the element that does so in the Wankel is the 3-sided internal rotor and this has an eccentric motion. For those who would like to pursue this matter further the Wikipedia Wankel engine article is a good starting point.
As well as its distinctive power unit, the Ro80 also featured front-wheel drive and had a semi-automatic gearbox. In addition there was the immensely attractive body with a large glass area and a low drag factor of 0·335 Cd, which presaged future designs by other car manufacturers.
With its good looks, being exhilarating to drive, and its sophisticated technology, it is no surprise that the Ro80 was voted ‘Car of the Year’ in 1968. But there were problems. Perhaps the car had been introduced too soon, before the Wankel engine had been thoroughly developed, which resulted in low mileage engine life with considerable expense incurred by NSU for replacement units.
The capital outlay for the evolution of the Wankel engine and the follow-up costs of the Ro80 engines hit NSU’s finances hard and the firm was taken over by Volkswagen in 1969 and merged with that organisation’s Audi subsidiary. Production of the model did though continue until 1977, by which time 37,398 Ro80s had been sold, and with the later cars the reliability issues had largely been overcome.
The German combine did not then pursue further the Wankel engine concept and it was Mazda in Japan, having introduced cars with Wankel rotary engines at the same time as NSU, that carried the matter forward with its various RX models, these being available until very recently.