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The 50th Birthday of the NSU Ro80

It is almost impossible to believe that the NSU Ro80 will be celebrating its 50th birthday this year for even if it has been launched in 1977 it would still have looked as though it was anticipating the future.

The Ro80 did not only have coachwork with a drag coefficient of 0.355, it was also powered by a rotary engine driving the front wheels.

Equally amazingly, it was the first executive car to hail from the NSU factory:

The plans for the Ro80 date from 1962, when NSU decided to produce a medium-sized saloon that would compete with the VW Type 3, the Opel Rekord and the Ford Taunus.

However, two years later, the focus of Project Type 80 had been altered; this was now to be a more prestigious car, fit to rival any Mercedes-Benz, BMW or imported Citroen DS.

Under the bonnet was the engine developed by Dr. Felix Wankel with twin rotors – each equivalent to 497cc – and the body was the responsibility of Claus Luthe whose aim was ‘to achieve here was the impression of sleekness and elegance’.

Braking was via inboard discs front and rear while the transmission was semi-automatic; a manual box was deemed to lack refinement and full-automatic gears had an adverse effect on fuel economy.

The Ro80 made its bow at the 1967 Frankfurt Motor Show and to say that it caused a sensation would be akin to noting that SgtPepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was a rather successful Beatles’ album.

The marque had previously been associated with small rear-engine saloons although the Ro80 was not their first Wankel engine car as that honour goes to the 1963 Spider.

The latest NSU looked set to redefine executive motoring with the company intending to build 50 units per week, in addition to developing a smaller conventionally engineered K70 stablemate.

The NSU Ro80 became Car of the Year 1968 – the Fiat 125 came second and the Jensen FF took third place -  although at a UK price of £2, 250 it was an expensive proposition, competing with the Jaguar XJ6.

Motor Sport thought that ‘on all-round merit the NSU Ro80 must be rated one of the best family cars in the business’.

Unfortunately, the technical problems soon arose, from carburettor adjustment to serious issues with the rotor’s apex seals.

The company’s financial standing was seriously damaged by a succession of warranty claims and in 1969, NSU was acquired by Volkswagen where it was merged with the Audi division.

As a footnote to these developments, the K70 entered production as the first ever FWD vehicle to bear a VW badge.

Development of the Ro80 continued in the early 1970s, with improved rotor seals and a warning buzzer in case the proud owner was tempted to over-rev the engine.

The Fuel Crisis of 1973 further damaged sales and although NSU planned a second-generation model fitted with a triple-rotor engine - one that would also be offered on the C2-Series Audi 100/200, these ambitious plans were ultimately unrealised.

Production ceased in 1977 after 37,398 cars and by that time the Ro80 had been available in the UK by special order only for the past four years. Worse still, several owners had replaced the Wankel engine with a Ford Corsair V4 plant.

But nothing can detract from the legacy of the NSU Ro80, which remains one of the most ambitious and individualistic machines in motoring history. To quote the great L J K Setright, it was, and is, a car of ‘exceptional importance’.

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