NSU, an abbreviation of the town of Neckarsulm near Stuttgart, originally started its life in 1873 as a producer of knitting machines. After rapid growth they started making bicycles and by 1892 bicycles took over all the production. The first NSU motorcycle appeared in 1901 and the first car in 1905.
They never managed to break through with their car production so that by 1932 under pressure from the banks the car factory at Heilbronn was sold to Fiat for assembly of Fiat cars in Germany. The company continued to make an increasing range of motorcycles, some innovative including supercharged race models up to the Second World War. During the war they made a half track motorcycle that saw service mainly on the Russian front; this was continued in civilian form after the war:
It was after the war that the company regrouped and the totally bombed out factory started production of the pre war models, but in ‘49 the new designs starting with the Fox appeared These were revolutionary, using a pressed steel monocoque frame. In ‘53 the Max appeared with a 250cc four stroke engine that had the overhead cams driven by con rods and by ‘55 NSU was the biggest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. Many will remember the original moped, the Quickly, that sold Europe-wide in huge numbers.
At the time of the Max coming on stream NSU were breaking world speed records for motorcycles at the Bonneville salt flats and in ‘56 an NSU became the first motorcycle to top 200mph. In the same period they entered Grand Prix racing with a very advanced 125 and 250cc twin cylinder Rennmax machines that were at the time in a class of their own. This is the ‘53 250cc Rennmax - the later racers had full “dustbin” fairings:
In ‘54 NSU stopped factory racing but had developed a race version of the single cylinder Max known as the Sportmax that in a private rider's hands became the only production racer to win a world championship. Only 32 were ever made and went to selected riders with a spare engine. They became the mainstay of the 250 class for many years, and alongside many road going Max’s were converted to racers with Sportmax parts; these too had many successes in club and international racing.
Sadly by ‘63 motorcycle production finished for NSU as the drive towards car production was seen as the way forward for the company, plus by then the ominous presence of the Japanese companies was beginning to be felt.
To complete this short section on NSU's racing pedigree, one of the selected riders to become a Sportmax owner was John Surtees. He won numerous races on his and set many class lap records. His lap record for the old Crystal Palace circuit stood for over twenty years, something unbelievable in today's racing: he also won the 1955 Ulster Grand Prix on his version.
In 1957 Surtees' father, a friend of Mike Haiwood's father, was pressured to sell the bike for Mike to ride.He took it to SA for a winter's racing and won every race he entered, setting many lap records. In ‘58 aged 18 he won 25 races with the Sportmax and his first world championship points and his first TT podium.
Here it is in all its glory with the Hailwood team colours:
So in ‘68 NSU ended its association with making motorcycles. In ‘57 NSU had re entered the car market with the Prinz, a small car with a doubled up version of the Max engine. This as a small runaround was fairly successful and was produced until ‘68 but in the meantime NSU was preparing for something totally different, a car with a rotary engine designed by Felix Wankel.
In ‘64 NSU offered the public the world's first rotary engined car, the Spyder:
A version of the Prinz followed, one having a twin rotor engine. At the time many believed this was the dawning of a new age in automobile propulsion but under the surface problems were already beginning to emerge: unreliability in the rotary engines was mainly caused by unsuitable materials to seal the rotor tips and rapid wear was causing failures and the warranty bill was rising.
It was in ‘67 with the unveiling of the company's first hopefully mass production car with a rotary engine that the clouds of failure started to gather. The NSU Ro80 was a very modern design with independent suspension and disc brakes and the twin rotor engine giving 115bhp and for then a very modern design one that has stood the test of time.
Virtually every car manufacturer in the world had taken out licenses for the rotary engine, though only Citroen who had share of the hopeful engine plant built a rotary car. The model was aborted. NSU had had great hope that royalties would pay for their investment in ever increasingly costly development, but it was not to be: there were several prototypes built by other companies including a Corvette by General Motors with quad rotors, but nothing went into production.
Despite winning the car of the year award in ‘67 and several design awards, the car had slow sales:
- and the increasing heavy costs of engine replacements even at low mileages was sinking the company. In ‘69 the company was taken over by VW who used the factory for Audi production though the Ro80 staggered on until the last NSU was produced in ‘77. The name was never used by Audi after that time.
The only other company to produce a rotary engined car was Mazda, in fact under license they pre-dated the Ro 80 as a mass production car with the Cosmo, a sports car that stayed in production for twenty years:
Mazda have persevered and improved the rotary unit over many years, even largely overcoming the main problem rotor tip sealing using ceramics. In 1991 Mazda won Le Mans, the only Japanese manufacturer to win Le Mans; they had overcome reliability problems with earlier race efforts:
Le Mans promptly banned the rotary engine from competing again, though the ban has since been lifted, to late to save a unique exhaust note.
Mazda have of course until recently persevered with the rotary and the last model the RX – 8 had overcome most of the reliability issues and this lovely car deserves a successor, but the fuel economy was still poor compared to peer cars and the emissions , that are now such an issue were also sub standard, Mazda stated that they would come back with a rotary engined car in 2019, but that is with the charge towards electric and hybrid vehicles now in doubt.
So now all that effort to produce a better fuel driven power unit for automobiles has come to naught, save a very prestigious Le Man win which Felix Wankel would have been ecstatic to see as proof his design worked; for NSU it was a very costly venture.
Some years back I saw a Rs80 on the road when I lived in Essex,:very modern and distinctive in style, many of the cars having used up their engines were converted to Ford V4s the engine being short enough to fit in the smaller rotary engined bay, it was probably one of those.