NSU Ro80 vs. Citroën DS23 EFI Pallas, Audi 100LS C1, Mercedes-Benz 230/4 W115, BMW 2000 Typ 121 New Class and Rover P5B 3.5 Litre Coupé
The greatest saloon ever made? Buckley’s executive tussle Audi, BMW, Citroën, Mercedes, NSU, and Rover saloons vie for supremacy. Ardent Ro80 enthusiast Martin Buckley pits the ground-breaking NSU against period rivals from Audi, BMW, Citroën, Mercedes-Benz W115 and Rover. Photography Tony Baker.
Finding rivals to pitch against the NSU Ro80 was always difficult, because there was nothing quite like it. Fast, refined and futuristically beautiful, it was not only powered by an exciting-new-kind of engine, but also so sorted and complete in all respects that it was hard to reconcile its all-round excellence with the firm that built it. After all, NSU of Neckarsulm came from a tradition of mopeds and rear-engined baby cars, not luxury tin-tops. Yet here it was tackling the establishment with a five-seater, four-door express that set new standards in every way. In many respected quarters, it was regarded as the world’s best production saloon in the late ’60s.
The infamous Wankel engine problems (and the traumatic fall from grace that ensued) was a story that did not gain momentum in the public eye until the early ’70s. Before that the Ro80 was a success story that garnered a stream of flattering reviews from around the globe, so much so that its victory in the European Car of The Year Award in 1968 must have been a virtual formality.
We were as keen as everyone else in the UK. Yet, after the dust had settled on that spectacular 1967 debut, it was down to the weekly Motor to publish the first cool-headed real-world comparison of this frankly amazing new car against its rivals on the British market. It was October ’1968, and the first right-hand-drive Ro80s were on the way. The time had come to draw the battle lines between this upstart rotary-powered machine and not only the West German competition from BMW and Mercedes, but also the large-engined traditional British luxury saloons (in the form of the Jaguar 420 and Rover 3.5 Litre) that came in the same £2000-2500 bracket. It had been less than a year since the magazine had published its first ecstatic road test of an early production Ro80 driven in Italy; the author of ‘Group Test No 8’ was no less enthusiastic.
‘We again find it difficult to express the level of our admiration for a car which scores in so many ways over all others,’ ran the copy. Four of the five staff writers chose the Ro80 in the Personal Choice sequel published the following week. Roger Bell (nylon rally jacket and pointy shoes) called it ‘One of the world’s great cars’, while technical editor Tony Curtis (drainpipe trousers, tweed sports coat) declared the NSU ‘a vehicle worthy of the space age’. It is my most often revisited Ro80 feature, authoritatively written and photographed in such a way that you got an exciting sense of these ’60s saloons being thrown around ‘on test’ in a desolate Northumbrian landscape, fording streams and raising dust as they diced on their doorhandles.
As well as being an elegant example of journalism, it was an enlightening and honest assessment in a form still quite young in the world of motoring magazines. Comparing cars head-to-head had, until the mid-’60s, been seen as not quite cricket by many manufacturers. The NSU was born into a new, more openly critical environment and words were not minced in that ’1968 group test about the surprising failings of the ‘wallowy’ Jaguar, which, for all its 4.2 litres, was no faster than the BMW 2000. That said, the Browns Lane press office could justifiably have pointed out that the 420 was about to be given the chop in favour of the Jaguar XJ6. A back-to-back with that model a year down the line might have resulted in a different outcome for the NSU.
Recreating this classic comparison 50 years on, we decided to let the Rover keep the British end up and take a wider view of the continental alternatives from Citroën and Audi, plus BMW and Mercedes. It was curious that Motor avoided the DS because it had always been the NSU’s most obvious rival, created more than a decade earlier but in a similar spirit of clean-sheet technical purity. The Déesse was an aerodynamic, front-driven five-seater designed to cover long distances with absolute stability and comfort.
In theory, a late-’60s DS21 would have been the nearest rival from the Citroën range when the Ro80 appeared. Not to worry: John Gagen’s DS23 EFI is a good substitute that even trumps the NSU in its use of electronic fuel injection (which the ‘Ro’ never had) and leather seats; big squishy armchairs quite unlike anything else.
In fact, so much about the Citroën is still amazing. Possibly cars such as the XJ6 and NSU were beginning to approach – or perhaps even exceed – the standards set by its gas-and-liquid, self-levelling suspension, though even now it impresses with its ability to soak up everything. It leaves you with a feeling of being totally cosseted. By offering a four-speed manual (or even a conventional auto) on the late DS, Citroën was maybe admitting that the world had moved on from its original clutchless semi-auto. Not everyone gets on with them but, once mastered, they are satisfying and intrinsic to the charm of the car as you move the finger-tip lever, learning to feather the throttle slightly between upshifts to keep it all fluid. The pin-sharp brakes and sensitive powered steering require similar levels of acclimatisation but, once learnt, it is easy to see how this acquired taste could become an addiction. If the engine sounds harsh and undistinguished, it does at least have lusty torque on its side so that you can get along well without ever really having to extend the motor.
The West German approach – at least as far as the BMW, Audi and Mercedes are concerned – is quite different. It is a graphic reminder that these vehicles come from an era when national identity was as clearly defined in our cars as it was in our food, architecture and anything else. The crisp, boxy Audi 100 in particular is as coldly rational as the Citroën is romantic. It is a thoroughly competent design that, in many ways, established the tone for all Audis to come.
It impresses you with its finish, efficiency and fine overall behaviour rather than seducing you with its looks or driver appeal. This example, kindly furnished by Audi’s historic fleet in the UK, is an oddity in that it is a two-door right-hooker; most 100s sold in the British market had four doors. In both guises, this was a clean-looking shape.
Its handsome greenhouse treatment and neat tail-light design seem to reflect something from Mercedes’ interest in the firm in the first half of the ’60s. The engine, derived from the Super 90 and Auto Union – Audi’s first post-war four-stroke – is unquestionably Mercedes-Benz in origin. It pulls the Audi along energetically if not that smoothly or sweetly. Good economy and the ability to cruise this substantial car indefinitely at 100mph (on the autobahn) on less than 1800cc were its chief selling points. It is not overburdened with low-end torque or high-revving refinement, but delivers the goods well enough.
There were automatic 100s, but the four-speed manual works smoothly with a slightly remote feel. Despite having this canted-over, high-compression in-line ‘four’ slung well beyond the front wheels, the Audi is far from being an understeering pig – although power assistance would make it less clumsy at low speeds – plus it corners and rides with a lack of drama that leaves you impressed but unmoved, which was clearly its designers’ intention.
Inside, the inviting velour seats and handsome fascia show how the West Germans were leading the way in the use of high-quality cabin materials. The Audi’s only ergonomic crime is its curiously offset pedals. It is pretty spacious, with rear legroom second only to the NSU, although nowhere near the DS. It was, in fairness, cheaper than both of those cars and really for the man who wanted prestigious German transport that was a cut above the rabble. A machine, in other words, to express his discriminating taste without implying he had won the pools.
That tended to be most people’s reaction to any new Mercedes on British roads in the ’60s and early-’70s, such was the general lack of understanding of the hierarchy of the model structure in the UK. Which brings us neatly to Tex Crampin’s low-mileage 230/4, a late species of the W114/5 ‘New Generation’ saloon with a 2307cc oversquare version of the firm’s long-running overhead-cam four-cylinder engine.
You could have had 230 and 250 single-cam ‘sixes’ in this shell (and the beefy 280 twin-cam), but Motor tried the first of the 220s (at £2297) and thought highly of it. Michael Bowler marginally preferred it to the Ro80, in fact.
The vertical lamps linked it to the W108s, but the 230/4 was subject to minor styling tweaks to align the six-year-old body with the younger W116 S-class. Here was a car that cost a bit more than an XJ6, yet would barely top 100mph. In this company, as in ’1968, ‘our’ immaculate W115 is stripped of all but the bare essentials: power steering and automatic transmission were extra and you didn’t even get a rev counter.
Certainly, its light, airy interior is well made but also a little bleak and joyless. The undoubted efficiency of boring (but essential) things such as ventilation are, perhaps, lost on those who have never bought into the Mercedes ethos. Urged through the four ratios in its sloppy, uninspiring manual gearbox, the 230/4 gathers pace with ponderous tenacity. There is not a lot of point in pushing it hard, although the chassis has enough suppleness and poise to deal with double the power. The semi-trailing-arm rear suspension was one of the main assets of the W114/5 series. It rides and handles with much of the aplomb of its more familiar successor, the W123.
What that slightly downbeat analysis doesn’t account for is the superb finish, plus the inherent strength of the Mercedes and its known potential to run up huge mileages without major problems. It sold to people who wanted a long-term investment in engineering rather than a short-term thrill machine. If you wanted to drive to Afghanistan, this would have been the car for you.
The BMW was always more of an enthusiast’s machine and was basically the model that introduced British buyers to the marque 50-odd years ago, opening the door to the success of the ’02 range and the E3 straight-sixes. These early four-door, four-cylinder BMWs have been a touch neglected over the decades, so Paul Hill’s delightful 2000 automatic is a rare and now much-coveted Neue Klasse survivor.
To modern eyes, you can see how the boxy shape could almost be mistaken for something east European, but the detail finish and nicely worked out (if not lavish) interior tell you that this a BMW. From your vantage point, you can see all the corners and you soon realise that you do need that big wheel when parking. On the move, the steering’s delightful precision is at the heart of the car’s appeal and the BMW soon lets you know that it wants to be driven fast and well.
Motor took a twin-carb four-speed manual TiLux to Northumbria in ’1968, but the 2000 auto with a single carburettor and ZF three-speed ’box was popular in the UK. These early BMWs are perhaps unique in the world of four-pot ’60s saloons in that the slushbox option doesn’t destroy the engine’s urge. They showed people that good performance and decent fuel economy were not mutually exclusive and that refinement didn’t have to equal weight and clumsiness.
The soft engine mountings, plus the cushioning effect of the torque converter, lend the power unit near-six-cylinder sweetness as it revs and there is enough torque to give the 2000 energetic acceleration with a keen mid-range kickdown. You are reasonably aware of the lean, more so because the seating position is quite high in a car that, by the early ’70s, was already looking ever-so-slightly tall and narrow.
The Rover, designed in the ’50s, seems something of a fish out of water among this modern Euro-saloon line-up of rational 2-litre machines. To understand its positioning, you have to look at the prices: at £2174, it was cheaper than everything other than the BMW. For that you got a beautifully finished V8 saloon that looked bigger than all the others yet was an inch shorter than the NSU, even if it weighed almost 1000lb more.
This Coupé, owned by John Wallet almost since new, is one of the best: I feel extremely honoured to be the first person John has ever allowed to drive it. He probably noticed the twinkle in my eye for a model I have always loved (I’ve had five or six) and always will. It might be thirsty (15mpg) and have super-light steering, but you can’t really compare the feeling of wafting luxury that it gives you against the others – or the sheer presence of its handsome, squat-roofed body. It might be a terrible piece of packaging – lacking in head- and legroom for rear passengers – but in Coupé form I think it is one of the best-looking British four-door cars of all time.
In a way, the Rover has become better with age, its subtle charms outweighing its dynamic failings. In 1968, the mostly youthful Motor writers could not get on with the big 3.5 Litre on the twisty roads of their northern test route, yet they were all surprised by the ease with which it kept station with the other cars. It is not a vehicle that is naturally disposed to being hustled or hurried, although a good P5B will readily hitch up its skirts when required. It just tends to feel more dramatic, less inherently nimble than these middleweight Euro types. Body roll is, actually, far from scary and that light, high-geared steering is somehow part of the experience.
In the end, the Rover is easily the most suave of these cars, its natural habitat being either the city – where the torque, the effortless steering and auto ’box mean that you can burble around with an aloof feeling of isolation on those fantastic seats – or the motorway, where it is solid and stable, with silky V8 urge to spare. No, there’s nothing like a P5B… except perhaps a Silver Shadow, which you can now have for about the same money – a thought that for me tends to put the charms of the Rover into perspective.
Driving Phil Blake’s 1975 Ro80 makes me realise how rarely I have sampled a really good example. With its quiet gearbox, silent supple suspension and an engine with strong compression on both rotors, it is sensationally refined and deceptively fast: quicker than 0-60mph in 13 secs and a top speed of 113mph might suggest.
You soon get used to the clutchless semi-auto if it’s set up correctly and can, of course, pull away in top gear should you wish to abuse the privilege of having no valves to worry about. There are three forward ratios – NSU liked owners to think of them as ‘speed ranges’ rather than gears – with ‘1’ left and down. It churns its torque converter a little at first, but really gets on its toes between 40 and 80mph in second as you wind it out to a sublime 6500rpm. Here the engine emits a remote, totally unstrained jet-like whistle. It feels completely natural to cruise at 110mph or more with an eerie lack of road or wind noise, in a euphoria of stability and serenity, supported by fantastic brakes.
The shape is another major element in the NSU’s appeal. For me, the Ro80 body is breathtakingly well-proportioned, with no unnecessary fuss. Somehow it just doesn’t look German, even if the beautiful Fuchs alloys are a clue. The good news continues inside: it is obviously a well-made vehicle with a neat, durable and airy cabin.
Look closer and there is no evidence of unnecessary weight (the seats must be half as heavy as the Rover’s club armchairs, for instance), presumably in an attempt to curb the Wankel’s thirst, which for me has always been its main stumbling block. Like the Audi and Citroën, the NSU has front drive. With its long-travel springs (it laughs at traffic-calming humps), it feels closest to the DS in flavour but is less disorientating; its sharp brakes are more natural to modulate and you soon realise that the precise, kick-free power steering is superb. Short of a 100mph handbrake turn in the middle lane of the M1, I doubt whether anything would shatter the impression of poise and sheer competence that the Ro80 leaves you with.
It is hard for me to be dispassionate about the NSU. In 20 years, I have done more time in Ro80s than any other type of car – classic or otherwise. Over 50,000 miles, my first example only let me down a couple of times (and never for any terminal reason) and I have been hooked on them ever since. So you’ll forgive me if I say that engine problems, while certainly no myth, are nothing like as inevitable as the NSU’s detractors might have you believe. There are fewer of those naysayers today, of course, and it is best remembered as the most daring production saloon of the decade. It is a special, silkily serene experience that everyone who is interested in cars should try at least once.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS NSU Ro80
Sold/number built 1967-’1977/37,402
Construction steel monocoque
Engine iron-block, two-rotor 995ccWankel, with two twin-choke Solex carburettors
Max power 113.5bhp @ 5500rpm / DIN
Max torque 117lb ft @ 4500rpm / DIN
Transmission three-speed, semi-auto with torque converter, driving front wheels
Suspension independent all round, at front by MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar rear semi-trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers
Steering ZF power-assisted rack and pinion
Brakes discs all round, with servo
Length 15ft 8 ¼ in (4782mm)
Width 5ft 9 ¾ in (1772mm)
Height 4ft 8in (1422mm)
Wheelbase 9ft 4 ½ in (2858mm)
Weight 2632lb (1196kg)
0-60mph 12.6 secs
Top speed 113mph
Price new £2444 (1970) UK
Price now £5,000-12,500 2018 UK
‘ONCE LEARNT, IT IS EASY TO SEE HOW THIS ACQUIRED TASTE COULD BECOME AN ADDICTION’
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS CITROËN DS23 EFI PALLAS
Sold/number built 1955-’1975/1,455,746 (all)
Construction steel monocoque, with GRP (or aluminium) roof and aluminium bonnet
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