You’ll never lack for conversation if you own an NSU Ro80, for the revolutionary rotary-engined German saloon was both a motoring milestone and calamitous misadventure surpassing the Ford Edsel, DeLorean and Sinclair C5 combined. If all of that appeals, if you find the hydraulic complexity of a Citroen DS too straightforward, and if you’re touched by masochism, then the Ro80 is the car for you. Motoring journalists loved it, but they didn’t have the burden of ownership.
The truth is that if two or more NSU evangelists make it to the pub for a noggin and natter, eavesdroppers w ill think you’re talking about an irritating female complaint. And to be fair there was much to complain about with the Ro80, much of it centred around the word Wankel, which could be mis-heard in a busy pub.
Pioneers sometimes get shot in the back, but NSU shot itself in the foot as it desperately aimed upmarket with a car it knew wasn’t ready. In no time, the car that European journalists had voted Car of the Year in 1967 was afflicted by a series of warranty claims. The inadequately developed twin-rotor engine suffered from rapid wear to the rotor tip seals. Few managed 30,000 miles before the engine gave up and, as NSU honoured warranty claims, it’s said that German owners didn’t wave at each other but held up fingers to indicate the number of engines they’d had, as they whisked along the autobahn in utter serenity.
And yet the Ro80 handled and rode brilliantly and the free-spinning engine became smoother the faster you went. In fact, the whole car was bold and innovative. Its low-nosed, high-tailed wedge form, honed in a wind-tunnel for an amazing drag coefficient of 0.35, was a sign of things to come. So too the airy glasshouse with massive windscreen. The gearbox was a two-pedal semi-automatic, with the clutch activated by hand-pressure on the gearknob; all-round disc brakes were in-board at the front to reduce unsprung weight; it was front-wheel drive to maximise cabin space; and its ZF power-assisted rack-and-pinion wasn’t significantly bettered for years. Nought to 60mph came up in 12 seconds with a maximum of 112mph.
Road Test magazine in the US commended the NSU Ro80 as ‘one of the most exciting cars to appear in the last 20 years’. In the ’90s a respected classic car road tester wrote: ‘I don’t recall a ’60s car that feels more directionally stable… Nothing – be it gusting side0winds or the wake of a speeding HGV – seems to throw it off its course, adding to the feel of ’90s modernity.’
The Ro80 spelled the end for NSU, bringing the company into VW/Audi ownership, where it lived on as a technology flagship until 1977. Along the way some of the engine woes were addressed, but the Germans never conquered the technology the way Mazda did later with the RX-7, and then by winning Le Mans in 1991 with a rotary racer.
In the days when cars were just cars, Ro80 owners used to substitute horribly rough Ford V4s, but in an age where cars are cultural artefacts, Ro80 acolytes are reverting to the original, or a Mazda option.
At launch When it went on sale in the UK in 1968 the NSU Ro80 cost £2232, pricing it above other rival imports such as a top-spec Citroen DS21 Pallas at £2007 and the £1999 BMW 2000, but just below the base Mercedes-Benz 220. A 2.8-litre Jaguar XJ6 was more than £,000 cheaper at £1797, yet the NSU did undercut the , 2-litre XJ6 by £20. The V8 Rover P5B was on price par with the Ro80, while the Triumph 2000 saloon was more than £1000 cheaper.
The end The NSU Ro80 was last officially listed for sale in the UK in 1975 when it cost £3531, over £1200 cheaper than a Jaguar XJ6 but still £500 more than the flagship Ford Granada and Rover P6 3500S. Production to 1977 was 37,204, with 361, right-hookers coming to the UK, the biggest export market.
1990s An influential classic car journalist road-tested a number of Ro80s for sale before buying one and championing the car. Result: the number of Ro80s on UK roads peaked in 1997 with 71 in commission. Today 32 are on UK roads, 42 on SORN. In 1997 a rotary-specialist Mazda-converted Ro80 was on offer at £4,000.
Today Highest UK auction price, achieved in 2018, was £14,830 for a fine example owned by ex-Autocar-journalist Ronald ‘Steady’ Barker. A right-hand-drive car described as ‘probably the best Ro80 in the UK’ is for sale in the trade at £10,000. Asking £7,000 is a bodily-good left-hooker ‘in untinkered original condition -compression OK, but exact scope of work required not yet determined’.