5 steps to buying the best NSU Ro80. We show you how to steer around the notorious trouble spots to find a great one. Words: Paul Hardiman. Photography: Tom Wood.
Gary Marks liked these cars so much he bought the company, taking over leading UK Ro80 specialist RoTechniks five years ago. Now the company’s main business is Mazda RX-7s and 8s – whose engines share much NSU DNA – but it also owns the fantastically original car featured here. And it’s for sale…
Phil Blake is the NSU Owners Club’s Ro80 technical guru. He has owned around 30 at various times and still has half of them. ‘When I was 141 had a paper round and at one house there were three in the garden. I’ve always been in to things a bit out of the ordinary. I joined the club and bought my first one when I was 16 before I could legally drive. I dread to think how many I’ve broken – probably around 15.’
In production from 1967-1977 and Car of The Year in 1968, the futuristic and aerodynamic Ro80 is currently undervalued – bur with prices running at less than half of that equivalent other-worldly saloon, Citroen’s DS, that can’t hold true for ever.
As one owner points out, this forerunner of the Audi 100 – built in the same German factory at Neckarsulm 15 years later – doesn’t look like an old car, but the earliest examples are now more than 45 years old. So, more than enough time for early issues to have been addressed. However, in period NSU unwisely offered a two-year/24,000- mile warranty – only to be deluged with claims after numerous engine failures. This crippled the company financially and it fell into the hands of Volkswagen/Audi in 1969.
Though more than 37,000 were built, the biggest problem now is getting hold of one, with maybe only 30 or 40 on UK roads. So if you can find one, here’s how to make sure it’s right for you.
1 Poorly looked-after Ro80s can rust everywhere you’d expect on a Seventies four-door. ‘But look out for some particular areas,’ says Gary Marks, ‘particularly in the boot shut where water collects when the car has been standing.’ ‘Check the sills carefully on sunroof cars,’ adds Phil Blake. ‘The drain tubes run into them and if the sills’ drain holes are blocked they’ll rust out.’
The next trouble spot, which may scrap the car or create a lot of tricky fabrication work, is corrosion in the front chassis rails where the driveshafts pass through. ‘It’s not an impossible fix,’ says Blake, ‘but it can be fiddly.’ Lift the bonnet and check carefully around here, at each side towards the back of the engine bay.
’The Ro80 is the most wonderful, simple design, with the suspension at each corner and a small engine up front’
New interior trim is scarce – it’s a case of make do and mend.
Door bottoms are vulnerable because they curve under the sills – and even the car featured here has a few bubbles on the inner frames here. Skins aren’t available, so if there’s corrosion – as with the chassis legs – it’s a case of finding a good sheet metal man who’s also a wizard with a torch. They don’t rust too badly behind the stainless trim pieces, though do check along the top of the windscreen,’ advises Marks.
Rust can strike anywhere and a shortage of panels may mean you you’ll have to make friends with a fabricator. In-period issues with NSU’s two-rotor engine can be sorted now – they’re now more in demand than Mazda or Ford units.
‘Also, there’s a box-section behind the front valance where the bumper wraps around (German market cars didn’t get it). It’s foam-filled and can retain water, so if it’s corroded you can chop it out, grind the metal flat and repaint.’
2 Sourcing front and rear light units is not a problem because they’re easy to strip off when people scrap cars. ‘There are stacks of lights about,’ says Blake. ‘Headlight reflectors don’t rust badly – I’ve only seen one MoT failure.’ More good news is that you can get windscreens from the owners’ club for £250, and new rubbers are available from Germany for about £65 each.
But it’s a different story inside. ‘Little is available for the interior,’ says Marks. ‘Most cars have worn-through drivers’ seats, so it’s a case of what you can find secondhand, though I do have carpets and steering wheels as well as things like distributors, hubs and discs.’ The owners’ club has some parts, as does RoTechniks, plus Phil Blake, who says, ‘International meets are good to go to for spares, because you’ll find German specialists there. Get along to the annual NSU Treffen in Germany.’ This year it takes place from May 29 to June 1 in Bavaria.
3 The big issue with the Ro80 is its once notorious rotary engine. Converting to a Ford V4 used to be an expedient but rough solution, transforming the driveline from one of the smoothest in the world to one of the harshest, but thankfully those days seem to be over. ‘A known good NSU engine with decent compression may do more than 100,000 miles,’ says Blake.
‘I’ve only been asked twice in five years about putting in a Mazda 13B,’ says Marks. Problems with the NSU unit include seal tip wear and seal chattering, leaving the internal nickel silicon carbide ‘bore’ damaged, ‘See the car running, starting from both cold and hot,’ says Marks. ‘Hot starting problems betray poor cylinder compression. New casings aren’t available, so if the old ones are too far gone, the only alternative is to find good secondhand ones. A complete engine rebuild, assuming the casings and rotors are re-usable, is £3500, and a set of casings might be £300-500.’ New engines are available from Germany and are priced about £4000 to £5000.
Blake adds: ‘When you put it into gear the revs will drop a little but it shouldn’t stall – that shows it has compression problems. They often smoke a little on start-up and that’s OK, but you shouldn’t have a cloud following you after five miles.’ Keep an eye on eBay Germany, says Blake. ‘An ex-technical college brand-new engine was bought for £670, and engines with good compression often turn up for not much money.’
New water pumps cost about £215 from Germany. ‘Usually it’s just the bearings that have gone, and they can be rebuilt for about £80,’ says Marks. ‘Using waterless coolant lessens the problems with seals if the car stands for a long time. The header tank was shared with a Porsche, and it’s now out of production. But I still have things like new downpipes – in fact I sold one back to the supplier recently so he could copy it.’
The O-ring water seals each side of the casing can also fail. ‘It’s like a ’head gasket going on a normal engine, and as well as using coolant you’ll notice that sweet ethylene glycol smell from the tailpipe.’
4 ‘If there’s an oil leak, it’s more likely to be from the gearbox than the engine,’ says Blake. ‘They can get a bit snatchy, but it’s not normally a problem, and we can rebuild them for about £1000.’ All good bargaining points.
He adds that problems inside the three- speed Fichtel & Sachs gearbox first manifests themselves as a bearing whine (a slight transmission whine is normal) before developing into a more serious grinding.
5 The suspension is supple and with very long travel, but its layout is straightforward: simple semi-trailing arms at the rear, MacPherson struts up front. Overall, not much to go wrong here.
Brakes are twin-circuit ATEs with four- piston calipers up front, mounted inboard. These can be refurbished, because piston seals are shared with E3 and E28 BMWs. The rear brakes are the same as late VW Beetle fronts, and Blake estimates that redoing all four calipers should cost about £300, while new rear calipers are £100 or so from GSF Car Parts.
‘One other part that gives trouble is the load-sensing valve for the rear brakes that reduces pressure as weight comes off the rear wheels. They’re not available, though there were some on eBay last year and some German clubs have had them redone.’
MEET THE OWNERS
It’s practical and easy to own
Stephen Chapman from London has owned his Ro80 for five years. ‘I love the Sixties and Seventies “techie” era. When the NSU Ro80 came out I was lucky enough to ride in one on the way back from a school concert and I tried to persuade my dad to buy one.
‘I don’t understand why they’re so cheap, but you can’t make things classic just by wanting them to be. Modern cars are ruined by their lack of visibility, but the Ro80 is the most wonderful, simple design, with the suspension at each corner and a small engine up front. And it’s practical – you can get five people in and you can drive around fairly anonymously because it doesn’t look like an old car.
‘It’s very easy to own, even though I live in the worst place to own one. I let it overheat once but otherwise it’s been completely reliable. It’s so refined an Italian stopped me in Hyde Park and asked, “Is that really running?”
‘It’s reasonably economical too. The worst thing about it is that my local garage won’t touch it – even the most conventional parts. It needs a driveshaft gaiter at the moment – I can’t wait to get it back on the road.’ Be particularly sure to check the boot shut for signs of corrosion – water collects there if a car is left standing
There’s only the one model, which – other than the engine change detailed below – had only interior trim and minor body trim changes over the years.
Engines were modified in September 1969, switching from a four-plug design to two, one for each rotor.
At the same time the rectangular headlights were replaced with pairs of round halogen units within the same housings.
UK cars supplied in 1968-69 had twin round headlights shared with the US and other export markets, and air extractor vents appeared on the C-pillar behind the doors.
In August 1970 a slightly reshaped plastic grille replaced the metal grille of the early cars.
A warning chime set at 6500rpm appeared in 1971 to help owners avoid inadvertantly over-revving the engine.
The final cars from May 1975 had slightly larger rear lights plus rubber inserts in the bumpers, which increased overall length by 15mm to 4795mm.
Today’s buyers want NSU-engined Ro80s – some have been converted back to original from Mazda power. Electronic ignition is a good idea on early cars that don’t already have it, both to help starting and to keep the spark in the right place at higher revs; later cars had it from new.
Fit Harder Ferro-TiC (steel alloy bonded titanium carbide) seals on NSU-made rotors (as opposed to Mazda). Better still, use lightweight ceramic rotor tip seals – they don’t wear the housings as badly (though it’s unlikely that any cars are still running with the original design cast-iron seals).
Phil Blake recommends putting Protek-R in the fuel as a rotor tip seal lubricant. ‘Oil is metered into the fuel from the sump, but it’s a good idea to use an additive in the fuel tank too.’ Opinion is divided on the best engine oil to use, with some owners swearing by Mobil 1. Phil Blake agrees, but also suggests Fuchs Titan XTR.
1967 – 1977 NSU Ro80
Engine 2 x 498cc rotary, twin-choke Solex carburettor
Power and torque 113bhp @ 5500rpm; 116lb ft @ 4000rpm
Transmission Three-speed semi-automatic with torque convertor and semi-automatic clutch
Steering Rack-and-pinion, power-assisted
Front: MacPherson struts, lower wishbones, anti-roll bar
Rear: semi-trailing arms, struts, coil springs Brakes Inboard discs front, outboard discs rear
Weight 1190kg (2624lb)
Performance Top speed: 112mph; 0-60mph: 14.2 sec
Fuel consumption 15-18mpg
Value now The car featured here is one of the best on the market and is for sale for £9000 via rotechniks.co.uk.
For about £5000 you should get decent one. For £1500-2000 you’ll need to do a lot of work.
NEED TO KNOW
Engine £3500 for a complete rebuild, nearly £5000 for a new unit from Germany Gearbox rebuild Around £1000 Seats Not available apart from secondhand.
Who can help?
RoTechniks rotechniks.co.uk, 01189 888555 Phil Blake djphilmanns @ btinternet.com, 07799 622901 (advice on parts) 1hr NSU nsu-ro80. de Buchholz (Germany) Rotech Dr Michael Fabritius Mozartstr 0049 6196 23468, email m.fabritius @ t-online.de Jan Hullegie j.hullegie2@ upcmail.nl, 0031 487 515071 (Holland)
NSU Owners’ Club nsuoc.co.uk Ro80 Club International ro80club.org Ro 80 Club Deutschland ro80club.de NSU Club Nederlande nsu.nl
ONE FOR SALE
1968 NSU Ro80 £5995
Original type 4-plug rotary engine. Semi-automatic. Excellent condition. Enthusiast owned. White with black interior. It’s being offered for sale on classiccarsforsale.co.uk