The NSU Ro80 – a classic that left a lasting legacy

By Classic Yorkshire correspondent Tony Lofthouse

A vivid memory of my school days in Leeds was seeing a stunning NSU Ro80 going out on its daily run. It was a car that broke the mould!

The German manufacturer NSU, renowned for making small cars and motorbikes, really turned ‘left field’ in 1967 with the launch of a sedan-style car that combined aerodynamic styling with a technologically advanced twin-rotor Wankel engine.

The four-door Ro80 was designed by Claus Luthe who would go on to build a successful career with Audi and BMW.

It was quite a car and would redefine the executive car market (briefly!). The industry quickly lauded the German beauty, voting it the European Car of the Year with months of its launch.

Other technological features were its clutch-less semi-automatic transmission reducing driver effort and adding to the cars smooth drive.

Autocar praised its superb road holding, fine visibility and described the Ro80 as ‘very advanced and pleasant drive’

In a 1968 road test, Motor magazine even claimed it could be ‘the car of the decade’.

The car seemed destined to be a Europe wide success story for NSU but soon its fortunes took a wrong turn! By the turn of the decade, the company were inundated with reports of engine problems, some occurring with over revving the rotary and also complaints of high fuel consumption.

Complete engine rebuilds were sometimes needed after just 30,000 miles and reports were coming back of dealerships and mechanics struggling to get to grips with the rotary engine.

Sticking with a generous warranty policy and investing heavily in improving the cars reliability would leave NSU staring at financial ruin. From a high point of sales of 7,800 in 1969 annual production tailed off to around 2,000 cars in the mid 70s.

Soon the German giants VW, in the guise of Audi, would take over. They would keep the Ro80 in production until 1977. In ten years, sales would total over 37,000.

Despite its problems the Ro80 would leave a lasting legacy. Its wedge-shaped design gave an amazing drag coefficient of just 0.355 – low for many of today’s saloons – and its sleek lines ending in a distinctive boot would influence the thinking of future car makers.

There is certainly a nod to the Ro80 in the proportions of some of the ‘executive’ Audis of the 80s and more recent models.

If you’re thinking about buying an Ro80, parts can be expensive and it would be worth finding an expert in the Wankel engine as a rebuild could be expensive. But, a well restored car can be extremely durable and great to drive.

Prices tend to start at around £3,500 for a car needing restoration, whilst a fully rebuilt model can go for five times this figure.

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2 thoughts on “The NSU Ro80 – a classic that left a lasting legacy

  1. A very nice car to drive but the problems with the engine did not help, many owners converted them to Ford V4 engines which were an almost retro fit.


  2. They never quite got the engine right, though it was partly failure to replace the rotary tips as they got worn in older cars. Mazda seem to be the only manufacturer to succeed with the Wankel. Pity as it was a very smooth engine.


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