Motoring Trailblazers - NSU Ro80

Sat 15th Dec 2018

The world of motoring is hurtling headlong into a bright new future of all-electric, automated, connected technology - and Marty McFly is not behind the wheel! But what were the cars that were ‘back to the future’ of years gone by?

There have been many different trailblazing motors which were seen by the critics to be ahead of their time, and in this series, we will investigate and showcase many of the best in class.

NSU Ro80

Those who don’t know their German motor manufacturing history might not know the name NSU, but if we didn’t have NSU then we would have no Audi. The company was formed in 1873, initially as a knitting machine manufacturer, but later building motorbikes and then in the 1950s moving into the car market. NSU built the first Wankel engine car, the Wankelspider in 1964 and included the technology in their development of the Ro80.

NSU were acquired by Volkswagen in 1969 and merged with Auto Union to create the new Audi brand.

Named after the hometown of the factory, Neckarsulm, the NSU company made a significant contribution to the history of the motorcar when they launched the R080 in 1967.

Featuring innovative aerodynamics and built on the famous Wankel engine system, the front wheels were controlled through semi-automatic transmission and the Ro80 also included a groundbreaking vacuum operated clutch system.

The man responsible for all this innovation was Claus Luthe, a man who produced many classic designs for Audi and BMW and is credited for the Audi 50, a car which the famous Volkswagen Polo took it’s major styling cue from.

Luthe’s design for the Ro80 was at least a decade ahead of its time, plenty of glasswork and smooth aerodynamics made for a very low drag coefficient of 0.355. Some say this work from Luthe helped inspire the Audi 100 which was built some 15 years later in the same factory.

Early reliability issues with the rotary engine proved to be undoing of NSU, the generous warranty afforded buyers meant that the problems cost NSU a fortune and led to the company falling into the hands of their rival, VW.

Those issues didn’t halt production of the Ro80 though, and once the newly formed Audi company had ironed out those initial problems, the Ro80 continued to be a popular vehicle 10 years after first rolling off the production line.