Built from 1967 to 1977 the Ro80 featured an uncharacteristically aerodynamic body, front wheel drive, advanced braking and transmission technologies, and (in)famously, a rotary engine. The car turned out to be costly to maintain, more costly than its lack of outright speed allowed. It was no Ferrari, and buyers were not willing to deal with the time and costs of frequent engine repairs in a middle class family car. The NSU disappointed in its sales and failed to recoup the considerable costs of its advanced engineering as well as the even more damaging financial burden of the Ro80’s oft-employed warranty program. VW bought the whole company in 1969 and incorporated into Audi, where the Ro80’s stylist, Claus Luthe, went on to shape the next generation of aerodynamic German family cars.
What fascinates me about the Ro80 was its pre-fuel crises aerodynamics. The Ro80’s wedge profile, afforded by the very low, compact Wankel engine, did little for the car’s fuel economy, bringing only some fifteen to eighteen miles per (imperial) gallon. In the years after the ’73 Oil Crisis, in the era of CorporateAverageFuelEconomy, the use of aerodynamics in car design has been monomaniacal in its orientation towards reducing the amount of fuel a car uses to cover ground – it’s all about miles per gallon. Back in 1963, when this car was first penned, the aerodynamics of the body seem to have had more to do with creating a futuristic look and improving performance from the small-capacity engine than on economy. When the 1973 Oil Crisis did hit the Western world, the RO80 got no kind looks for its wind-cheating shape.
The Ro80 has acquired a cult following in the past few decades, I suppose for similar reasons to the Citroën GS – it was a glimpse into the future from the mid 1960s, one that both did and did not pan out. Many modern cars fit into the NSU’s low-drag mold, though the car itself never merited the sales for a direct successor.
I wonder who drives this Ro80 – I doubt that it is cheap enough to run to be owned by a culture-savvy young person, but certainly some Berliner has both the resources and the desire to run a thirty-odd year old automotive peculiarity. Smooth running from the pistonless engine and fine road manners probably describe the driving sensations, but the pride and taste of the car itself probably fits into the ownership experience. It should also be said that this is just a fantastic car with a “look” no less defined than any of the ORCNYC cars. I love its spindly greenhouse most of all.
The reason why I find myself so drawn to the Ro80 is that they seem to exhibit a very specific character that doesn’t seem completely in line with the cold, teutonic stereotype of automotive German-ness. I do not doubt that this NSU was built to as high a mechanical standard as a contemporary BMW or Opel (save the inevitable teething problems of the rotary engine), and I am sure it exhibits the same planted, quality feel on the road.
This NSU lacks the starkness of VWs, Fords, and Benzes of the time, but it still hails from Germany, so I often finding myself searching out points of commonality with other German cars so that I might someday pen a unified theory of German automotive character, like a Theory of Everything, but for cars.
But until I can sit down and write the definitive history of American cars, cataloguing their complete design history and cross-referencing every landmark car to every critical social, political, and economic shift, I do not yet feel prepared to deal with the intricacies of the German identity.
I used three wikis, as well as the Dutch Ro80 enthusiast site for the information featured in this article. Find them here: