NSU RO80: The Wankel Powered Innovator

Winner of the 1967 Car of the Year was the NSU Ro 80 and for good reasons. It had an innovative new form of engine, and its body design paved the way for generations of Audis.

But the NSU Ro 80 is also one of the saddest stories in the history of the car.

A silver NSU Ro 80 car in a museum, showing the front of the car
The NSU Ro 80

It had an elegant rising-wedge aerodynamic body by the designer Claus Luthe, with a slim nose, a large glass area, four-wheel disc brakes and all-round independent suspension. The drag coefficient of 0.355 enabled a speed of 112 mph.

A silver NSU Ro 80 car in a museum, showing the front of the car with an information board
The NSU Ro 80 had an elegant body

What the car is remembered for now is its use of Dr Felix Wankel’s twin-rotor engine, a brilliant alternative to the old reciprocating piston internal combustion engine.

In this, three-sided rotors revolve smoothly in a quasi-oval chamber, each side proceeding through the Otto cycles of intake, compression, ignition, and exhaust. The cycles take place at each of the three rotor faces, enabling three power pulses per rotor revolution.  The result was a turbine-smooth, high-revving delight of a power unit.

The inside of a Wankel engine, showing the triangular rotor in the housing.
The Wankel engine did away with pistons

This engine had been fitted to the 1964 NSU Spider, a two-seater sports car and the first production car to be fitted with such an engine.

A red NSU Spider in a museum, showing the side.

The NSU Ro 80 had a new design of engine: the Wankel
A red NSU Spider in a museum, showing the front.
The NSU Spider
A red NSU Spider in a museum, showing the interior.
The NSU Spider’s interior

Unfortunately, the high revs wore out the vital tip seals on the Wankel rotors, the engines had to be replaced at 30,000 miles and warranty claims bankrupted the company, despite the Ro 80 winning the Car of the Year award.

Ro80 owners used to signal to each other with their fingers to show the number of replacement engines they had: three was common.

A red NSU Ro 80 car in a museum, showing the front of the car
How many new Wankel engines have you had fitted?

NSU was bought by VW and merged with Auto Union to form the Audi car company. Astute observers saw the Ro 80 shape in the aerodynamic Audi built in the same factory 15 years later. The NSU Ro 80 was well ahead of its time, and like the Jensen FF, another case of a car built too soon.

A silver NSU Ro 80 car in a museum, showing the interior of the car
The NSU Ro 80 interior

More tragic still was the fate of the Ro 80’s designer, Claus Luthe. His crisply designed Volkswagen Polo, Audi 50 and 80 gave the German premium brand a quality look. Then he took over as BMW’s chief designer and did the same thing for the successive 3 Series, 5 Series and 7 Series ranges. These made BMW a wealthy company.

His 8 Series coupé had only just gone on sale in 1990 when an appalling tragedy destroyed his family. During a violent altercation with his drug-addicted son Ulrich, Luthe stabbed the 33-year-old to death. He was jailed briefly for the killing but released shortly after starting his 30-month sentence.

A red NSU Ro 80 car in a museum, showing the side of the car
The shape of German cars to come

With the success of BMW, Audi and Volkswagen Claus Luthe has been more influential than Italy’s household-name designers. He did more than anyone to shape the modern German car with all its visual solidity and confidence, yet his name is virtually unknown.

A silver NSU Ro 80 car in a museum, showing the rear of the car
The rising wedge shape foreshadowed Audis of the future

How fast was the NSU Ro 80?

The NSU Ro 80 top speed was 112 mph (180 km/h), 0-60 mph 12.6 secs.

How much is an NSU Ro 80 worth today?

An NSU Ro 80 is worth around $24,000 today (source: Hagerty)

How many NSU Ro 80s were made, and how many are left?

Only 37,406 NSU Ro 80s were made: a modest number given its 10-year life.

Only 46 survive in the UK (source: howmanyleft), it’s unknown how many are left in the US or other countries.