x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

NSU's Ro80: the beauty was just skin deep

More than 40 years after launching the revolutionary Ro80 saloon, NSU, the company behind this fragile beauty, is little more than a footnote in car making history.

Despite being a technologically advanced car, the NSU Ro80 became virtually worthless in the 1970s because of its engine problems.
Despite being a technologically advanced car, the NSU Ro80 became virtually worthless in the 1970s because of its engine problems.

More than 40 years after launching the revolutionary Ro80 saloon, NSU, the company behind this fragile beauty, is little more than a footnote in car making history, having disappeared almost unnoticed in the early Eighties. NSU was first humbled by its new car's mechanical failings in the late Sixties and then ruined by the punitive warranties it was forced to offer on the Ro80 in a vain attempt to stop its flagship product sinking the whole organisation. Their efforts came to nought, however, as the NSU name was later bought for a song by Volkswagen before being left to fade away quietly in a corner of the expanding Audi empire.

The outlook had looked considerably brighter when the car first came to the public's attention in 1967. In fact, the Ro80 looked so good, many predicted it embodied the future of car manufacturing. The motoring press and public were soon trapped in the NSU's striking headlights, surrendering as easily to its charms as Benjamin Braddock had to Mrs Robinson in The Graduate, the film that was wowing the public at the box office in that same year. The Ro80 subsequently swept to victory in the European Car of the Year competition (voted for by that continent's motoring press) at the close of 1967, raising expectations that this critical acclaim would be followed by a swollen order book.

Plenty of the favourable attention heaped on the Ro80 focused on its incredibly futuristic shape, which even now looks remarkably fresh. Indeed, contemporary car designers will often cite NSU's influence on their own work. Its slippery form boasted a drag coefficient of close to 0.35, a figure so far ahead of its rivals that it is, even now, on an aerodynamic par with the Shelby SuperCars Ultimate Aero, the so-called current fastest production car in the world. The Ro80 also featured a host of other ground-breaking features including a three-speed semi-automatic transmission, fade-free disc brakes and power-assisted steering.

But it was the Ro80's powerplant that caused the biggest stir. It used an early 990cc Wankel rotary engine and, while its performance figures looked impressive on paper - including a claimed top speed of 190kph - it was a decidedly unreliable unit. Owners reported the Ro80 gulped oil at an alarming rate, while others told of excessive wear to the tips of the engine's rotary blades, which meant the car would often grind to a halt, engulfed in plumes of blue smoke.

Struggling to shore up shaky consumer confidence, NSU offered as then unheard of extended warranties on the Ro80, but were subsequently crippled by the ensuing repair bills as one by one the rotary engines stopped turning, sometimes with as little as 20,000 kilometres on the clock. Like the rust scandal that was to envelop Lancia a few years later, the consequential damage to NSU's reputation proved irretrievable.

In a decade of production, NSU managed to flog fewer than 40,000 examples of the Ro80, making it more of a bit-part player than a mass-market champion. By the time it was withdrawn in 1977, the marque sat uncomfortably as part of the catchily named Audi-NSU Auto Union AG before the brand disappeared altogether five years later and this awkward union became known simply as Audi. Loved by many, bought by few, someone should have warned NSU that revolutionary roads are rarely smooth. nmarch@thenational.ae