by Johanna Patterson
Rarely is there an opportunity for the car designer and engineer to construct a new car from an original conception, without reference to past traditions and conventions - but that is exactly what the NSU Ro80 represented. The revolutionary NSU Wankel twin rotor engine was only one part of an entirely new approach to car design; equally important was the spacious low-drag body, and the comprehensive luxury equipment fitted.
Conceived from the imaginative yet functional ideas of many specialists, the NSU Ro80 was also one of the most beautiful cars of our time, and a deserved winner of the International "Car of the Year" award in 1969, it representing better than any other a happy marriage of technique and aesthetics.
The total impression of the NSU Ro80 was distinguished by a sense of complete unity of form, technique, equipment and function; the turbine-like gentle hum of the engine, especially at high speeds, the feather-light yet mathematically precise directional stability, the feeling of absolute security and perfect control under all conditions, combined with luxurious comfort. The static and dynamic features of the design each contributed to create a car exciting to drive, and incredibly individualistic.
The powerful 128 bhp engine, the front wheel drive, the long wheelbase and very low centre of gravity, the selective automatic gear change, power assisted steering, four disc brakes and a great many other desirable features were all wrapped in futuristic sheet metal, the likes of which had been reserved for the makers of sci-fi movies.
The front wheel drive, unusual for a car of its size at the time, plus plus the NSU Ro80 rotary engine, the automatlc selector and well-planned chassis offered perfect driving. With the compact rotary engine there were fundamental advantages over the usual reciprocating engine; in favourable powerweight ratio and unit construction. The rotor operated in one direction only, and needed no complicated valve assembly. Specially pleasing for the driver was the resultant quiet running, particularly noticeable on long journeys.
The very low centre of gravity also gave added safety.
The automatic selector with its
speed changes removed the heaviest part of the usual gear changing and allowed stopping and starting without gear change and without stalling, clutch binding or slip. The vacuum servo operated clutch was subject to almost no wear. The NSU Ro8O had hydraulic power-assisted steering, relieving the driver of work without decreasing the feeling of contact with the road.
The large long-stroke front and rear springing and long wheelbase helped contribute to maximum comfort, the front wheels having suspension by McPherson struts giving complete separation between drive and suspension. The rear wheels were suspended on trailing arms thus making for a superior ride, especially on fast bends.
The four disc brakes of the NSU Ro80 were operated by a vacuum servo, enabling sensitive and powerful braking at high speeds with low pressure.
The front wheel brakes were placed inboard, were splash proof and cooled by the air stream. The rear disc brakes were cooled through perforated rims so that there was no risk of fading. A separate hand brake operated on an extra drum on the rear wheels. This configuration was safer than fixed brakes acting on discs. The dual line brake system ensured that, in the event of circuit failure, all four wheels were braked, not as in ordinary dual line systems only one front and one rear or two rear wheels. Therefore a whopping 70% of the
maximum brake power was always maintained in the NSU Ro80, should there be a circuit failure. An electrical warning circuit is protected against failure by the fitting of pure gold contacts.
The body of the NSU Ro80 evolved under the laws of aerodynamics which were independent of changing fashion; thus the shape of functional elegance was developed in a wind tunnel and determined functionally - and it showed. The low front penetrated the air wall like
an arrow, aerodynamic surfaces presented the least resistance. The luggage boot top ran higher and gave the correct curve for perfect streamlining. The deep smoothrising scuttle line permitted large plain glazing, a spacious interior and roomy luggage space.
But perhaps the biggest obatacle the NSU Ro80 faced was the lingering doubts many had about quality and reliability. This was countered by the adoption in Australia of an extended guarantee of the engine components to 18 months or 18,000 miles. NSU were justifiably confident that this would not be a problem, given every component of the car had been mercilessly tested for two years and had impressively withstood the effects of thousands of miles of rough road operation.
Nevertheless it failed to capture the hearts of Australian's, perhaps because it was just too different. That's a shame, because the Ro80 offered unassailable roadworthiness, good reliability linked with an exceptional degree of comfort, and a high degree of bravado in its conceptualisation.
NSU Ro80 Gallery
NSU Ro80 Specifications