This article is about NSU, famous for their late 1960s Wankel engined saloons.
NSU were one of the original German manufacturers. They were founded in 1873 as a factory making sewing machines. Several European manufacturers like Triumph started out making sewing machines before moving on to other types of machinery. The founders Heinrich Stoll and Christian Schmidt saw that bicycles were becoming big business and like their competitors they added them to their range of products. With a move to a larger factory, they renamed themselves NSU after the Neckar and Sulm rivers.
In 1901 they took the next logical step – adding a small engine to a bicycle to form a motorcycle! They initially used a Swiss engine before designing their own v-twin. With the success of all of their products, they had money to create their own car. So in 1905 the first car rolled out of the factory. With a successful start, they designed a wide range of engines up to about 4 litres. The cars were joined by taxi’s and trucks and through World War 1 they built for the war effort.
During the 1920s, some NSUs were built purely of aluminium and raced in early Grand Prix. In 1928 the company sold the car business to FIAT to concentrate on their very successful motorcycle business. FIAT manufactured cars with the NSU badge until 1932. The featured image is a FIAT built NSU.
In 1933, NSU were contracted to build the first prototypes of Ferry Porsche’s new Government sponsored car – what would become the Beetle. 30 years later the Beetle would be reconnected with its creator.
After World War 2, with the increase in sales of personal transportation, NSU licenced the Lambretta scooter from Innocenti to act as a market segment filler alongside their larger motorcycles. This provided the necessary cash to start thinking about developing another car – Innocenti and others had gone down this path as well.
So in 1958 NSU released the Prinz that used an engine sourced from their motorcycle designs. It was a 600cc 4 stroke motor that was basically two bike engines melded together. NSU contracted the Italian coachbuilder, Bertone, to create a sports coupe version the following year. The styling of the Prinz was very reminiscent of competitors like FIAT and Simca – a small 2 door 4 seater.
A new version called the Prinz 4 appeared in 1961 that was a squared off version and NSU also produced the TT and TTS versions for road and racing use with 1 and 1.2 litre motors. The Prinz was licenced to other companies and was built in Bosnia, Argentina and Egypt!
The Sportprinz coupe was the donor design for the Spider in 1964 that was the first production Wankel rotary engined car. It was fitted with a single rotor with an equivalent size of 500cc putting out about 50hp. It was in production for 3 years and was replaced by the car that truly defines NSU: the Ro80.
The Ro80 was the first rotary powered production built saloon released in 1967. It was fitted with a two rotor power-plant of about 1 litre and produced around 115hp. It was very advanced for its time and won the 1968 European Car of the Year award. The car was a success despite having a very unreliable engine – the seals would disintegrate quickly, the rotors would wear excessively and like the recent Mazda RX8 was quite thirsty for fuel and oil as well.
The Ro80 would remain in production for about 10 years until it was replaced by new models from a new parent. During the 1960s, NSU had stopped production of their motorcycles and the Lambretta licence had also expired, so they were reliant on car sales to keep the company afloat. The decision to use an untried engine in the Spider and later the Ro80 had a major financial impact on the company, even though they had created a joint venture with Citroen in Switzerland called Comotor to develop and build rotary engines for both companies. In fact Comotor ultimately caused both parent companies to fail even though they sold licences for the engines to Rolls Royce, Alfa Romeo and other manufacturers. Citroen was to develop a range of models with the rotary engines fitted, but abandoned these plans when they went bust and the French Government stepped in.
In 1969 the VW Group acquired NSU and merged it into their Auto Union brand who were themselves evolving into Audi (an old name from the 1930s) forming the Audi NSU Auto Union company. It is this company that is now simply called Audi. The NSU models were continued through the early 1970s with the Prinz, TT and TTS models being discontinued in 1973 and the production facility was then used to build Audi and VW models like the Passat and Polo. In fact these cars show their NSU heritage with the Polo a direct descendant.
After the Prinz was discontinued, it’s successor was the Audi 50. VW made a cheaper version called the Polo which became the dominant model and the Audi version lasted just 3 years. The Passat was a replacement for the VW K70 that had started life as a baby Ro80 using a 1.6 litre 4 cylinder motor. It was to be launched as an NSU, however the acquisition took place and it was immediately rebadged as a Volkswagen.
The Ro80 was discontinued in 1977 and with it the NSU brand was dropped. The production space was taken up with larger Audi saloons like the second Series 100 and 200 models which had a definite NSU design heritage. The plant also built the Porsche 924 and 944 models in a joint venture with the VW Group.
Today the NSU factory at Neckarsulm (near Stuttgart) builds the Audi A6, A8 and R8 models – all the aluminium cars, a nice throw back to the early aluminium models made by NSU in the 1920s and the TT name lives on as an Audi too.