Part one: Driven to Write meets (and briefly drives) one of its heroes.
A commonly espoused orthodoxy warns us that close proximity to our idols can only lead to disappointment. Some go further, suggesting that the renunciation of hero worship is the mark of a mature mind. This being the case, I can categorically claim not to have attained it. But surely it is preferable to go down in flames than regret never making the attempt?
Which is by way of introduction to one of automotive’s great Icarian narratives. A car which embodies beauty, craft, intelligence and bitter reversal. From a very young age, I have been infatuated with NSU’s Ro80. I know, with my reputation and everything, but true nonetheless. Up to now however, I’ve known my place – firmly on the sidelines, nose pressed to the glass. But today that changes.
For this I have Steve Randle to thank. The engineer and serial collector of automotive’s braver and more compelling experiments owns this rather splendid and beautifully preserved example of a car history deems to have brought the Neckarsulm car maker to its knees. A 1973 second-series single plug Ro80, Randle tells me, “It’s been an itch that needed to be scratched for many years. That and the Citroen SM were pivotal in drawing me into engineering.”
A similar tale of hero-worship perhaps, albeit unlike mine, one that has been consummated. So what first drew him to the car? “I can’t recall whether it was the appearance or the engineering – I suspect it was the way it looked. From an early age I was fascinated by the geometric elegance of the Wankel though. Poppet valve four strokes just seemed (and still do) hopelessly crude and overcomplicated by comparison.”
Looking back some fifty years, the latter-end of the 1960’s seems a halcyon period of unfettered creativity and lambent optimism. We were travelling further and faster than before and were doing so in vehicles of such sophistication and comfort that were unimaginable even a decade before. The future truly appeared as boundless as those unlimited German Autobahns.
Of three landmark car designs from this period, Claus Luthe’s Ro80 would prove the most lasting testament. In fact, over the intervening half century the NSU has become something of a victim to its modernity, simply because it really hasn’t dated at all. Indeed, apart from matters of detail design and materials, it’s rather difficult to see where any tangible progress in car design has since taken place.
Regardless of one’s opinion as to who was ultimately responsible for its shape, the Ro80’s significance lies in how it manages to combine science and aesthetics in a manner that really hasn’t been surpassed. While contemporary big Citroens offered a somewhat binary visual proposition, the NSU presented a considerably less uncompromising (if bracingly modernist) face to the world.
But not only was the styling and aerodynamics ahead of its time, as Randle outlines. “There were other features on the Ro80 that were influential – its ATE brakes were quickly adopted by Audi, not to mention its packaging. And while the suspension wasn’t ground breaking, it was really well done. The careful approach to aerodynamic drag and wind noise can clearly be seen in the detail and profile of the Audi 100 of 1982. Many cars mimic the Ro80’s layout today.”
Suspension was by McPherson struts / coil springs and lower wishbones at the front, while at the rear, semi-trailing arms and coil springs kept matters in hand. Brakes were discs all round, the fronts mounted inboard to reduce unsprung weight. In fact, looking under the Ro80’s bonnet, one is struck not only by the power unit’s compactness, but the possibility that Dr. Rudolph Hruska took a very thorough poke around before he began work on the Alfasud programme, which incidentally was initiated around 1967.
In most histories, the Ro80’s design elicits most of the acclaim, but NSU’s engineers under chief engineer Ewald Praxl and technical director, Walter Froede (who doubtlessly received all the opprobrium when things went south) deserve immense credit as well.
My first sight of Steve’s Ro80 is in profile as it slowly glides into view, a graceful sky blue apparition amongst the monochrome moderns. Gleaming in the mid-August sunshine, I take in a shape I haven’t viewed properly in decades. It’s a stunner. The histories state that various fastback body styles were experimented with by Luthe and his NSU stylists, but were rejected in favour of the now familiar three volume silhouette, albeit one which featured for the time, a radically high bootline, dictated by wind tunnel experimentation.
Perhaps the aspect which gives the car such a contemporary resonance is its stance. Wide tracked, low nosed with a four-square wheel at each corner appearance, the Ro80 looks poised and purposeful on its attractive optional alloy wheels. Another rejected proposal was for the entire roof panel to be coated in the same stainless steel finish which enlivens the glasshouse, which while striking, would likely have played hell on bright days like today. But it’s the NSU’s wonderfully realised mix of confidence, studied scientific rectitude and impeccable build that lends the Ro its timeless appeal – the engineer’s car that went to the ball.
Open the door and the evocative aroma of polyvinyl, fabric and fifty year old insulation assails the senses – the heady scent of the ’70s. Second impression: There’s so much space inside. Flat floors, an empty void beneath the businesslike dash, just the spindly gear selector in lone attention between the seats. One gets a strong impression that any visual flamboyance was hard won.
Luthe’s team is believed to have mocked up a more stylish looking dashboard arrangement which was rejected by NSU management. It doesn’t matter, this one is fine. It’s solid, stark looking but very well finished, as is everything else in here. The vast glass area, the lack of intrusive door trims and bulky consoles lends the interior a tremendous sense of openness, but is the first really tangible evidence of the car’s age.
Rotary fun fact (1) : the Ro80’s engine isn’t strictly speaking a Wankel. Apparently, NSU engineers under Walter Froede discovered once they began working with inventor, consultant, (and thoroughly unpleasant individual) Dr. Felix Wankel during the late 1950’s, that his concept design was totally unsuited for road car use. Froede had his engineering team develop their own in-house rotary design on Wankel principles, one which differed quite markedly in detail, leading to bitter disputes with the concept’s originator over his work being adulterated.
This engine, dubbed Kreiskolbenmotor or KKM at Neckarsulm, was far from perfect out of the box either, early examples being plagued with maladies, some of which like excessive fuel and oil consumption, a lack of low-end torque and difficulties with the rotor tip / apex seals, would dog the power unit throughout its life. But having convinced the NSU board of its merits and with the prospect of lucrative royalties from rival manufacturers, both Wankel himself and NSU’s cash-strapped management backed Froede’s KKM powerplant.
Rotary fun fact (2) : Steve informs me that “low sulphated ash oils work well in Ro80 motors. The same oils are favoured by Detroit Diesel 2-strokes”.
It was those Apex seals that proved the early Ro80’s undoing. Firstly because NSU engineers miscalculated as to the type of usage customers would expose their cars to. Having devoted the bulk of the car’s development on high-speed simulations, customers found that excessive short trips when the engines were cold would lead to problems. Also, the Wankel was intended to spin at high revolutions. Owners needed to reset their driving style to get the best from the power unit, but those who slogged the car in the upper ratios rapidly saw the costly error of their ways.
So a combination of lack of foresight, naiveté and the unintended consequences of being first in the field led to NSU’s rotary developing a reputation for fragility that hobbled the Ro80, even before the 1973 fuel crisis skewered it completely. Nevertheless, NSU persevered and by the close of production in 1977, the bulk of the engine’s weaknesses had been addressed. After falling into the arms of Audi in 1969, development continued, with a triple rotor version of Ingolstadt’s 1976 C2 model said to have been well advanced before being axed by a certain Ferdinand Piëch, quite late in proceedings.
Meanwhile in Hiroshima, Mazda kept the rotary flame alive for decades more, expunging the fragility, but issues of consumption and emissions increasingly saw its case undermined. Could the Wankel have a future I wondered? Randle seems to think so.
“It may well with other fuels. I’m not sure that with petrol it’s likely. I’d be delighted if Mazda or Audi gave it another go. As a range extender, it makes more sense, as it can always be run in its sweet spot, at higher rpm and it’s so refined that doing so isn’t at odds with the electric vehicle experience. It does prefer LPG and CNG where the combustion chamber surface area is less of an issue. Same with hydrogen. Modern materials would help. There is a guy in Neckarsulm who offers ceramic tip seals that last forever, and so does the chamber surface.”
Postscript: Recent noises from Hiroshima appear to suggest Mazda may indeed reintroduce the rotary powerplant for use in a forthcoming hybrid model.
See part two.
Data source: Ate Up With Motor / RO80.nl
Authors note: The spelling of Walter Froede’s name has been amended within the text owing to an error in the original piece. [20/09/17 12.08 PM]