Part two: We briefly take the wheel
As Steve fires up the NSU’s power unit, it quickly settles into its distinctive buzz-saw rotary whine. I ask him how often he uses it? “Not as often as I should – I have too many cars. I don’t use it in the winter, but this summer it’s done about 1500 miles.” Mileage incidentally, which includes a trip to the recent 50th anniversary commemorations in Suffolk, where over 30 Ro80s converged. Among the attendees was an owner from Stuttgart who had driven his example the whole way.
That car, driven year-round by its owner has completed over 150,000 km on a single engine. His previous example managed 650,000 km. So much for fragility. “It’s not a complicated car to look after”, Randle observes. “There is a community of people in the UK and in Europe who can help”. Parts availability is good with some components now being remanufactured in Germany. “I can buy a new door seal for less than I would pay for the equivalent on a new Golf.”
As he points the NSU’s nose onto the Warwick bypass, Steve keeps the rotary spinning within its sweet spot. First is good for at least 30mph / 4000 rpm he tells me, third being essentially an overdrive. In his practised hands the Ro80 absolutely flies. Good heavens, this car must have been a revelation in ’67. Small wonder everyone believed for a few short years that rotary was to be the direction of travel. Apart from some slight wind noise from an aged door seal, progress is remarkably quiet and unflustered – once again I marvel at how this car can be pushing half a century.
Rotary anecdote : My father worked as a motor engineer assessor in the insurance industry. Based in Cork, his territory covered the entire Munster region of Ireland. For this, he was provided with a Morris Minor. In 1969, a Dublin-based colleague, former rally driver and high-up at VAG’s Irish importer was visiting the second city and invited him to lunch. Their destination: the picturesque coastal town and culinary hotspot of Kinsale. Their transport: A brand new Ro80. The performance, handling, poise, refinement, not to mention sheer stylistic otherness of the NSU on those undulating and frost-scarred rural byroads left an indelible impression, one he recalls vividly to this day.
My turn to drive. Steve pulls into a lay-by and as I reach for the door release, he casually mentions, “you’re the first person I’ve allowed drive this”. A wave of panic floods over me. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. Too late now. As take my place in the driver’s seat, he outlines the do’s and don’ts.
The Ro80’s transmission is a semi automatic Saxomat unit by Fitchel and Sachs, said to be similar to that employed by Porsche on the Sportomatic 911s. Essentially a three speed manual gearbox employing both a vacuum servo-operated clutch and a torque converter; the latter used to mask the rotary’s poor low-end torque characteristics and a driveline snatch effect on the overrun. A microswitch within the gearlever activates the clutch, so grasping the lever while the car is in motion is verboten. The selector is in a H-pattern, with reverse where you’d expect to find first.
Holding the car on the brakes to obviate transmission creep, I engage first, left and down. As I ease the Ro80 into the traffic, I maintain a gimlet eye on the rev counter. As the revs build and the rotary gets into its stride, I make the change up to second but in doing so, I neglect to release the gearlever which elicits an unpleasant shudder from the drivetrain. Basic error number one.
As the NSU accelerates to cruising speed, impressions filter through. The ZF power steering is lovely. Precise, a nice weight, an entirely natural response through the thin-rimmed wheel – if anything, it feels unassisted. The ride too is marvellous. Pliant with an underlying firmness, but not a trace of harshness or float. Good heavens, this drives like a modern! Actually, no it doesn’t. Modern cars don’t ride this well and nothing feels or sounds like a wankel.
But nerves are dampening my enjoyment. As we approach a roundabout, Steve points out I’ll need to drop down to first, but my instincts rebel against his advice, and I resist. Carrying far too much speed into the turn the NSU scrabbles round in a messy combination of body roll, understeer and a sharp protest from the overloaded nearside front Michelin.
As my composure begins to crumble, I make a further attempted upchange to second: Crunch. Oh Christ! Try again: Crunch. At this point, my nerve fails entirely and at Steve’s bidding we pull into the hard shoulder and I burn with the holy mortifying shame of it all.
With a responsible adult once again at the helm, the Ro80 breathes a virtually audible sigh of relief as the Wankel sings its inimitable high revolution tune through the rolling Warwickshire hedgerows. Steve too makes generously consoling noises, but his teeth must have been grinding as much as the Saxomat’s internals.
NSU’s critics form orderly queues to maintain they over-reached themselves with Ro80, an ambitious death or glory attempt to take on the likes of Mercedes and BMW. They contend that had NSU combined the Ro’s wind-cheating design with a conventional power unit, they’d have avoided all that unpleasantness and would still be around to tell the tale.
But let’s examine some inconvenient but unavoidable truths. By the early ’60s, NSU, realising they couldn’t survive as a producer of small, inexpensive cars, had no choice but to push upmarket. Lacking the funds to develop a suitable (conventional) engine, the fact that they could licence Wankel technology to an industry increasingly convinced by its virtues would amortise the rotary’s development costs.
In other words, it was wankel or bust. Another factor worth considering is that there would have been no guarantee that a conventional engine would have proven reliable either. One is tempted to conclude the Ro80’s detractors believe NSU shouldn’t have bothered and that’s not a vista I’m prepared to countenance.
I’m curious to learn if Steve believes the Ro80’s reputation is justified, and his answer is unequivocal. “Reputation for what? Being one of the most brave, influential and delightful pieces of automobile engineering ever. I would say so.” I won’t take issue with that.
Back at base, a chastened guest driver considers these and other matters as he evaluates an encounter that went somewhat less well than anticipated. But my admiration for the Ro80 is undimmed. There isn’t an ounce of fat on this car, not a screed of frippery, artifice or cynicism. Indeed, if I was to select one adjective to describe the NSU, I’d probably choose sincere. It’s difficult to imagine any car maker creating something as carefully wrought, as disciplined, as cogently argued as this now.
Certainly none would dare produce one requiring this degree of user-recalibration, but technically dense cars require learning and a sensitive hand, both in increasingly short supply in the modern era. The Ro80’s critics might accuse NSU of elitism in pursuing high-minded technical ideals, but this suggests there’s no longer space in the market for a cerebral motor car. If so, that’s a deplorable state of affairs.
So, fifty years on, where are we? Looking back in wonder and no little regret at a pioneering car whose promise burned brightly before crashing to earth. The Ro80 however remains a thing of delight. A beautiful car: as an aesthetic object, as a technological statement and as a means of travel. The guest driver meanwhile, leaves something to be desired.
Grateful thanks to Steve Randle.