Sons of the Silent Age – (2)

Part two: We briefly take the wheel

Image: Driven to Write

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.

Image: Driven to Write

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.

Image: Driven to Write

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.

Image: Driven to Write

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.

Image: Driven to Write

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

11 thoughts on “Sons of the Silent Age – (2)”

  1. Please remember that more or less parallel to Ro80 (80 means Rotary, 80 hp) development NSU created the K70 (Kolben/piston, 70 hp). That car was later stolen and sold by VW under their name. The K70 is also styled by Claus Luthe and looks like an angular distortion of the Ro (with extremely bad aerodynamics). It has many similarities in its mechanical layout except (of course) the engine. The K70 is powered by a water cooled derivative of the NSU four cylinder engine found in their small rear engined cars like the TT. Stretched to 1,600 (75 and 90 hp) and eventually 1,800 cc (100 hp) it was still happy to rev, but quite coarse and intolerably thirsty. It was VW’s first water cooled car but no sales success.

  2. The picture with the vertical view at the Ro’s front reminds me of the early examples of that car.
    The first production run of the Ro had a front continuing the line from the wings through the lamp glasses and the grille, making it look even lower and more futuristic than the later cars. Just look at this picture to see what I mean: https://images.caradisiac.com/logos-ref/modele/modele–nsu-ro-80/S7-modele–nsu-ro-80.jpg
    Don’t know how many were made with this front and when or why they stopped making them.

  3. Thanks for these two articles, Eóin. The RO80 is a long time favourite for me, so I can relate to your feelings before your first driving experience. I haven’t had the pleasure (?) yet. I wish you’d have had more time to try and perhaps an easier route to start.

    As one might guess from my automotive history, I’m very much in favour of cars you have to invest some time and effort to learn and understand them. The reward you get is much higher. The problem is, instant reward is not to have, and such cars will invariably fail with testers from the press.

  4. Thanks for this article it brought back memories of ownership in the seventies of not one but two Ro80’s.
    First was a round headlamp 1970 in non metallic blue with tan leatherette interior and small stainless hub caps. The later purchase of a 1973 mettalic blue with alloys,sun roof and dark blue velour interior was the one I seem to remember most.
    This Ro80 got my attention on the trip home from collecting it some distance away by gradually loosing power at speed until I limped into a lay-by with smoke billowing from under the bonnet.
    Needless to add first thoughts were of a failed engine and much expense but upon opening the bonnet two glowing discs revealed stuck pads. After cooling down all was well with many miles covered over several months of ownership.
    I did eventually have a torque converter oil seal leak appear and with no dealer near decided to remove the engine myself and replace the seal. This proved to be an easy job!
    The RO would maintain a reasonably quiet and stable cruise on the M4 at an indicated 100 mph without any complaint from the engine indeed it seemed to thrive on high rpm like a turbine.
    In the seventies it was the kind of futuristic shape that encouraged one to take a side glance toward shop windows to see it’s reflection when gliding along, definitely one to remember.

  5. A truly lovely car, inside and out, that proves simplicity has a beauty all its own. I’ve only seen one, and hope to drive an Ro80 some fine day. On my side of the Atlantic, the Saxomat transmission comes in for uninformed criticism. I’ve some years of experience with them, and always found them rugged and easy to use once you know the drill. I’m quite sure you inflicted no harm to it! Thanks for your fine report.

    1. ArBee: can you say more about the Saxomat transmission? I seem to recall knowing that Fiat used them on the 2300 saloons.
      I have been driven in a Ro80. Eoin is right: they are spacious, spartan and scented of the 70s

    2. Semi automatic transmissions with manual gear selection but without a clutch pedal were somewhat popular in Germany during the late Fifties and Sixties.
      There were Goggomobils with electro magnetic gear operation and push button controls. Larger cars tended to use the Saxomat by Fichtel & Sachs. You found this in cars from DKW, Borgward, VW or Opel and a later derivative was even used in early 911s as “Sportomatic” where it was combined with a torque converter.
      The Saxomat used a vacuum cylinder to operate a normal single plate dry clutch with the vacuum coming from a reservoir having a capacity of typically four to five operation cycles. This reservoir was in turn connected to the intake manifold (or a vacuum pump as in the Ro80). Operation was typically triggered by a microswitch in the gear lever which as soon as you touched the lever opened the clutch.
      The Saxomat’s problem which eventually prevented its market success was the centrifugal clutch needed for driving away from a standstill.
      NSU modified the Saxomat by adding a torque converter late in the Ro80’s development process to filter out the uneven running typical for Wankel engines under partial load or on the overrun.

  6. My experience with the Saxomat came from VW 1500 Beetles. I drove one of those almost 80,000 miles with only one problem, a leaky seal that was replaced under warranty. Also, a customer of mine had a Karmann Ghia coupe fitted with one. Saxomat-equipped Beetles seemed no slower than the standard models, despite having one less ratio, because first gear was so low. One really drove the car on second and third. Second gear was good for 55 mph, and then you changed up to third, good for a 75 mph top end, the same as a manual car. A quick peek at Wikipedia told me that Saxomat was used on the Fiat 1800. As Eoin found out, the electric switch that engaged the clutch was very sensitive. Just placing your knee against the lever was enough to knock the car out of gear. Still, it was a good, tough little unit and I remember mine fondly.

  7. Lovely stuff, and nicely timed given that it’s exactly half a century since the Ro80 was presented at the 1967 Frankfurt IAA.

    In another fifty years, will the same reverence be bestowed on some prescient autonomous EV from a small, ambitious and long-defunct regional car-integrator, probably based in some small provincial Chinese city?

    That’s one for the younger readers – I don’t expect to be around.

    Back to matters Ro80. Spurred on by Eóin’s dialectic, I checked prices. About a tenth of a dodgy Escort Mexico. I really need a bit of land and a big shed.

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