Unlike the car upon which it was based, the 1971 NSU RO80 by Pininfarina was not a landmark. But that doesn’t mean it was without influence.
Four years after the NSU RO80’s announcement, Pininfarina showed this, the carrozzeria’s take on Nekarsulm’s 1967 engineering and stylistic masterpice. But how does one advance upon a car that not only seemed to predict the future at its debut, but would actually come to embody it? Not like this, one might argue.
A number of puzzling questions arise regarding this concept. Why show a styling proposal of a car which in launch form, put many a conceptual design to shame? Additionally, why wait four years into that car’s lifespan before doing so?
First premiered the same year as the acclaimed Fiat 130 Coupé, also from the house of Pininfarina. Both cars display a notable departure from the softer surfacing of Pininfarina’s late ’60s design proposals – in particular, the seminal 1967 Berlina Aerodynamica. All three designs incidentally are credited to storied designer, Paulo Martin, the latter two sharing certain elements of their form language.
The similarites with the Fiat are particularly evident at the nose, the RO80 sharing a similar headlamp and grille treatment with that of the 130. However, in this instance the entire nosecone was composed of an impact-absorbing one piece unit, similar to that which would later appear on 1975’s Lancia Montecarlo, also of Pininfarina design.
While the Claus Luthe RO80 was notable for its softly surfaced windtunnel-influenced shape, pronounced wedge outline and unfashionably high bootline, the Pininfarina version featured sheer unadorned surfaces and an elongated bootline, faintly reminiscent of the 1961 Lincoln Continental.
The colour break on the flanks served to provide visual relief from what was a very severe design, its shape an apparent mirror image of the canopy’s reflection. This motif was echoed by the rear three quarter vent, which was also mirrored on the bodyside.
To some extent, an entirely different car aft of the b-pillar, the rear three quarters of the vehicle were startlingly angular, in diametric opposition to the shapely and visually harmonious lines of the Luthe car. This is particularly evident in the c-pillar treatment and the virtually flat rear deck.
So while NSU’s original car prophesied the saloon silhouette of the coming decade, the Pininfarina proposal could also have said to foreshadow a number of European production designs that followed; notably the 1976 Aston Martin Lagonda and the 1982 Volvo 700-series, arguably its most faithful production representation.
This side of the Atlantic anyway, since some have suggested the Pininfarina design also heavily influenced the American industry, particularly that of General Motors. However, this is perhaps slightly tenuous, given that the US car makers marched to a drumbeat all their own and when they did finally look East, it was more in the direction of Japan.
Overall then, it’s difficult to get a firm sense of what Pininfarina had in mind with this concept. Was it a nudge towards Audi to suggest a possible future direction for both themselves and their newly acquired Nekarsulm trophy? Was it a statement of defiance – a means of asserting their view of future styling trends? Difficult to say. But like the carozzeria’s Berlina Aerodynamcia before it, Pininfarina’s RO80 proved something of a stylistic dead end, whereas of course, the Luthe design continues to resonate even now.
The car now lives as part of Audi’s collection at their Ingolstadt museum, suggesting someone took it seriously. Not all was lost it seems.