Lost in Rotation

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.

1971 NSU RO80 by Pininfarina. Image: classiccarcatalogue

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.

Image: As shown

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.

1982 Volvo 760 GLE. Image: speeddoctor

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.

Image: motor3punto0

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

8 thoughts on “Lost in Rotation”

  1. “similar to that which would later appear on 1975’s Lancia Montecarlo, also of Pininfarina design”

    Also a Martin design, as it happens.

    This Pinin effort is new to me. I can see the influence on the Lagonda and Volvo, but I agree with those who immediately locate its biggest influence as being on the General. But my gut reaction, to be honest, is that it looks like a space-age version of an Oldsmobile Achieva. It’s really the combination of the rear wheel spats and rather severe rear-three-quarter that makes it unmistakably a GM-alike product from that period (see further the final generation Ninety-Eight and Holden’s VP Calais).

    1. Now that I didn’t realise, Stradale. Makes sense though. Thanks for the clarification.

      The Martin RO80 is a curious mixture of futuristic and retro. I can see why its touted as a GM influence – it’s comparatively easy to imagine a pair of vestigial fins at the rear. But if it was the inspiration for various Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles, it certainly took its good old time to filter through. We’re talking mid-late ’80s designs here.

      In the case of Volvo, one can understand the timelag, given that Volvo’s design evolution was taking place then at a pace that can only be described as glacial.

      Perhaps our North American readers could cast some further light?

    2. A thought just occurred to me. Could this basic design (perhaps with a less polarising tail treatment) have made sense as a Citroen proposal?

    3. It’s not easy to see it as a Citroen. It’s too formal and superficially decorative. Citroen are about rounder transverse sections, amongst other things. So, there’d need to be more tumblehome and a shallower sideglass. The saloon (notchback) format is also un-Citroen. That realisation makes the Xantia and C5’s pseudo-saloon profile even more fatuous. That’s a car (the C5) I’ll never see my way to liking.

  2. The Pininfarina Ro80 is certainly a fine thing in its own right, but the original puts it in the shade. I do worry that the distinguished Italian styling house seems to have run out of money or time when it came to tail-lights, and dispatched an apprentice to the nearest caravan accessory shop.

    Also, could there be a bit of Martin’s Ro80 in the 1980 Ghia Altair?

  3. For me, it’s the inspiration for 80s Cadillacs, especially around the rear screen and rear wheel arch. The bodyside decoration which seemed important in the sketch should have been discarded.

  4. What a pastiche, but original pastiche no less. The C pillars are straight US Ford, most notably the 1962 Thunderbird echoed in the Ford Corsair several years later. The front end reminds me of a 1968 Oldsmobile Toronado in a way. The Endura bumper idea came out on the 1969 Pontiac GTO Judge with Delorean attacking same with a 14 pound sledgehammer to show he couldn’t break it in a TV commercial, but later proving utterly useless at absorbing real crash energy. The suicide doors are straight out of the ’61 Lincoln Continental. From certain angles as in the first picture, I see the 1998 Cadillac Coupe De Ville, notably the fuselage form and rear wheel cutout treatment. In fact I have rarely seen a car that looks like so many others depending on the angle it’s looked at. Quite amazing.

    It unfortunately also looks lightweight and insubstantial, a big balloon of air sitting on skinny tires. Both front and rear beyond the wheels to the extremities of the car are far too high off the ground, as if a rock-crawling second-mission approach and departure angles were required. Then an exhaust tailpipe hangs forlornly in the empty space at the rear ruining any cohesiveness of design. The Ro80 itself has rather ungainly high ground clearance anyway, looking a bit spidery, and this styling exercise doesn’t help, but instead goes further the wrong way, in my opinion.

    Personally, I see zero resemblance in the Volvo 760 to this. I am no designer, so all I can give is my impression of what strikes me at first glance. And I’d have to say as I gazed at the first photo on DTW’s main page, my brain said ’98 Cadillac Coupe De Ville. One was parked outside my window at work for 12 years, you see. Then the second photo said ’62 Ford Thunderbird. After that, from different views, things went downhill. The curved side treatment, ugh. Even Mr Bangle would never approve. It’s a bit amateurish to me but I couldn’t explain why in so many words. Not a beauty.

    Good thing Audi/VW/NSU kept with the original styling of the Ro80 – it’s unique and cohesive. This special is a bit ugly.

    Thanks for digging up these one offs! Gives one a chance for a spot of Google keyboard bashing to see whether hunches pan out..

    1. Bill: regarding the Volvo I have to agree. While the 740-760 definitely nodded to American car design, the source ideas underwent translation into Swedish. The rear screen is very upright yet crucially not as vertical looking is the 1988 Cadillac (I presume you mean ’88) Coupe de Ville. The ’82 is perhaps more like the Volvo (or vice versa) but the timing is wrong for Volvo to have cribbed it. The 1983 Mercury Cougar has a really vertical rear screen though. The trend really picked up in the 1980s.
      The trend deserves fuller pictorial analysis.
      About the 1962 T-bird we’ll have to agree to differ. The point raises a good question about thresholds of similarity. As a designer I might be prone to splitting (seeing fine differences) and as you say you’re not as attuned to this, you’re probably a lumper.
      As you say, the car has the odd quality of looking/feeling different from various angles which is, probably, not a good quality.
      From a package point of view the Pininfarina car must have been spacious and if Volvo were inspired by any aspect of the car it may have been that. The 700s are really palatially big inside, thanks in part to the steep sides and steep rear screen.

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