Monday, July 6, 2009

1968 NSU Ro 80

This is a frustratingly vague eBay listing. Usually I wouldn't point out a car with a listing this vague, but an Ro 80 is such a unique car and one so rarely seen in the US, I had to write about it.

Talk about what could have been... When NSU introduced this car in 1967, the automotive community went wild. It won the prestigious European Car of the Year Award. There was a waiting list to purchase the car. Virtually every car magazine in the world wrote glowing reviews.

The Ro 80 handled well, looked great, rode well, you name it, it did it well. For a short period of time this looked like the car that would put NSU near the top of the list of European manufacturers. But...

The Ro 80 had one huge flaw... It's engine. It was a very advanced (for the time) rotary engine. Smooth and powerful, it failed at an astronomical rate. The big problem were the rotor tips, but there were other problems, too. I've seen articles that claim the failure rate of these engines was as high as 80%. In some cases it took just a few days and a few hundred miles for them to fail. NSU revised the engine and replaced them (usually under warranty - but if the car was out of warranty, NSU charged a very nominal fee), but the damage was done. The financial burden was too great on tiny NSU and in 1969 they were taken over by Volkswagen, who merged it into their Audi / Auto Union Group.

The car eventually became fairly reliable and the Ro 80 was made until 1977. It was the last car to bear the NSU name.

While the engine was a disaster, the body styling wasn't. There is no doubt Audi spent a lot of time looking at this car when they designed their breakthrough 1984 100 model. Audi all but acknowledges that by including the Ro 80 in the "Classic Highlights" section of the Audi USA website, even though Audi had nothing to do with the original design of the Ro 80.

The eBay listing for this car is just awful. It has only one picture, very few details and no mention of where the car is located other than "USA, United States" (a little redundant) . You can find it here.

Click here to find a very good, detailed Ro 80 article from

Another very good, detailed write up on the Ro 80 comes from You can find it here.
has a lot of good pictures and some information about the Ro 80. (Not all of it is in english)


Just A Car Geek said...

Australian Just A Car Geek reader, Simon, sent me this e-mail last night... Interesting! Thanks, Simon!!

Hi Dave,

I had a look at the ebay listing for the car, and it says it's manual, which I must say I find a little strange. All of these generally used a three-speed semi-automatic gearbox, which themselves were known occasionally to have a few problems. They worked electro-mechanically, but were so sensitive that if the driver's trouser leg or dress were to brush against the knob (sounds good, doesn't it?), the car could suddenly find itself out of gear, the engine revving wildly and the whole shebang going nowhere fast...

Unless the seller has listed a typo, I'd say they've changed the engine. This was a fairly common thing to do once the owner discovered there was no easy cure for the rotor tips issue. Even Mazda found themselves facing these problems in the early days. Although things are much better now (obviously), these types of engines, although very efficient in terms of the power they generate, generally don't last as long as the old reciprocating piston engine in most cases, and they're expensive to produce and difficult to certify with respect to emissions. Still a brilliant design, though.

Funnily enough, here in Australia, there used to be a fellow who had a whole collection of them down on the NSW South Coast, not at all far from where the scene with the sinuous fly-over alongside the ocean was shot in the Ferrari/Shell ad you posted recently. All these cars were in various states of disrepair and stood there, exposed to the elements until at least the early eighties. I was young then (weren't we all?), and I'd stand outside the wire fence, unable to get in and look at all these beautiful, exotic shapes and wonder why the world was so cruel... :-( They really were a magnificent car.

I nearly bought one once, but chickened out at the last minute... It always appealed to me as a kind of German Citroen, with maybe a touch of classic Saab thrown in for good measure. At last count, a fellow down in Canberra had one for sale. I don't know if he ever sold it or not, but I think most people these days are scared off them altogether. You really do need to be a bit of a geek (like us) to want one.

Well, that's my trivia for today, and I'm sticking to it...

Regards, Simon.

Interestingly, the ebay auction for this car was eneded early...
The reason given was "The seller ended this listing early because of an error in the minimum bid or reserve amount." As of now, it has not been relisted. The mystery continues...


Anonymous said...

Here in the UK it was common for Ro 80 owners to replace the rotary engine with a Ford V4. Many have now been converted back to rotary power using Mazda engines.