By on February 3, 2017

1960 BMW 700, Image: BMW

Following in the footsteps of last week’s Karmann Ghia article, it seemed natural to take a look at two other lesser-known German alternatives to Volkswagen’s Type 1 Beetle and the ‘Beetle-in-a-suit’ Karmann Ghia.

Like the Karmann Ghia, both were attempts to capitalize on a new and expanding market for automobiles in Germany during the postwar economic boom times. That meant that the models had to incorporate existing technology, yet also appeal to a crowd increasingly interested in performance and style. However, both had to be at least somewhat economical and practical as family cars.

The result was a series of interesting and mostly forgotten air-cooled, rear-engine, rear-drive sedans, coupes and convertibles from both BMW and NSU.

BMW 700

BMW’s long road to recovery in the postwar era was interesting to say the least. Before the war, BMW had a moderately successful series of luxury and sports cars with its 326, 327 and 328 lineup. However, the market for those cars in Germany didn’t exist in the early 1950s and the technology was quite dated, so BMW found itself reliant upon an Italian-designed and licensed bubble car — the Isetta — to sustain early sales. Of course, with their motorcycle expertise, the air-cooled twins that found their way into Isettas were reliable (though not sprightly) units.

1955 BMW Isettas, Image: BMW

Though economical, a family sedan the Isetta did not make, so starting in 1957 BMW stretched the two seats into four and created the 600. With just shy of 600cc from an enlarged rear-mounted engine borrowed from a R67 motorcycle and a four-speed manual gearbox driving a new semi-independent trailing arm rear end, the 600 was a serious step forward for the company. The improvements were masked behind a familiar face (which still served as the primary door, as with the Isetta) and the 600 was not a sales success, with just shy of 35,000 produced. Intended to compete with the Beetle, it offered little respite from Volkswagen’s steamrolling sales success.

1958 BMW 600, Image: BMW

To remedy this, BMW continued to develop the 600 chassis into the larger and more conventional 700 model. Launched in 1959 as BMW skirted attempts by Daimler-Benz to purchase the Munich-based firm, the 700 heralded BMW’s first true postwar sedan. Yet in spite of the conventional sedan proportions, the 700 retained the motorcycle-based air-cooled flat-twin in the back, driving the rear wheels. Back when BMW’s naming conventions matched their engine sizes, the eponymous sedan’s power was upgraded to nearly 700cc and 30 horsepower — 50 percent more than the 600. Styling came from Italian Giovanni Michelotti, who would go on to pen the next generation of BMW sedans.

1960 BMW 700 Lexus, Image: BMW

The 700 was available in three configurations — the conventional sedan, a sporty-rooflined coupe, and a convertible, each sporting era-correct tail fins. True to the company’s history, BMW even raced the 700 in rally, circuit and hill-climb events. The 700 would go on to be a relative sales boom for the company, bridging the gap between the borrowed Isetta models and the company’s first postwar conventional sedan: the water-cooled, front-engine Neue Klasse you probably remember best in the form of the legendary 2002. Yet it was the success of the air-cooled 700 that paved the way for what would become the benchmark for sedan performance. In total, about 188,000 BMW 700 models were built.

1964 BMW 700 Coupe, Image: BMW

The 700 enjoyed a successful career as a race car, with notables such as Hans Stuck finishing his illustrious exploits and new names like Belgian Jackie Ickx emerging in the sport behind the wheel of the rear-engine 700.

1963 BMW 700 Coupe, Image: BMW700.Net

NSU Prinz

Like BMW, NSU — headquartered not far from Stuttgart in Neckarsulm — had a robust history of producing excellent motorcycles. However, the call of the automobile market led NSU to introduce the first Prinz model in 1957. Like the similar period BMW 600, the Prinz held an air-cooled, rear-mounted 600cc twin, though the NSU’s cylinder configuration was straight rather than flat. Only minor changes were seen between series I, II and III models. In total, about 100,000 Prinz III models were sold.

1961 NSU Prinz, Image: Audi

The more conventional-looking Prinz was an economical addition to the micro car market in Germany, and shortly into its production NSU launched a “Sport” version of the model. Like the Karmann Ghia and 700, styling came from Italy, although in this case it was Bertone that provided the lines. Exaggerated overhangs, a cascading roofline and copious amounts of chrome — coupled with (of course) tail fins — hid the fact that the the Sport Prinz offered no practical performance increase over its more pedestrian stablemate. Still, the company managed to sell about 21,000 examples of the model.

1960 NSU Sport Prinz, Image: Audi

The Prinz was thoroughly redesigned for 1960, with a new much more modern three-box design. Like the Karmann Ghia Type 34 we saw last week, there were many visual similarities between it and other contemporary designs such as the Chevrolet Corvair and Ford Falcon. Power from the original Prinz was retained with a rear-mounted, air-cooled twin.

1961 NSU Prinz 4, Image: Audi

The first major upgrade to the Prinz 4 came with the launch of the new “1000” model in 1963. A light exterior redesign was matched with an all-new inline-four in the back. Properly displacing 996cc, the new Prinz 1000 model was a substantial upgrade with 40 hp providing more sport. That sport was turned up a further notch in 1965 with the release of the 1000 TT model, now with 55 hp. The “TT” moniker stood for the “Tourist Trophy” series of motorcycle and automobile races held in the Eifel Mountains of Germany.

1964 NSU Prinz 1000, Image: Audi

The 1000 TT was renamed “TT” in 1967. Power was further upgraded to 65 horses thanks to an increase in capacity to 1,177cc. The TT kept the unique four headlight setup introduced in the lightly restyled 1000 TT. 1967 also saw the even more potent TTS model released, with 70 hp coming from a high-revving 996cc inline-four to make it legal for competition in the sub-1-liter racing classes. In total, 2,405 TTS models and some 52,080 TT models were sold.

1965 NSU TT, Image: Audi

The Prinz 4 would go on to be quite popular, though in 1973 it was finally killed off in favor of the new water-cooled designs by parent company Volkswagen. It was a resounding success in terms of sales (especially compared to the BMW), having traded 625,171 examples before production ceased. NSU’s Neckarsulm production line would then become the home for Volkswagen’s reboot of Audi, and later, the Porsche 924/944 series.

Like the BMW 700, the NSU TT and TTS developed a reputation as “giant-killers” in circuit racing. The signature popped-open hood trunk reminded racers that these were air-cooled models, just like their more famous Porsche cousins.

1967 NSU TT, Image: Unknown

In a strange twist of development, NSU also introduced the world to the Wankel rotary engine — installed in a derivative of the Prinz. The Wankel Rotary Spider, based upon the Sport Prinz, was introduced in 1963. It was thirsty, loud, relatively slow and expensive — but unlike the Type 34 Karmann Ghia, it came to the United States.

Sticker shock awaited the few who approached NSU dealers in the 1960s, as the car was marketed at nearly $3,000 in 1964, with another few hundred added if you wanted a top. Rotary technology was in its infancy, so the 0.5-liter engines reportedly only lasted 30,000 miles before requiring rebuilds and weren’t appreciably quicker than existing engines. Only 2,386 Wankel Spiders were produced and a scant 215 were claimed sold in the U.S., though they can still be found for sale today, amazingly.

1965 NSU Spider, Image: German Cars For Sale Blog

[Images: Audi, BMW,, Lane Motor Museum, German Cars For Sale Blog]

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42 Comments on “The BMW 700 and NSU Prinz: Germany’s Alternative Air-cooled History...”

  • avatar

    I really like this series. Thanks.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    Old Man Pants is basking in the rapturous glory of those upright, airy greenhouses.

    I wonder how he feels about the fender mirrors?

  • avatar

    In the 80s I worked with an engineer who had emigrated from Germany. He told me that when two NSU rotary drivers would approach, they would wave out the window with the number of fingers raised signifying the number of times their engine had been rebuilt.

    OTOH the aircooled NSU TTs were rare but awesome in SCCA sedan racing…exceptionally fast for their size.

  • avatar

    Years before I was born my grandpa had a Isetta.

    Of course he also had a Packard Limo that he bought from a local funeral home. And a “book mobile” van that he got from the library.

    He never had a new car in his entire life until his kids pooled their money together and bought him a Monte Carlo in the 1980s.

  • avatar

    More of this!

  • avatar

    In a past Murrilee junkyard car article, one BMW 700 fancier expounded on how the 700 was the savior of BMW, but if any credit is due to 700 production, it is as a valiant if futile attempt to take sales away from the VW Beetle, and as a placeholder while really inventive engineering minds developed the 02 models of 1966> cars(1602-1802-2002). I can’t remember seeing more than a handful of 700s in car-crazy Los Angeles all the time I was growing up there. However, when I worked in a M-B, BMW, Jaguar-Porsche dealership in 1967 for the summer, and drove a BMW 1600(about $2600 or about what a Mustang 6CYL coupe sold for) for the first time, I knew this was about to be a hit with sports car buyers who needed more room. And the fact that original 2002s and the now-rarer 1600 are highly sought after, and the fact that Nissan Motors was so impressed with them that they engineered a lower-priced version(the Datsun 510 of 1968-1973)bears out the timelessness of the original ’02’ models, and provides their place as the actual model that saved BMW and has placed them in the minds of sport sedan buyers since the 1960s. But, Carter, thanks for telling us about the 700 and NSU models in more detail than we’ve enjoyed in the past. Well done.

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      @snakebit, the 700 was certainly a neat car, but was definitely only a stepping stone to the E10 1602/1802/2002 models that really established BMW. However, at least some of the DNA of the 700 carried over, especially aspects of the Michelotti design. Those 700s were also the first successful post-war racers for BMW, and thus also important for re-establishing the sports car racing heritage that became synonymous with the brand.

      Thanks for the compliment and reading!

  • avatar

    The Isettas were originally an Iso product, hence the name.

  • avatar

    Carter, you should also do an article on the Glas/BMW cars.

  • avatar

    Isn’t this as good as cars ever had to be? Imagine a world filled with these charming little things – a nicer world with more ponies, and puffy clouds in blue skies.

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      Life did seem more simple when 30 horsepower net was considered a serious sporty upgrade. But then of course, Cuban Missile Crisis. And, a lot of other really, really bad things.

      Better to just look at the cars.

  • avatar

    While growing up in Germany, our landlord’s father had an Isetta. My love for BMW in general developed in that year we lived off-base in Karlsruhe, as our landlord owned a white, four-door 1600/2000. he’d take me out on little trips in that thing, and I’m sure my love of the marque had has much to do with Herr Kuhn as it did the car. Every time we’d go back to visit years and years later, he always had a base, four-door BMW in the driveway. Whenever his father would come around, it was always great fun to see the tiny little Isetta burble up to the house and watch as he climbed out the front of the car. It may not have saved BMW, or put it on the map, but it made one heck of an impression on a certain impressionable 5 year old.

  • avatar

    Our family bought a BMW 700 Sedan in 1960, just as I started driving. It was the car that saved BMW from bankruptcy – and was far more sophisticated than most of its rivals.

  • avatar

    One small correction – the original BMW Isetta 250/300 was a single cylinder BMW motorcycle engine of 250 or 300cc and 12 or 13 HP. I think the Isetta and 600 have probably had the greatest financial appreciation of any BMW model over the past 25-30 years – could get them for next to nothing in the 1980s and now the nice ones all seem to be over $40,000.

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      Great catch, @stingray65. However, the E30 M3 probably outstrips the value increase. EAG just took delivery of a 74 mile (no misprint) Sport Evolution. Since they’re asking $150,000 for a 31,000 mile example….if you have to ask?

  • avatar

    I owned an Audi TT for a decade, and though I knew it stood for Tourist Trophy, I never knew that there was an earlier vehicle that folded into the Volkswagen group that had used the name TT earlier.

    Thanks for the history lesson!

    (It always annoys me when people refer to “twin turbo” cars as TTs nowadays!)

    • 0 avatar

      Not only did Audi’s fashion-first coupe revive the “TT” designation it used the same italic typeface for the trunk insignia! I know, I saw it on the back of my car for nine years. And my car wasn’t an Audi.

    • 0 avatar

      Oh boy. You’re going to be really upset about the TT badges on Studebaker Hawks, then. Of course, that referred to “Twin Traction” or their anti-slip rear differential…

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      @SilverCoupe – thanks, and yes – the Audi TT was a rehash throwback to the NSU! The company even (sort of ) acknowledged it when they launched the 8N chassis. Thanks for the comment!

  • avatar

    Thanks for recalling my beloved “Little Bathtub,” one of many pet names for the quirky cars that carried me, and sometimes stranded me, for a decade after college (aka: “Nothing Stops Us,” and “Non-Standard Unit.” Who cared that the brand’s name also stood for “Non-Specific Uretheritis,” a complaint of mine at the time?

    Can you imagine buying going out in the surprisingly sports car-friendly confines of Nashville, Tenn., with $800 and buying the first NSU you’ve ever seen? No magazine ads to support my decision, and no expert reviews, and certainly no Beach Boys songs praising, “That’s real fine, my one-liter whine…” I just did it, mostly on the recommendation of a fast test drive conducted my the lovely German doctor’s wife who was selling the car. She didn’t shave her legs! But still I noticed the car’s flat handling and friskiness, too.

    Four years later, discouraged by the lack of trained mechanics, factory spare parts and even junk parts resources, I decided to go straight with a VW Squareback. One year later, after a poorly done engine rebuild, I saw another NSU 1000TT for sale and traded for it. Driving bliss returned, and until the day I came into some inheritance money and the GTI came within reach, I was happy to drive my little imaginary car for five more years, watching traffic in vain to spot another.

    Hard to believe over a half million of these were made. My past research suggested that no more than 1000 NSUs of all varieties were imported to the states. Good thing they’re rarer than rare now, because of course I still want one- as my third car, maybe. It would seem smaller now, and poorly equipped, but the steering alone would seal the deal. Working perfectly with a complex, double wishbone and kingpin front suspension, the NSU tracked like an arrow, had wonderful, strong self-cenetring action, and never needed alignment (who had any specs?) while babying my Michelin Xs through 40,000 miles service.

    Like the BMW 2002, these cars looked the same coming or going. That was part of the delight of fast driving in a car with absolutely no speed implied in the styling. So wouldn’t it be possible to swap an 2002’s engine into the rear, where it belongs, so I could have my old car back, with luxuries like leg and shoulder room?

  • avatar

    Great post. Thanks.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    The Prinz 4 looks suspiciously like a Hillman Imp.

    You millenials who somehow believe that German cars were always regarded as prestige autos need to understand that 1) the first German cars that many North Americans saw or drove were air cooled VW’s and therefore regarded as ‘toy’ or poverty cars, ii) for many others the first BMW they saw was the Isetta derivative, then the very sparse vehicles they manufactured later. A BMW was not considered a prestige vehicle in North America until the advent of the Yuppie/Gordo Gecko era, iii) many older North Americans refused to purchase or even ride in German built vehicles out of principle.

    • 0 avatar

      Arthur, your impressions were formed in *British* North America, not the US with its significant German ethnic base that established the highest performance standards in farming, industry and education. “Toy” yes, but “poverty” was never associated with early Bugs because of their immediately perceived build quality and soon evident reliability. My family began buying them in 1963.

      After their Wirtschaftwunder resurgence in the ’50s every American knew Germans were fast-tracking back to global technical leadership. We expected nothing less of them; we only wondered if the Soviets would upset the Apfel cart. But nothing carrying the Made in Germany label was ever associated with “poverty” during my lifetime or for many decades before my birth.

      • 0 avatar

        I would say that it wasn’t until the mid 1970’s that German cars (beyond big Mercedes) were considered prestige cars, especially BMWs and Audis. Bugs and Benzes were considered quality goods. But until the Boomers got tired of their Mustangs and Camaros, only hard core enthusiasts knew about them.

        I can remember the late 1970’s when the BMW 320i became “the car” for yuppies to have. Having been in Germany in the 1970’s, I couldn’t fathom how a taxi cab had become so popular. I guess my own parochialism blinded me to the virtues of those cars.

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      @Arthur Dailey – I hope the “you millenials” comment isn’t directed at me? Because I’m not one. Anyway, I think you’re incorrect assuming that BMW (and Audi, for that matter) weren’t considered prestige vehicles until the 1980s. Though they sold in smaller numbers, BMW had a pretty devoted following with luxury vehicles like the Bavaria (3.0) and the big coupe models in the 1970s, and of course the 2002. They were definitely not poverty vehicles. Similarly, Audi had the C1 100, which – while very basic by today’s standards, was marketed as an upscale car pretty successfully. In fact, the 1970s Audi 100 outsold nearly all of their 1980s models. They shifted nearly 150,000 of them in America between 1970 and 1978. Over the same period, BMW sold about 200,000 vehicles in the U.S.. You could argue, certainly, that they weren’t the best cars made, but clearly there was a market in the 1970s for these higher-end models.

  • avatar

    How was the BMW 501 Baroque Angel not their first true postwar sedan? It had a new frame, new suspension, and a new body unrelated to what was built before the war. The six cylinder engine was a development of prewar practice, but the V8 that arrived in 1954 was all-new. It’s easy to trace BMW’s recovery from the 600 through the front-engined, Corvair-styled cars of the ’80s, but the 501/502 were postwar creations.

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      @ToddAtlasF1 – good question, and valid point. However, the 501 didn’t really conform to the standard 3-box design, instead relying on the left-over “saloon” look from the pre-war era. They were also not very successful, selling only in very limited numbers. So, a lot of it depends on what you’d define as a “Sedan”. We had the same discussion behind the scenes at TTAC about sedans and coupes the other day; is the 2-door sedan actually a sedan or a coupe? Or are what the Germans (and others) sometimes claim are coupes actually coupes? Considering what they currently claim are coupes are sometimes blurry lines between sedans and hatchbacks, it’s pretty open to interpretation. But, a great point, thanks for bringing the 501 up!

  • avatar

    Awesome article, glad it’s back to Friday!

    There’s something about a racecar with too much engine running with an open (rear) hood. The Abarths had the same funny design, and I’m sure there are others… I find it’s an awesome quirk.

  • avatar

    I have an idea for an article: stories of heaters in air-cooled cars!

    Be sure to include stories of the first-year Corvairs that would inflate the luggage compartment lid if the wrong windshield washer fluid was used.

  • avatar

    That race car might be the OG of stretched tires.

  • avatar
    Jeff Zekas

    Almost bought a BMW 700 back in ’70– got a Beetle instead. But gotta admit: the Beemer looked a lot cooler!

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