By on July 5, 2018

Back in the 1960s, a little German car company decided to spend a lot of money to create a new-to-them type of engine. The car company in question was NSU, and the engine that cost them so much money was a Wankel.

In a first-ever for the Rare Rides series, this will be a four-part entry. Come along as we explore the NSU brand and the Spider; a tiny roadster which ended up almost entirely responsible for the demise of its parent company.

We’ve skirted around the NSU brand previously, when Rare Rides featured a DKW 3=6 of interesting origins. You can read those history lessons here and here. The DKW articles did not mention NSU directly, as the brand was a later addition to the Auto Union group. While DKW purchased the majority of Audi in 1928, merging DKW, Horch, Audi, and Wanderer to form Auto Union in 1932, NSU would remain an independent entity up through 1969. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; we first need to talk about knitting.

NSU originated in 1873 as a manufacturer of knitting machines. The company was quite good at making the machines, apparently, growing rapidly after relocating from its initial factory in 1880. Not content with machines for knitting, the company expanded its scope into bicycle manufacturing.

The production of bicycles proved more lucrative and interesting than the knitting machine business, and by 1892 the company only produced two-wheeled transportation devices. A rebranding happened around this time, as “Werkstätte zur Herstellung von Strickmaschinen” didn’t fit well on the frame of a bicycle. The company decided NSU was more suitable, but still was not content with its product offering.

Expanding offerings into bicycles with engines, the company produced its first motorcycle in 1901. In 1905, NSU followed this effort with the first NSU automobiles. The initial automobile offering was the three-wheeled Sulmobil, designed by NSU and powered by a one-cylinder engine making 3.5 horsepower. Also on offer were two license-produced vehicles called the NSU-Pipe 34 and 50, designated by their respective metric horsepower measurements. These vehicles had much larger four-cylinder engines. However, NSU had no part in their design.

The aforementioned Sulmobile with its three-wheel setup was a sort of halfway point between motorcycle and car. Expensive for the time, the NSUs were also compromised. Maximum passenger and cargo load for the Sulmobile was between 330 and 440 pounds. But NSU was happy it had a “car” on the road, and was pushing forward with development and technology.

But development and technology didn’t ensure the company was actually making any money. Stay tuned for Part II, when NSU gets into some hot water.

[Images: seller]

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

19 Comments on “Rare Rides: NSU’s New Way to Wankel – the Spider From 1965 (Part I)...”

  • avatar

    I remember the NSU Prinz, a sport model with kind of a fastback roofline and rear window reminiscent of a Rambler Marlin, ‘66 Barracuda, or ‘67 Charger. Not a bubble window, but similar. Cool little car. I had a see-through plastic model of a Wankel engine when I was a kid, probably why I never bought a Mazda, lol.

    • 0 avatar

      Early in my work history, I helped Renwal in their
      plastic injection molding factory manufacturing
      all of the components for their “Visible” line of trans-
      parent models.
      Visible V-8 (small block Chevrolet)
      Visible Automobile Chassis (in which the V8 lived)
      Visible Man (anatomically correct)
      Visible Woman (equally so, including a fetus)
      Visible Horse
      Visible Skull
      Took me a long time to acquire the various model
      kits, damned if I know where they are now.
      Now I remember, the whole point of this post was
      that Renwal also “built” the
      Visible Wankel

      • 0 avatar

        I wish I could get one of the “visible chassis models w/visible V-8” for a reasonable price. Those things are trading for crazy money on ebay.

  • avatar

    Maximum passenger and cargo load for the Sulmobile was between 330 and 440 pounds.

    People on the whole were smaller and lighter in those days.

  • avatar
    healthy skeptic

    I’m still a little surprised the Wankle engine never saw a renaissance from the rise of hybrids. Small, lightweight, runs great at high rpms, and the lack of torque at low rpms doesn’t matter so much. Sounds perfect for turning an alternator or generator.

    • 0 avatar

      Emissions have been the Wankel’s Achilles heel, as standards tightened the Wankel was abandoned by more and more manufacturers.

      • 0 avatar
        healthy skeptic

        Good to know, thanks. Yeah, I think I recall they run kind of dirty.

      • 0 avatar

        Too bad engineers tried to replace the internal combustion engine, just as turbines were tried. Today, there are lots of turbines under many hoods, but they’re accessories to the ICE.

        The Wankel idea might have been better applied to replacing intake and exhaust valves. Surely a simpler system than overhead cams could be devised.

        It’s the same with VRT’s. Instead of replacing gears, the pulley system might replace the clutch for shifting from one gear to another with no power loss.

        If you brought up such ideas 60 years ago, GM, Ford, and Chrysler would have put teams together to explore the possibilities. Thirty years ago, Honda and Toyota would have looked into them. Now it’s all about battery powered cars.

      • 0 avatar

        Its actually emissions, fuel consumption and apex seals.

    • 0 avatar

      It is! IIRC in Japan Mazda sells a PHEV Mazda 2 with a Wankel generator. The Wankel is tiny, quiet and utterly vibration free, making it perfect for the application. The B&B say any Wankel is also inherently a polluting gas hog though, which makes it somewhat less ideal for green-car duty I suppose!

  • avatar
    Roberto Esponja

    The pictured car must have an extremely clean windshield, or none at all.

  • avatar

    Strange little recent personal NSU-related anecdote:

    The other day, I went to pick up my daughter from a summer camp her karate dojo has. I was sitting in a chair waiting for her to get her stuff when I noticed some kids were playing with a bunch of old hotwheels / matchbox cars on the floor. Weird, but I thought to myself, hey–that one car there is an NSU Ro80! They weren’t playing with that particular car at the moment, so I picked it up, sure enough, a Corgi Whizzwheels Ro80, and the tiny hood opened to showcase the rotary engine.

    The studio owner saw that I was interested in it, and I’m sure I looked like a freak when I explained how odd of a toy it was, etc. Inwardly, she surely categorized me as a weirdo, but outwardly she laughed and told me she wanted me to have it. Apparently a client had donated a whole box of old hot wheels cars, and this fairly beat-up Ro80 was in the mix.

    Anyway, it was odd from the standpoint that I don’t know what circuit in my brain picked out that NSU from across the floor…and that a Ro80 toy car existed in Kansas City in a random karate school toy bin.

    I always thought it would be cool to have an NSU, so the little car sitting on the shelf in my garage is probably as close as I’ll ever get.

  • avatar

    So NSU put the Wank in the Wankel, eh ?

  • avatar

    This from the NSU Spider owner’s manual, apparently directly translated from the original German; “The engine lives in a dungeon beneath the rear trunk.”

  • avatar

    A friend from Germany once told me that when two Ro80s met on the road, the drivers would stick a hand out the window, with the number of fingers being held up signifying the number of times the engine was rebuilt/replaced.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay


  • avatar

    A friend of a friend had this Spider in the Midwest in the late 1960s. She was a young college instructor. She offered a ride to me and we drove it from the Midwest to the east coast. A ride was a ride, but it seemed pretty small to me. The car used a lot of oil, which she carried with the car. I recall stopping for gas somewhere along the way, and filling up for about $3.00. The car needed a quart of oil, and I remember the filling station owner complaining about hauling away the empty can when we didn’t buy the oil from him!

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • AK: @theflyersfan – I totally get it. I got lucky and a local dealer had two BRZ in stock in late November AND...
  • FreedMike: I don’t think you have to be a constitutional scholar or scientist to weigh in on this.
  • Master Baiter: “month-long clouds of wildfire smoke that lower air quality to New Delhi levels…”...
  • Master Baiter: “Also look for loopholes being exploited as for what constitues a non-light duty vehicle.”...
  • TR4: @ ollicat: Batteries have been around for over 200yrs. Mr. Volta built the first one around 1800. They became...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber