By on July 10, 2018

Part III of this Rare Rides series explored how NSU readied itself to re-enter the car market and end its longstanding production tie-up with Fiat. Shortly after the painful divorce from the Italians, NSU’s first rotary-powered car was ready.

The very first Western-produced car powered by a Wankel, the tiny NSU featured a single rotor. At 498cc in displacement, the engine resided at the back, beneath the rear luggage compartment. There was also a luggage compartment under the hood at the front, though storage was limited as the entire car was just 141 inches long.

A curb weight of 1,500 pounds matched well with the claimed output of 50 raging horsepower. All that power was sent through the rear wheels via a four-speed manual. 0-60 acceleration time was a claimed 15.7 seconds. The Spider was available in either red, or white.

A low-volume roadster, in the U.S. the NSU asked a hefty $2,979 in 1964. The model continued for four years, and at its conclusion in 1967 there were 2,375 scattered about the world. At that time, NSU cancelled its old Prinz-based rotary models, as its new flagship rotary sedan, the Ro 80, was ready for sale (Rare Ride for another day).

The development of rotary engines had drained the company’s coffers, and the technology was not paying dividends quite as management had expected. Engineers were having problems too, as the apex seals of NSU rotaries were prone to failure. After the Spider’s introduction, NSU added various rotary designs to the rest of its lineup — all of which had problems. This led to a loss of consumer confidence in the brand.

Facing debt and image issues, the company was forced to sell out to Volkswagen. The transaction was completed in 1969, and NSU was immediately folded into the Auto Union. The new company was known as Audi NSU Auto Union AG, and all newly developed NSU vehicles and their respective branding switched over to Audi.

NSU’s phased out its smaller vehicle offerings during the 1973 model year, though the flagship Ro 80 model continued until 1977. The combined company continued as-is, with management based in NSU’s Neckarsulm plant until 1985. It was then that the final pieces of NSU disappeared; the company was renamed Audi AG. All management at Neckarsulm moved to Audi’s headquarters in Ingolstadt, where the brand remains today.

The car which generated this long Rare Rides history is a 1965 Spider, for sale outside of Chicago. With 13,000 miles on the clock, it needs some attention (and a windshield) from a new owner. The seller wants $17,699, but how many other rear-engine, single rotary roadsters are out there?

[Images: seller]

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14 Comments on “Rare Rides: NSU’s New Way to Wankel – the Spider from 1965 (Part IV)...”


  • avatar
    Sub-600

    What is that lever between the gear shift and the parking brake for? Some sort of transfer case?

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    I would guess it is a heater control.

  • avatar
    Roberto Esponja

    $17,699 and missing a windshield made of Unobtanium? Good luck with that sale…

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      I’ve seen glass companies “make” windshields, by figuring out the curvature, and then trimming an off-the-shelf windshield from some other car. The guys on Wheeler Dealers needed one for a Saab 96, and a glass shop was able to “make” one that way.

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus

      I say grab some driving goggles and roll with it! Its acceleration would seem to allow you the opportunity to drive around bugs before they hit you in the face.

  • avatar

    I test drove one at a dealer in the 1960s. Compared to other small cars of the day, it was a very interesting choice. If the apex seal issue had been solved earlier, it might have had much greater success.

  • avatar
    JohnTaurus

    Enjoyed the series, Corey. I knew of NSU, but didn’t know the story. Thanks for sharing it with us!

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    I’m seconding John, Corey – nice job on this mini-series. Lots of interesting info.

  • avatar
    downunder

    hmm light weight, rear engined, rotary. time for a mazda powerplant transplant!
    Couldn’t be any worse than stuffing 48″ wheels under the fenders, or porsche flat 6 in the bum of a beetle!

  • avatar
    pwrwrench

    What ended the Wankel as a mass production engine was its problem with overheating. If the motor got too hot for any reason it had to be replaced. Unlike conventional piston engines it is impractical to machine warped surfaces flat.
    As most here know the Wankel is built like a layer cake turned on its side. If any of the sections are warped they will no longer seal and there will be coolant or combustion leaks. If the parts are machined the rotor(s) will not fit. So new motor.
    There was a big recall around 1980 and Mazda replaced thousands of engines. That ended whatever idea there was for rotaries in the USA.
    About 25 years ago one of my customers sent his parents to me to get some minor repairs. They had a mid 1970s Mazda wagon with a twin rotor Wankel. It had an interesting aspect to the cooling system. There was the usual radiator pressure cap, but its vent line instead of going into a recovery bottle, as was standard at the time, was routed to a bottle with another pressure cap. That was vented into a recovery tank. The designers wanted more insurance at keeping the system full of coolant.
    Of course in the present, most engines are junk if they overheat. Machining the head or block is difficult or impossible due to thin castings, interference with other parts like valve seats, or problems with cam drive and piston to valve clearance.
    Apparently people have come to accept that.

  • avatar
    pwrwrench

    Also there were problems with high fuel consumption.
    Mazda solved a lot of this on the later versions of the RX 7 with the switch to fuel injection and it continued as a niche model for many years.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    VW was able to take the Ro80 and re-engineer it for a piston engine, which resulted in the short-lived K70.

    • 0 avatar
      Ce he sin

      I’m not sure if that’s quite the case. The Ro80 was a bigger car than the K70 and as I understand it they were intended to complement one another. Obviously they shared some features but I don’t think one was developed from the other.


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