Today’s Rare Ride was a relative revolution at the time of its introduction. With smooth, aerodynamic styling and a rotary engine, NSU’s Ro 80 made big promises. Years later, one man decided he’d create the convertible that was missing from the Ro 80 lineup. Let’s check out this one-of-two NSU.
Part II of the NSU story gave some color to the company’s first bout of financial trouble, and how it passed on a Ferdinand Porsche design that would go on to become the Volkswagen Beetle a few years later.
As we left off last time, NSU and Fiat were locked in a longstanding disagreement about who could brand which cars in which way.
In Part I of this four-part NSU Rare Rides series, we covered the beginning of the NSU brand and its initial product offerings — which included knitting machines. The company moved into bikes and motorcycles, as well as a three-wheeler considered a midpoint between motorcycle and car.
The engineers were certainly busy, but all was not well over at the bank.
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.
For five years now, Mazda has hinted, then promised, then reassured us that a rotary-powered sports car will return to the company’s lineup, ready to fill a spot left vacant by the departing RX-8 in 2012.
We’re still waiting and, Mazda now informs us, we’ll be waiting quite a bit longer. While the cylinderless gasoline engine holds promise as a range-extender in electrified vehicles (something powertrain chief Mitsuo Hitomi feels is a definite future use for the powerplant), that’s not something Wankel fans want to hear. They want to spin that engine up to eleventy billion rpm and drop the clutch.
It’ll happen, says Mazda’s senior managing executive officer, Kiyoshi Fujiwara, but something’s cropped up that pushed the rotary’s return to the back burner. That thing is the company’s gasoline compression ignition engine, the Skyactiv-X.
Mazda never gave up on the rotary engine. Despite putting it on hiatus after the RX-8 ended production in 2012, the automaker has continued developing rotary-based solutions to achieve locomotion. There has even been a longstanding promise that a Wankel motor would eventually return in a future sports car that would trump the MX-5 in outright performance. However, Mazda never mentioned when the world could expect to see another rotary in action.
Then Mitsuo Hitomi, Mazda’s global powertrain head, gave us a timeline to sink our teeth into. The year of the Wankel will be 2019, but it’s not coming back how you imagined. Instead of dropping it into a high-revving performance vehicle, Mazda thinks a rotary would make the perfect gas-powered range extender for its upcoming electric vehicle.
Just about every kind of vehicle shows up at the low-priced, high-inventory-turnover self-service wrecking yards, sooner or later. It took until the late 2000s before I started seeing Mazda Miatas in such yards, and now it appears that the advance scouts for a steady flow of RX-8 s are here. I saw this silver ’04 at the same Denver-area yard that gave us the biohazardous 2009 Kia Rondo.
First-generation RX-7s aren’t as common in self-service wrecking yards as they were five years ago, but it’s not hard to find a couple in a typical large yard in the Los Angeles or San Francisco areas. Most of the time I don’t photograph these cars, but we’ve seen this ’79, this ’79, this ’80, and this ’85 so far in this series, and now we’ve got today’s beat-looking but low-mile ’83 from Northern California.
First-gen RX-7 s aren’t uncommon in wrecking yards in the western part of the country, as demonstrated by this ’79, this ’80 with incredibly of-its-time custom paint, and this fairly solid ’85. In fact, I don’t bother to photograph most of the examples I see. Today’s ’79, with its brown-and-beige tape stripes, seemed worthy of inclusion in the Junkyard Find series, though.
First-gen Mazda RX-7s aren’t difficult to find in self-service wrecking yards (we just saw this ’80 with Flashdance-grade custom paint and this fairly solid ’85), and so most of them don’t make it into this series. During my recent trip to California for the biggest 24 Hours of LeMons race in history, I stopped at one of my favorite East Bay wrecking yards and found this utterly rust-free example of one of the few bright spots of the Malaise Era.
The rotary engine and Mazda have had a tumultuus, on-and-off relationship that rivals an Old Hollywood marriage. Market conditions and government regulations have made mass production of the rotary a constant challenge, and the death of the Mazda RX-8 looked like the final nail in the Wankel’s coffin.
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