It was back in 1964 that German manufacturer NSU surprised everyone with its Wankel Spider, the world’s first rotary-engined production car. But this tiny and not terribly successful machine was utterly eclipsed by what came along in 1967, in the shape of the magnificent NSU Ro80. A car that broke so many moulds, its entire design was incredibly advanced, with a sleek wind-cheating body years ahead of its time, all-round disc brakes and independent suspension and, naturally, a rotary engine at its heart. The 995cc twin-rotor Wankel drove through a clutchless semi-automatic transmission. All in all, it was quite some creation and, unsurprisingly, scooped the European Car of the Year award in 1968.
But then the problems set in; some owners were experiencing advanced engine wear after just 15,000 miles or so, with complete rebuilds happening by 30,000 miles. NSU honoured the warranty claims, but bankruptcy loomed. Volkswagen snapped up the remnants in 1969 and kept the Ro80 going until 1977. Despite constant improvements, just 37,398 were built before production ended in April 1977.
Engine 2 x 498c rotary, twin-choke Solex carburettor
Power 113bhp@5500rpm; 116lb ft @ 4000rpm
Top speed 112mph
Gearbox 3-speed semi-automatic with torque convertor and semi-automatic clutch
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Build quality was always good on these cars – well, they’re German – but rust is still likely somewhere. Look first at the front valance around the wing seams, and bear in mind that front wings are next to impossible to find. Also look under the bonnet at the chassis members; these have cutouts through which the driveshafts pass and corrosion here is common and difficult to repair. Sills have an outer, middle and inner section which makes them tricky to replace, although quite easy to bodge with a cover sill. That said, you can get some measure of the inner ones’ condition by shining a torch through the vent panel on the top of each sill.
Further areas to look at are the floorpan, especially the longitudinal chassis beams which are particularly prone to rotting if the car has a sunroof, as blocked drainholes cause problems in this region. Also check the sunroof area itself for trouble.
Scrutinise the bottoms of the doors as well as the bonnet and bootlid, and look inside the boot too, as the floor can rust out. Other vulnerable spots are the bulkheads, inner wings, wheelarches and the extremities of the outer wings.
It’s unlikely by now that any Ro80 will still be sporting its original engine; some may even have gained Mazda units or even Ford V4 or V6 engines – a popular conversion at one time. But, assuming you are looking at a car still with an engine as NSU intended, you really want a unit that’s been upgraded with Mazda rotor tips. To get some idea of the state of the rotor tips, start the engine from cold. If it is reluctant, then compression is probably low and a rebuild will be required soon. To be really sure, get a Mazda garage to carry out a compression test for you. However, you can also try stopping the car when warm and then, while in gear and idling, turn the steering wheel lock to lock. If the engine stalls as a result, then it’s another pointer towards compression problems. Smoke or lack of power are also warning signs that all is not well.
Also check out the cooling system. While out on a test drive, check that the temperature gauge never rises above middle and watch out for signs of oil in the cooling system.
The Ro80’s semi-automatic gearbox is tough enough to easily outlast the engine. However, a low rumbling suggests failure is nigh, and expect synchromesh to start vanishing on higher mileage examples. Clutches which have dried-out oil seals will signal their distress with release bearing noise. Never leave your hand on the gearlever unless changing gear as the automatic clutch relies on pressure on the lever to operate.
SUSPENSION, STEERING & BRAKES
Check out the CV joints for cracking and if, on full lock, you hear knocking from the front wheels, then the driveshafts are giving up the ghost. Excessive body roll points to worn or leaking dampers.
Look at the rubbers on top of the strut top mounts; if they’re perished, it probably means the strut top bearings have deteriorated as well. During your test drive, check that the ZF power steering behaves as it should.
Brakes shouldn’t give any problems, and the condition of the front ones can be checked via the engine bay. Most complaints will be down to a failed master cylinder or sticking calipers, the latter causing the car to pull to one side when stopping. The brake compensator can play up on little-used cars.
Vinyl was used until 1973, after which cloth was introduced. This proved less resilient, going baggy or getting torn with age. The interiors are surprisingly simple, given how complex the rest of the car is, but go for the best one you can, as trim can be very difficult to source these days.
Why should you buy one? Because there’s more to life than Morris Minors and MGBs! The NSU Ro80 tried to be different in every way and emerged from left-field as a completely radical departure from the norm. Even today, it’s a very stylish machine and the driving experience is very distinctive and beguiling, with a smoothness still unmatched by most engines.