As postwar Europe was beginning to hit its stride in the early 1960s, NSU was thinking that it needed a larger sedan. It began developing such a car in 1961 even while the smaller NSUs were hot sellers in the showroom and popular in competition (see NSU TTS). True to their unconventional ways, NSU planned to utilize a new motor developed by a certain Dr Felix Wankel. You may have heard of him. The motor was lighter, and smoother than a conventional internal combustion engine, but what NSU found most appealing was its small size. This allowed designer Claus Luthe (who later went on to lead design at BMW) to create a very spacious cabin within a smaller wheelbase. A host of issues contributed to delays in the car getting into production, and it finally emerged in 1967, at the Frankfurt Auto show and was dubbed the NSU R080. The car had modern styling with a large greenhouse, and front facia reminiscent of Peugeot or Citroen (in my opinion).
The 995cc twin rotor motor gave nothing away to its competitors, despite the lengthy development period. It produced 115hp and propelled the sedan to 112 mph, and a 0 to 60 time of 12.5 seconds. Very good numbers for a 4 door sedan at the time. However, the R080 was a very modern car in many other ways as well. It was front wheel drive, and semi automatic, which really helped get the most out of the rotary engine, and made for good handling. It had McPherson struts up front and semi-trailing wishbones out back, further aiding the handling characteristics. It had a very good coefficient of drag for the time at 0.355. Lastly, it had 4 wheel disc brakes, including inboard discs up front to reduce unsprung weight. They also offered a superior warranty to calm any nervousness about the new type of engine. This combination of features, and space resulted in the R080 winning European Car of the Year in 1968, which was even more impressive given that production did not even start until very late in 1967. There was now a 4th German luxury sedan brand on the market.
You would think then that NSU, and more specifically the R080 would be a household name among the enthusiast community, right? They were in great shape after a phenomenal start for their first “big” car. They had innovation, style, and good performance. They had critical acclaim. But alas, it was not to be. As many are aware, those first twin rotor rotary engines had issues in just about every vehicle in which they were installed. Problems included the rotor tip seals, manufacturing issues, and unfamiliar mechanics exacerbating the issue. NSU was plagued with warranty issues, particularly because they had been generous in that area. Rebuilds of the engine at 25000 to 35000 miles were not uncommon. They worked hard to correct the issues, and had them pretty much sorted out within a few years, but the damage had been done. Sales declined due to a reputation for being unreliable. This and other factors contributed to the purchase of NSU by VW/Audi in 1969, and the subsequent de-emphasis and then death of rotary development (and eventually the NSU name). The R080 soldiered on until 1977, and over 37,000 were eventually produced.