Classic Cars

The Most Revolutionary Car You've Never Heard Of Is Now 50 Years Old

A rotary-powered wonder that was way ahead of its time.

For our younger readers, the first car that comes to mind upon the mere mention of the phrase 'rotary engine' likely originates from Mazda. More specifically, the pictured vehicle is almost certainly an RX-7 of some description, or perhaps an RX-8 or the legendary 787B. Vehicles from other companies have been propelled by piston-less combustion engines, though, with quite possibly the most wondrous of all being this: the NSU Ro80.

Revealed to the world on September 16 1967 at the Frankfurt Motor Show, the NSU was a stand-out star of the motoring expo. After all, as well as having a 1.0-liter rotary engine under the hood, the NSU Ro80 bragged advanced features such as all-round disc brakes (with the fronts mounted inboard to reduce unsprung mass), fully independent suspension, a handsome body penned for style as it was for aerodynamic stability and efficiency, and even quirky, almost Citroen-esque curiosities such as a clutch operated by a switch on top of the gear stick. With all this and more to boot, no wonder the NSU Ro80 was crowned the European Car of the Year in 1968.

Considering the car's superb qualities, it does make you wonder how a vehicle as remarkable as this ended up being a mostly forgotten motoring curio. Alas, in spite of NSU's prior experience with rotary engines, it was the Wankel-derived heart of the car that proved to be its undoing. Though the issues with the rotary engine (namely the fast-wearing rotor tips) were eventually ironed out, the notoriety around the NSU's thirsty, unreliable powerplant had scuppered the Ro80's chances of commercial success. A mere 37,398 examples were constructed by the time production ended in 1977, with this visionary family sedan falling into relative obscurity shortly after.

It's a shame that the car never managed to overcome its reliability-induced tarnished image, as well looked after NSU Ro80 examples are quite sturdy when you consider how old even the most recent surviving vehicles are. Plus, being a low-volume classic with a dedicated following, there's ample support out there for NSU Ro80 owners who for whatever reason can't quite maintain the vehicle on their lonesome. So, here's a toast to 50 quirky years of the unfairly overlooked NSU Ro80, and may those aforementioned enthusiasts and their future successors keep on cherishing the memory of this forward-thinking, ahead-of-its-time Wankel-powered sedan.

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