Why I love my NSU Ro80

Published: 14 January 2010

You might have seen my name attached to a few First Drives on this website and in CAR Magazine too. But I’m not always tooling about in something new. In my garage is something quite old. Something almost as old as me, and something I’d wanted to own since I was very small. It’s a 1975 NSU Ro80.

A what? It’s a big, highly advanced German saloon car with a Wankel rotary engine, front-wheel drive, three-speed semi-automatic transmission (same as Porsche’s old Sportomatic system) and a 0.34Cd drag factor that still rivals a few saloons today. It’s as big as a Jag XJ6, yet it weighs like a Golf, and manages 120mph from its one-litre (yep, just 990cc), 115bhp engine.

At home, in my study, is a well-thumbed copy of the 1976 Observer’s Book of Automobiles, and it still drops open on the NSU page. I was three when my dad bought it me, around the time that my uncle’s next-door neighbour bought the real thing brand new. I finally bought my Ro80 ten years ago.

And I still love driving it. It rides more softly and more smoothly than virtually any modern exec machine. It cruises at high speed with virtually no wind noise, and the engine gets smoother and punchier the harder you rev it. It sounds unearthly too, once you’re past its moped-like idle, turning all sproingy like a 1970s hairdryer around town before morphing into a jet above 4000rpm. And it revs past 6000rpm. Try doing that in a 1975 Granada Ghia.

If you know anything about Ro80s, you’ll know their chronic appetite for new engines forced NSU into the arms of Audi in 1969. See one, and you’ll see exactly what inspired the Audi 100 of the early 1980s – Audi even planned a rotary for that car, but plumped instead for the Golf GTI engine and a bunch of warbling fives. Shame.

That reputation for unreliability is somewhat undeserved. Yes, they’d wear out their rotor tips, get all smokey and eventually fail to start. But these cars were designed for the autobahn. In the UK, they were misunderstood, bought by wealthy urbanites who’d hammer around town in top gear, pulling away on the torque convertor rather than shifting that wand-like lever around. Result? Fouled spark plugs, failure to proceed. And garages simply replaced entire engines under warranty.

Mine’s on its third engine; the latest stumped up for by me during my first year of ownership. Not so bad for a 34-year-old car with 110k on the clock – and 15mpg economy means it’ll be a while before this one wears out. So yes, the Ro80 has its faults. But it has fans too. I love it.