1973 NSU Ro80 - West German Dorito Power

Because rotary engines were invented by a very nice and tolerant german guy, time to see how they fit german cars!

The NSU Ro80 is quite an uncommon car. Some will say that its rotary engine, badly made during the first few years of production, is the main reason why NSU doesn’t exist anymore, bankrupting the company, engines failing after 10000km while still under warranty. “Some” might very well be right. But what about the car itself? What if all this was just a big misunderstanding?

I bought this car at the beginning of the year for a friend of mine in Japan. Bought in south of France (eventhough it's a RHD car), drove it all the way to Portsmouth where it shipped to Japan. The car is now near Nagoya.

The NSU Ro80 is a big, slightly goofy looking executive car from the 60's. Wait... From the 60's??? I actually had to write those words to realize how advanced the design of the Ro80 really is. The line of the car is pure, elegant, the car seems to have been made solely to crush through the West-German air of the autobahn at high speed. But why does it still look somewhat weird? I think the part of the design that ruins it, is the rear. I know some like it, but it’s really not my cup of tea... Claus Luthe, its designer, started with the 3/4 front view of the car, then decided that it was time to go back home and butchered the rear. A shame! I think the car could have become one of those intemporal design that last decennies, like the Mercedes 300D, if it wasn’t for this boot design.

The interior on the other hand, is where we approach 1960's perfection and why the car ended up being built for a bit over a decade without any change. It just genuinely looks good. The cloth seats of my specific car are almost just as nice as when it came out from the factory. The whole thing is extremely well built and feels solid. That, and you have space, A LOT of space, whether you’re on the front seats or on the rear seats of the car. So let’s get over this again: spacious, well-built, good looking and rather unique. That’s a win in my book.

Dashboard itself is filled with ots of buttons, along with a couple of extra custom ones to activate the fan manually in the summer or in traffic. There is also lots of gauges and warning lights you have to try and figure out. I still don't know what all those warning lights are for to honest.

Sound wise, it's still fitted with its original (working!!) factory radio, which is pretty coo, but you also have the noise of the secret weapon that is fitted in this car. I guess it is now time to let you know: Instead of the 2-rotor Comotor engine that was fitted originally, it has a 2-rotor tuned NA 13b Mazda engine developing around 175hp instead of the original 115 that the car made coming out of factory. This thing screams all the way to 7500/8000 rpm and damn does it sound nice! Sure some of you might not like it compare it to a weird 2-stroke engine noise, but I don’t care, I love it! And surpise... it's still fitted with its rather... different original gearbox!

The gearbox on the car is part of what makes the Ro80 unique. It’s not exactly an automatic, but it’s not really a manual either. The whole clutch system is vacuum based. The mere touch the gear knob activates the clutch. It’s not really a button, as you don’t even feel like you’re doing anything other than touching a regular shifter, but it works like one. Put your hand on the gear lever and shift. It works like a manual (minus the clutch pedal), it’s just as reactive, you don’t have to wait for a kick down like with automatics nor will it shift by itself when you don’t want it to. It’s a lot better and smoother than a Saab clutch less gearbox equivalent for example. And when you come to a stop, no problem, it works like an automatic. If you are used to drive with your hand on the gear shift though, you might be in for surprises along the trip. Soon after getting the car, I ended up being stuck at a gas station one morning, shifting into first and trying to move, not understanding what the hell was going on. After 2 minutes or so, not figuring out why the car wouldn’t move, I realized that I was getting mad at the car while holding the shifter, therefore activating the clutch this whole time. I felt VERY stupid. Also: dogleg shifter with a 3-speed. THAT is cool.

Once you get behind the wheel and start driving a little, the first thing that shocks you is the acceleration. Let me be clear, it's not THAT fast. Maybe 7s to 60mph at best if you’re lucky, downhill with a strong tailwind (which is already pretty decent for such a car!). It’s not so much how fast it accelerates, as it is how smooth it does. The car is coupled with a 3 speed gearbox. This means that gears are loooooooooong, very loooooooooong and this is exactly why it is so nice! Combined with the never ending revs of the tuned 175hp 13b engine that was swapped in a few years ago, it’s a non-stop pull, as if you were driving a single gear car. You can even start in 3rd and pull yourself all the way to 230kph (don’t ask how I know it) in just that gear if you want. Smooth, torquey enough (yes, “torquey” I said it!), with never ending revs. That’s how I like my accelerations to be when I drive a West-German cruising boat!

In term of stopping power, the car is fitted with disc brakes on all corners, which was a rare sight at the time. Despite maybe lacking a bit of bite compared to modern cars, they do their job “in an appropriate manner”, granted that I haven’t really pushed the car enough to see what happens on a long downhill run. The lack of engine brakes of the rotary would most likely not help. They are great for daily, regular use though.

Now the ride. It's honestly astonishing! We are nearly reaching “Citroen DS” levels of comforts on this one. It glides on the road like a modern German saloon car would. The whole thing gets very small bodyroll for a car of this era and combines comfort with decent handling which is also quite surprising. Combination of great comfortable seats and softish suspension make a car that I had no problem driving for around 1500km in a couple of days last november.

But... what about the handling?? First a little video, shot in the south of France near Carcassonne might help you see how the car behaves a little.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=R2HIO0jX_hE (No idea how to embed a youtube video so...)

I would qualify the handling as sufficient. It is a bit floaty at times, especially if you start pushing it a little. The direction is not very precise, neither are the 10 year old tires currently fitted on the car. But, just like brakes, handling is “appropriate” for such a car. Like most FF setups in this category, it will under-steer constantly and no amount of throttle lift-off will make it change its mind. Nothing too extreme, but don’t forget that the upgraded engine makes the car a lot faster than it was supposed to go. Don’t rush it, don’t push it too hard and everything will be alright!

Other than that, what about its value? I paid 7600€ for this car in near pristine condition. Cars like this are rare and fairly unique but they don’t have a very big fan base. It might not be a good investment, especially considering that it won’t really go under 20 US mpg, as rotaries, even NA ones, tend to be a bit thirsty. But it’s fun, fast, comfortable, and chances are that you won’t lose too much money on one if you take good care of it. Yes, rotaries ARE reliable if you know what you’re doing, maintain them, don’t rush them when cold and don’t try to get 600hp out of their small displacement.

To conclude, a great big car that proves that rotaries could also have been great engines in non-sport oriented cars. Smoothness, comfort, all this while buzzing around France’s country roads is a great experience and probably one of the best place to drive such a car! A lot of fun and a car I recommend to anyone who can take care of it properly. A car that could have been... But hey, it’s never too late!

Special thanks to Richard Flower, the previous owner of this car, who bombarded me with so much interesting history and technical infos about this car and kept crazy good care of it for all these years! He did the swap himself and maintained it perfectly.

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Comments (1)

  • That was an interesting read thank you. It’s nice to read an article written by an owner with genuine experience of the car, rather than the usual negatives written by someone that’s never so much as even driven one, and has cut and pasted various drivel that they’ve found online!

    A few points that you have made, make me think that a couple of areas may need sorting? Firstly the brakes should bite well and braking performance should be excellent rather than appropriate as you have found. I have found the EBC pads to be very good. There is actually an upgrade for the brake booster also which really gives it an extra modern feel. I have a 3litre V6 Jaguar and the Ro80 brakes are far superior to that. Also as you mentioned, I think your tyres may no longer be quite up to the job, as the direction should feel nice and precise. They will definitely under steer when pushed though and again as you say, the extra power and weight of the Mazda unit can only amplify that.

    In terms of values, there has been quite an upturn in recent years. Potential buyers do tend to favour cars with the original NSU engine though. Conversions are a fairly rare sight now. In the U.K. the V4’s have thankfully all but disappeared after being converted back and there are a handful of Mazda converted cars still around. I agree with your comments about reliability entirely. Rotaries are totally dependable when treated correctly. One of my Ro80’s is a 1969 with the early four plug engine, in this car we have been on countless European trips including 7 trips to Italy, never has it let me down. 1200 miles in two days is easily achievable, not that many cars from 1967 that can do that in complete confidence.

    I hope you continue to enjoy this fantastic car for years to come.

      8 months ago