I have a friend called Russ Wade, who infected me with a special brand of lunacy for cars. His father had owned an NSU Ro80, one of the first models imported into South Africa, in 1969. Thirty years later Russ had accumulated a proud collection of just about all the remaining Ro80 s in the country.
I deeply desired to own one and when Russ decided to emigrate to the States I became the recipient of 3 Ro80s and enough spares to sink a battleship.
Why was this car so special? For a start I was quite capable of going outside just to gaze at it as one would a sculpture. It was a work of art and particularly revolutionary in style when you look at some of its ugly contemporaries. The designer eventually moved to BMW and designed the first big 7 series. Apart from that it was car of the year in 1970 and racked up a number of firsts.
I copied the above picture from a Tumblr site to show you the overall lines of this beautiful car. There is more than a hint in style of the big BMW 7 series
The NSU Ro80 was the first large front-wheel drive saloon. It has discs all round. It has in-board discs in the front, meaning the brakes were halfway between the engine and the wheel. But even more revolutionary that that, was the fact that it was the first rotary engine – with the unfortunate name of Wankel after the inventor. The engine had a asymmetrical cylinder with three chambers which spun around an axis and there was only one spark plug. So the normal compression-firing-exhaust cycle was done essentially in an orbit or rotation. The user experience then was quite different and exhilirating to drive. As any Mazda rotary fundi will tell you there is no end to the revolutions – the engine will happily rev to 9000 with a popping noise in the exhaust which can turn into a high-pitched scream. Mazda bought the rights to develop and extend the rotary engine’s promise of great efficiency.
Unfortunately, in the case of the Wankel, problems with the rotor tips meant that there was insufficient sealing and the engines became dogs to start. They were also not fuel efficient and so the huge promise ended when Audi bought NSU and squashed the rotary project.
So there I was with three 30-year-old cars and having to commute every day. I neglected to mention that one of the cars was a non-starter. A violent 70’s orange she never started for me.
The black NSU pictured above drove like a dream, once it had started, and I caught myself once on the freeway doing 100mph (160km/h). She was so streamlined that she settled in lower and the engine became almost silent. It was an uncanny experience, from which I was jolted by the realisation that the side-shafts and bearings were 30 years old. My sons in the car had also become silent so by general concensus we decided to drive a bit slower.
Sometimes the cylinder would become choked by too much oil and the engine would stall suddenly. So the drill became: jump out the car with spanner ready; unscrew the single plug which was extremely hot; unplug the petrol lead to the carb to get some petrol; clean the oil off the plug juggling and swearing at the same time; replace everything; hop into the car and turn the key. The starting would never happen immediately as the starter motor had to spin the rotor quite fast so there would be a ‘wawawawa’ whine and black smoke pouring out of the exhaust before the popping of the firing motor, On two occasions I stopped traffic at a busy intersection while everyone watched my antics instead of driving as most of them were trying to identify the car. Another time I had to get son, Paul, to a Matric exam so the stress levels were pretty high all round when I had to clean the plug and start!
Now because my friend Russ is barking mad and a designer to boot, he dreamed about perfecting the Ro80 design and creating a coupe out of what was a very big and spacious saloon. So he designed and commissioned a body shop to cut about 80 cm from the middle of the body and, joining them together again, create a two-door coupe. He spent quite a lot of money on the project and he also fitted a Mazda 13B rotary engine. But he decided to keep the original gearbox and clutch, a decision which he regretted afterwards as there were problems.
So at a later stage I bought Russ’ last NSU for the princely sum of R10000. I loved that car but it had a real overheating problem and could not idle without boiling, despite having an extra oil cooler. But it was stonking fast and I had great delight in traffic light races. The torque of the 13B is legendary and the coupe had become quite light so boy racers never even knew what was blasting in front of them. I had people racing in front just to see what the badge was. As you can see from the photo I kept the badge off.
My favourite response to questions was to ask people what they thought about the origin of the car. They usually said Italian and the next most frequent was BMW which is not far wrong.
The clutch and gearbox were quirky. It was a semi-automatic, meaning it had a gear selection – three forward and one reverse – but it also had a torque converter like an automatic. So you could take off in any gear – I very seldom used first gear as you could take off quite happily in second. The other quirky thing was that the clutch was activated by the gear lever – the knob on the gear lever worked the clutch. That meant there was no clutch pedal and you had to exercise discipline not to touch the gear lever while travelling otherwise you were rewarded with an asthmatic hiss as the clutch released.
The overheating was caused by the unfortunate fact that the engine oil also circulated around the gearbox and somehow the 13B oil pump was creating too much pressure.
I was lucky to have the friendship of a magician mechanic just round the corner, by the name of Brian Hepburn. He has cut his teeth on rotary engines raced by his brother Willie Hepburn. He tinkered with the NSUs and kept them healthy. But in the end I was beaten by metal cancer which is the drawback of living in Durban and a lack of money to restore them to former glory. I couldn’t stand the heartbreak of seeing these beautiful cars succumbing to rust so Brian took them all off my hands and moved to Johannesburg. I saw the black NSU being taken by a flatbed and I had a huge lump in my throat.