As Konrad Adenauer slowly rebuilt West German in the post-War era, the resulting Wirtschaftswunder finally realized the economic prosperity necessary for personal automobile ownership; something that Germany had lagged far behind its rivals in until well after the War. Though they had developed the first motorized carriages and had a reputation as a nation of drivers thanks to some clever Nazi propaganda and the development of the revolutionary highway system, the reality was that in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s Germany was a nation of riders – motorcycles, that is.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the fledgling car companies which were the most successful at first were able to incorporate motorcycle technology into their automobiles. This kept development and production costs down, and in turn meant that the company could bring a small, economical car to market much more inexpensively than a traditional manufacturer. This worked perfectly for BMW, whose Isetta and later 700 models paved the way for the modern car company you know today. But BMW was not the only motorcycle-engine toting company, and though the name isn’t as well-known today, it was NSU Motorenwerke that was the world’s premier motorcycle producer in the 1950s. So, in the late 1950s, NSU put those great engines to work in the back of their new economy car – the Prinz.
The Prinz would go on over the next decade to develop several times. The Prinz I-III models featured continuous upgrades, better driveability, and more power from the twin. But in 1961 the Prinz 4 model took NSU to a much larger market. It featured modern 3-box sedan styling, though it retained the twin drivetrain from the earlier models. The Prinz 1000 model rectified the motivation issues, introducing a new air-cooled 1000cc inline-4. This package was then further developed into a sporting model; the TT.…
With the burgeoning economic boom of the late 1950s (Adenauer’s ‘Economic Miracle’ in West Germany), many companies tried to capitalize on the success of the middle class by introducing swankier, more stylish versions of their economic models. The hope was that these cars would be expressions of wealth and signature models. To greater or lesser extent, the three that were developed around the same time – Volkswagen’s Karmann Ghia, BMW’s 700 Coupe and NSU’s Sport Prinz – were all relatively well received in the marketplace, though of the three only the Karmann Ghia had mass appeal. That was interesting, as the Sport Prinz offered a slightly different take on rakish Italian lines with pedestrian German underpinnings. Introduced for 1960, the Sport Prinz was built on the Prinz III chassis, a diminutive, air-cooled rear-engine inline-2 economy “sedan”. To take the Prinz upmarket, like Volkswagen NSU turned to Italy. Instead of Ghia or BMW’s choice of Michelotti, though, NSU enlisted famed Bertone in Turin and the designer Franco Scaglione. The resulting design was significantly more dramatic than the Prinz, with long overhands, a swoop roofline and tail fins hinting at greater GT speed. As with the others though, the Sport Prinz offered no performance gain, but at least came to market slightly under the price of the more famous Karmann Ghia, at around $2,400 – top for the NSU lineup in the early 1960s.
“Hey, nice Corvair!” , they’ll shout out the window at you, “What, did you leave it in the drier too long?”
Most people I know seem to view me as some sort of idiot-savant, casually remembering which wheel styles were associated with what model, what colors various cars came in, engine specifications and call numbers – you get the point. But I have to admit to a huge gap in my automotive knowledge. Perhaps it’s a willful ignorance, but I’ll be damned if every single American car from the 1950s basically looks the same to me. I’ll take ‘Generically shaped cars for $1,000, Alex!’:
“What is Hudson!” (beeeeeep)
“What is a Studebaker?” (beeeeeep)
“Uh, what is Nash?” (beeeeeep)
Sure, like the rest of America who grew up before the year 1990, I can ID a 55 Chevy at a distance thanks to Don McLean’s insistence that you weren’t American if you couldn’t, but otherwise there’s this huge void of massive steel shapes that mean little to me.
What’s interesting is that I can so easily identify the differences between the Volkswagen 1500, the BMW 700, and the NSU Prinz. All were rear-engine, three-box sedans that were built at the same time. They all have a very, very similar shape. And yet, to me they’re as different as….well, a BMW and Volkswagen can be. NSUs are rare as the proverbial tooth of a hen here in the U.S., so is this forlorn 1200 worth a roll of the dice?
While Porsche’s upstart 356 and the breathtaking Mercedes-Benz 300SL were Germany’s first real post-War sports cars, they weren’t the only attempt to capitalize on the economic recovery. But far from being just a recovery, West Germany’s “Wirtschaftswunder” – economic miracle – aided by the Marshall Plan and a focus on strengthening the border states of the ‘Iron Curtain’ meant that capitalism manifested itself in new ways. Cashing in on a re-emerging middle class with newfound wealth and prosperity, companies like BMW and Volkswagen launched new sportier versions of their small, economical sedans. The 700 Coupe and Karmann Ghia, launched in 1959 and 1955 respectively, might not have had the power of Porsche or the Gullwing, but still brought sport and style to a much larger market. Both designs utilized existing technology to create a rear-drive, rear-engine two-seater that still was budget friendly.
However, they weren’t alone in the market. Auto Union’s main production lines in Chemnitz lay firmly in Soviet control, so it was the DKW brand which shouldered the responsibility of rebuilding the company. That would bear the 1000SP in the late 1950s – a lovely, but not particularly sporty, personal coupe and convertible. Prior to its merger with the Volkswagen Group in 1969, though, NSU – a firm more known for its pre-War motorcycles – had ventured into small sports cars. The result was the legendary Prinz and TT models; small, efficient, fun to drive rear-engine sedans. NSU branched out in 1964 and offered the world’s first rotary-powered limited production convertible in an attempt to ascertain if the technology was applicable to normal production. With technically a mid-rear design, it was a revolutionary alternative to the BMW 700:
While I usually try my best to focus on bang for your buck cars, today’s 1972 NSU will have difficulty fitting in to that category. It’s not that superminis aren’t valued as there are many who highly prize and collect the diminutive car class. But I’m talking about literal bang, or lack thereof. At 30 horsepower, the .6 liter single overhead cam inline-2 wasn’t the most powerful engine available, but the Prinz 4 was intended to break into markets where the barrier to automobile ownership was not only entry cost, but tax brackets. Namely, this was problematic in the U.K., where the original Mini reigned supreme. The Prinz 4 offered an alternative, albeit a slow one – even weighed down with only around 1,250 lbs, the two cylinders struggled mightily to motivate the car. Acceleration curves depended on what you had eaten for breakfast, but figure it was the strong side of 35 seconds to reach 60 m.p.h.. But this car was about affordability and economy rather than speed, and threw a dose of more upscale-looking class into a segment dominated by quirky designs:
One carmaker that I’ve always admired but has been somewhat of an unknown to those in the US is Citroën. Founded in 1919 by Andre Citroën, this was a company that seemingly could predict future automotive trends. Whether it was unitary body construction, front-wheel drive, semi-automatic gearboxes, independent suspension, swiveling headlamps or hydropneumatic suspension, Citroën could seemingly pick and choose from a list forward looking ideas and bring them to market years before the competition. There was one manufacturer in Germany that mirrored Citroën to an extent: NSU. In the mid 1960s, they brought to market a car you could mistake for being a 2016 model. The Ro80. This was a car light years ahead of its time, but had one fatal flaw: the engine. The twin rotor Wankel engine proved highly unreliable led the company down the path of financial ruin, leading Volkswagen to acquire the company in 1969 and merge it with Auto Union. These advanced machines are rarely seen on these shores, but this one for sale in The Netherlands is making a strong case for importation.
A 1935 Auto Union Type B Streamliner used for both records and the annual Avus race in Berlin
This past weekend weekend we saw a bit of hubris and bad strategy lead to Mercedes-Benz losing to Ferrari in the Malaysian Grand Prix. Despite the massive investment and seemingly pedantic attention to detail, the same problems existed in the 1930s for the company. Increasingly Mercedes-Benz needed to differentiate itself from Auto Union by undertaking extreme efforts. These efforts were not always profitable; indeed, one could argue that – as we saw last week – since they were already having difficulty delivering cars thanks to raw material shortages, undertaking new forms of racing and record-breaking might have seemed ill-conceived for the company. However, still at stake was preferential treatment from the government, especially when it came to lucrative military contracts. As such, Mercedes-Benz undertook some unlikely projects to not only gain international prestige for the Daimler-Benz model range, but indeed to curry favor with the government.
Link to Part 1
Link to Part 2
Link To Part 3
FOUR : PUSHING THE LIMITS – THE GOVERNMENT GOES RACING
A Mercedes-Benz W125 leads an Auto Union Type C – the height of power for these Grand Prix cars in 1937
As we’ve seen in the last two parts, both the motivation and need was present for a concerted racing effort by the Germans. The promise of political and economic support from the government only sweetened the deal for both Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union. What resulted, as we’ll see, redefined what it meant to go racing – not only for Germany, but for the world.
Link to Part 1
Link to Part 2
THREE : REDEFINING AUTOMOBILE RACING
In theory, the successful plan worked perfectly for all involved. The two car companies would gain international prestige for themselves while boosting domestic car sales through promotion of their abilities, while the government – their fairly public backer – gained support for the entire automobile industry, cash flow for the country through increases in sales and exports, and international prestige for Germany as a whole as well as promoting the modernity and advanced state of German technology. In practice, however, there was a drawback to the plan for the two companies. The problem derived from the rules and competing against one another for the same prize.
The rules presented a problem because in an attempt to quell every increasing speeds, the AIACR had established the 750kg maximum weight rule based on 1932 technology, believing that in order to go fast the car must be larger and heavier. This had certainly been the case in the past, whereby under free racing regulations constructors had merely installed two racing engines into the car and combined their efforts – with resulting staggering speed. However, under the new racing rules both Daimler-Benz and Auto-Union developed cars that met the requirements, yet provided even more powerful engines. The result was incredible speed, speed that had never been seen before at this level.…
I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that my wife and I get some pleasure from watching the television show Hoarders. Thankfully I don’t believe that we’re in danger of being categorized as people who hoard anytime soon, but the show holds a certain fascination for me. One of my favorite games watching the show is to try to identify the cars that almost inevitably litter the yards of some of these hoarders. Discarded, covered in mountains of trash and sometimes partially disassembled, it’s always a bit of challenge to attempt to correctly identify what make and model that individual decided to hoard. It’s usually complicated by the fact that many of them are obscure cars from the 1960s and 1970s, such as this NSU Prinz 1000. Few were originally sold in the U.S. and even fewer remain in serviceable condition today. Looking through the photos provided by the seller, though, only reminds me of that game I play against myself; without the brochure, build plate and the two older photos of the outside of the car, go ahead and try to figure out what you’re looking at:
The Typ 110 was the beginning of the end for the NSU badge. The Volkswagen Group took over this company in 1969, merging it with the Auto Union marque to form the Audi brand that we have today. These small, air-cooled rear engined NSUs would carry on into the early 1970s before being phased out, leaving the revolutionary Ro80 that we saw Carter feature this week as the last NSU badged vehicle in history. These small cars had a fairly advanced transversely mounted, overhead cam engine with independent rear suspension and double-wishbone front suspension. This 1200C is said to be in original condition and has somehow found its way to Texas. This makes for a rare chance to experience a car that was popular middle-class transport for postwar West Germany.