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. Named after the famous ‘Tourist Trophy’ races of the 1960s, a bigger motor with more power was met with larger wheels and tires and revised styling. Like the BMW 700, these NSU TTs and the subsequent TTS model formed the basis of their respective companies post-War racing efforts, and are still fan-favorites in vintage racing today. But in the U.S., though all NSU models are rare, the TT and TTS are especially so. That’s what makes it such a treat to see an example like this one for sale today:
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.
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.
You’d be forgiven for looking at the stats of the mid-1960s designed NSU Ro80 and thinking it was a much newer car. At the very least, it seemed quite futuristic compared to what was coming not only out of Detroit, but out of the rest of the world at the time. Aerodynamics were key to its slippery shape, unlike the rest of the world that relied on “jet” styling accents and fins to look fast. A tall, airy greenhouse provided excellent visibility for its passengers and driver. Underneath, power steering, 4-wheel independent suspension, 4-wheel disc inboard brakes and a semi-automatic gearbox with vacuum assisted clutch were the highlights – items that in some cases wouldn’t be found on mainstream cars until very recently. Then there was the engine; at only 1 liter, it didn’t sound like much to write about – but it was a twin-rotor Wankel engine with over 100 horsepower. Indeed, the power output wasn’t much less than most inline-6s of the day with 2 1/2 times the displacement. Couple that into a reasonably lightweight sedan and the performance of the NSU was certainly above average.
Looking at the NSU today, it’s easy to see design elements that were incorporated into later designs, mostly from the 1970s and 1980s. NSU’s parent Audi developed the exterior design elements further a decade and a half later into the Audi 100, most notably. Squint, and you can see it. But when I look, I also see elements from BMWs, Mercedes-Benz, Alfa Romeo, Citroen, Lancia, Fiat, and even Toyota, Mazda and Nissan – this was truly an influential design. For the most part, it was also a fringe automobile though, so not many people knew them or about the advanced platform that had been developed. They were also a bit too far ahead of the curve, suffering rotor-tip seal problems that wouldn’t really be solved for another decade by Mazda. On top of that, they were quite expensive at the time – meaning that for well-heeled buyers, the unreliability was even more unacceptable than normal. More recently in the past decade, the avant-garde Ro80 has finally been recognized by the world as a truly special page in history and a turning point in automotive design. That’s why it’s so special to see them pop up for sale, especially in America where they’ve always been rare:
It’s not often that you get to see an NSU these days, especially in the United States. It’s even more rare to find an NSU race car in the U.S.; but especially rare would be the cars that have substantial race history. In the case of this car, that history includes being raced since new – something very few cars can claim. Want some history? This car was extensively upgraded to a 1200CC motor some 47 years ago. Take that, Porsche crowd! The TT was renowned as a good racer, with plenty of balance, braking and light weight to make good use of its relatively modest power output. Looking ready to hit the track still nearly 50 years later, this TT is for sale today on Ebay: