I’m never one to turn my nose up at an interesting engine swap. Usually, they are pretty predictable with throwing a giant V8 into where ever one will fit then calling it a day. Nothing really wrong with that formula, but it is always cool to see different things. Today’s car, a 1985 Mercedes-Benz 190E from all the way in New Zealand, is one of the most interesting engine swaps into a Mercedes, or any car really, that I’ve seen in a long time. This W201 now sports a turbocharged 13B Mazda rotary engine with a handful of modifications putting down over 300 horsepower. That seems different enough for me.
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:
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.
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:
While it is a bit of an automotive orphan, the NSU Ro80 is perhaps one of the most significant vehicles of the last 50 years. This car blended aerodynamic styling with advanced technology to create a vehicle unlike anything the world had ever seen. Its twin rotor Wankel engine proved to be a headache for many owners, but the forward thinking design outweighed many of the negatives for would be buyers at the time. Today, these are relatively obscure cars in the US, but are steadily gaining recognition in Europe and beyond. With the twin-rotor Wankel’s thirst, these cars pushed the envelope at a time when the world was going through an energy crisis and consumers began to eschew comfort for economy. This Ro80 for sale in The Netherlands has had but one owner and is complete, right down to the dealer brochures.
Unique! This stunning LHD NSU Ro80 is coming from its original Swiss Owner (all taxes paid) with only 39,000 km’s from new. PERFECT ORIGINAL CONDITION! Full history, including all papers etc.
With the equivalent of 24,000 miles and priced just over $20,000, I’d say this is a very attractive alternative to your typical Mercedes or BMW from the period. The last Ro80 we featured was priced closer to $25,000, so I’d say this example is priced just about right. As time has passed, the Wankel engine has become less troublesome due to modern fixes that cure a lot of the teething issues the cars had from the start, such as apex seals.
While the NSU Ro80 wasn’t a car of any particular firsts, it was the combination of advanced technology that made it seem out of this world upon its introduction in 1967. Yes, you read that right. 1967. While it looks like it could have stepped out of a design studio in the current decade, this is a 45 year old design we are dealing with here.
First and foremost, the engine was the centerpiece of the Ro80 equation. A smooth, twin rotor Wankel that displaced just under one liter powered the car through its front wheels. The transmission was a three-speed semi automatic, similar in concept to Volkswagen’s automatic stick shift. Other forward thinking touches included four-wheel disc brakes, four-wheel independent suspension, power steering and a low coefficient of drag as a result of its streamlined look.
It was unfortunate that so many Ro80s were scrapped due to teething problems with its rotary engine. With the technology available to us today, issues such as apex seal wear can be easily remedied. This particular Ro80 for sale in the Netherlands has been lovingly cared for by one owner over its lifetime.
Rare, beautiful. Had only one owner. No rust, Wankel engine excellent, bodywork excellent, semi-auto transmission excellent. Unique car, collectors item, good investment.
Almost $25,000 USD for an Ro80 is about the top of the market for one of these. Realistically, one in good shape should command anywhere between $10,000 and $15,000. These cars have seen values creep up a bit, if not to the same level as that other avant garde sedan from the period, the Citroën DS. These were the last vehicles to wear the NSU badge, with the last ones rolling out of the factory at Neckarsulm in the Spring of 1977. For all their faults, NSU certainly went out with a bang with this car. I’ve always been a fan of the Ro80 and hope that they continue to get their due respect for years to come.
To get a flavor for what the Ro80 is like in action, check out the following clip from Top Gear:
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