It had been over 10 years since the last time I visited Audi’s Neckarsulm, Germany, plant. It’s a treat for the simple reason that it was at this plant that NSU—a company that started in 1906 by building sewing machines then moved on to producing bicycles and cars—produced its Ro80 starting in 1967. It was a sleek front-drive sedan powered by a 995-cc rotary engine, and featured a three-speed semi-automatic transmission and a Cd of 0.355. Except for things like detailing—especially the low taillights, small wheels and tires, chrome bumpers, and dog-dish hubcaps—the car is surprisingly modern. In fact, a case can be made that Audi’s sedans are direct descendants of this ahead-of-its-time car.
What doomed the Ro80 to oblivion—or, to be more precise, to the VW Group empire—was Felix Wankel’s rotary engine. The little two-rotor pushed out a very respectable 115 hp, and spun like a collegian’s bed after a long Friday night of drinking. Unfortunately, it drank like that collegian, too, getting about 16 mpg. What did the car in, however, was the unreliability of its fascinating new engine. Buyers were mesmerized by the beer keg-sized motor and its whirring rotors, not to mention the novelty of a motor that brought a new word to the lexicon—trochoid—to describe the path the rotor’s scribed on their journey. However, the material sciences weren’t ready for the relatively small sealing tips at the point of each rotor, which not only had to follow that figure-eight route within the engine without scoring its surface, but they also had to seal the exhaust gasses and intake charge without leakage. It was a tough job, and one that took years of time, effort, and money to master.
Buyers had little patience for the engine’s poor fuel economy, ordinary performance (0-60 mph took almost 13 seconds thanks to the lack of torque and lazy semi-automatic three-speed), thirst for oil (a lot of it found its way past the rotor seals, a problem—in smaller proportions—to this day for rotary engines), and its propensity to self-destruct. (Owners reportedly held up fingers to passing Ro80 drivers to show the number of replacement engines that had been fitted. Many had nine.) Had the Ro80 been fitted with a V4 or V6, it and the company might have survived a while longer, especially since NSU in the early 1960s was selling more cars than BMW, and the Ro80 was its first foray into the booming sport sedan market. Then again, just fitting a decent five-speed manual might have helped by reducing the strain on the under-torqued engine in a market (Europe) that to this day prefers manual transmissions over automatics. But it was not to be. NSU was on the ropes, and its savior had become its executioner.
Some have called the car a brilliant failure, but its effect on modern car design—especially that of Audi—means its tortured life was not lived in vain. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of other cars that could fit into this category—like the Chevy Corvair—that were dumped unceremoniously, and whose only legacy was to chill innovation lest further mistakes be made. We tell our children to learn from their mistakes, but we’re often unwilling to learn the right lessons from our own. In the case of the Ro80 that lesson was this: Don’t be blinded to the good things obscured by the trouble spot. They could be the way to the future.