Historic Car Brands
NSU originated as a knitting machine manufacturer and in 1886, the company produced bicycles, before motorcycles appeared in 1901, followed by the first NSU car in 1905. ‘NSU’ was a contraction of Neckarsulm, the company’s home town.
1908 Neckarsulm – Lars-Goran Lindgren
The first NSU car was the single cylinder three-wheeled Sulmobil, first produced in 1905. It was powered initially by a 450cc, 3.5hp single-cylinder engine and later, by a twin-cylinder, 800cc 5.5hp engine.
NSU Heere Modell 500cc
Alongside NSU’s own efforts the company built Belgian-designed, four-cylinder Pipe cars under licence, starting with the NSU-Pipe 34PS and NSU-Pipe 50PS. Further NSU-Pipe models were the 15/24PS and the six-cylinder 25/40PS. All the Pipe cars had large-capacity engines, from 3.8 to 8.2 litres.
1928 NSU 6/30 – Theo
In contrast, NSU’s own four-cylinder engines ranged from 1.1 litres up to 3.4 litres.
During World War I, NSU turned to truck production, with 1-2.5-ton models, powered by 3.4-litre fours.
After the War, NSU continued with its pre-War models, including the successful 1.2-litre 5/15 that lasted in various forms until 1926. This engine was the base for a 50hp supercharged racing car and a 60hp six-cylinder 1.5-litre blown version. These cars clocked up victories in the 1925/26 Taunus, Avus and Solitude events.
Parallel with this car production was motorcycle production, so when NSU got into financial difficulties in 1929 the bike factory kept the name afloat.
In 1932, under pressure from the bank, NSU recognised the failure of their attempt to break into volume automobile production and the recently built car factory in Heilbronn was sold to Fiat, who used the plant to assemble Fiat models for the German market.
NSU-Porsche Type 32
Although the last pre-Word War II NSU production cars were the 1928 1.6-litre 6/30 and 1.8-litre 7/34 six-cylinder models, there was a very interesting development in 1934/35, when NSU produced three rear-engined small car prototypes. It seems the company was not yet ready to abandon the car market and saw hope in a small ‘people’s car’ that just happened to co-incide with then German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler’s plan.
Ferdinand Porsche, an engineer from Bohemia, was commissioned to design the vehicle and came up with the Porsche Type 32, rear-engined package, featuring torsion bar suspension and air-cooled engine. The three prototypes had much in common with the later Beetle, but continuing financial difficulties prevented NSU from going ahead with the project.
However, motorcycle production continued and NSU was a global market force, until World War II intervened. During the War NSU produced the Kettenkrad NSU HK101, a half-tracked motorcycle with the engine of the Opel Olympia. The company also made quantities of the NSU 251 OSL motorcycle during the War.
In December 1946, Das Auto reported the company had resumed the manufacture of bicycles and motor-bicycles at Neckarsulm and the HK101 continued to be sold by NSU as an all-terrain vehicle in a civilian version.
NSU Rennmax Blauwal – Lothar Spurzem
By 1955, NSU was the largest-volume motorcycle producer in the world. NSU also held four world speed records: 1951, 1953, 1954, and 1955. In August 1956, Wilhelm Herz at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, became the first man to ride a motorcycle faster than 200mph (322 km/h).
NSU Prinz 4 – Theo
In 1957, NSU re-entered the car market with the new Prinz (Prince), a small car with a doubled-up NSU Max motorcycle engine: an air-cooled, two-cylinder engine of 600cc, producing 20hp (15 kW).
In 1961, the larger Prinz 4 was launched, still with two-cylinder power, but in a body that resembled the American Corvair.
NSU Prinz TTS – Zoom Viewer
1964 the four-cylinder Prinz 1000, with TT and TT/S derivatives was launched. Power came from a highly tunable, four-cylinder, air-cooled engine and the souped up, 83hp versions were very fast. However, racing versions always had the rear engine cover propped open, so that’s telling us something.
NSU Wankelspider – Softeis
The sensation of 1964 was the world’s first Wankel engined car: the NSU Wankelspider, powered by rear-mounted, single-rotor engine that produced 50-54hp. Also in 1964, NSU partnered with Citroën to develop the Wankel engine via its Comotor subsidiary.
NSU Ro80 – Lothar Spurzem
Despite rotor tip-seal issues and high fuel and oil consumption in the limited-production Wankelspider, NSU went ahead with its major release. In 1967, the four-door NSU Ro80, with a 115hp (86kW) two-rotor engine was presented to the public.
NSU Ro80 – Claus Ableiter
Weighing 1200kg, it had a Cd of 0.36, disc brakes, independent suspension and front wheel drive by Fichtel & Sachs three-speed transmission.
Not wanting to be left out of a future technology, virtually all the world’s major car manufacturers purchased licenses from NSU to develop and produce the rotary engine.
However, sales of the Ro80 were disappointing, because the transmission drew complaints and the engine suffered numerous failures even at low mileage. Problems with the apex seals of the engine rotor significantly damaged the brand’s reputation among consumers.
Only Mazda joined NSU in employing a Wankel engine and continues with its developments today.
The development of the rotary engine was very cost-intensive for the small company and crippled its motorbike production as well. NSU’s last production motorcycle was the 1968 Quick 50.
NSU had developed its last model, the NSU K70, with a front engine, front wheel drive, water cooled layout and Volkswagen later adopted this as the VW K70. The engine lived on to power the first Golf.
In 1969, NSU was taken over by Volkswagenwerk AG, which merged NSU with Auto Union, the owners of the Audi brand which Volkswagen had acquired five years earlier.
The new company was called Audi NSU Auto Union AG and represented the effective end of the NSU marque. The rear-engined NSU Prinz-based models were phased out in 1973 and the Ro80 carried the NSU badge until 1977.
The NSU-Wankel legacy haunted Citroen as well, when it released the expensive, abortive 1973 Citroën GS Birotor production car. Fewer than 900 were sold and had fuel consumption issues on the eve of the Oil Shock. Citroen tried to buy them back, rather than have to support them through the coming years, so any that survive are collectors’ items today.