Historic Motorcycle Brands



NSU originated as a knitting machine manufacturer established in 1873 by Christian Schmidt. In 1886, the company began to produce bicycles and then motorcycles, becoming the highest volume maker in the world. Heavy investment in the Wankel engine in the 1960s sent the company broke and in 1969 it was taken over by VW.


1910 NSU Forecar – Coys Auctions


The first Neckarsulmer Motorrad (NSU) motorcycle was produced in 1901, using a Swiss 1 3/4 hp Zedel single-cylinder, automatic-inlet-valve (suction operation) motor with battery/coil ignition, clamped to the underside of a heavy-duty NSU bicycle frame, with the crankcase slightly below and in front of the pedal crank. 

Specialised racing motorcycles were campaigned from 1905 in events in Europe, the UK and USA. 

In 1907, British manager Martin Geiger rode an NSU in the inaugural Isle of Man TT, placing fifth. In 1908, an NSU V-twin took part in the Ormonde-Daytona beach speed record races for cars and motorcycles, ridden by Eugene Gaestral, who returned with an improved machine the following year.

In 1910, NSU developed the three-wheeler, NSU forecar from its motorcycle in 1905.  Powered by an air-cooled, 6bhp, V-twin-cylinder engine the Forecar was practically the last car of this kind by 1910.  Other companies producing similar designs were adopting four-wheeled designs, but NSU continued producing the Forecar until the early 1920s.


1927 NSU 251R – Thommes


At the end of World War I, NSU resumed motorcycle manufacture with its range of 1914 models, pending the arrival of new designs.

The first post-War NSUs, in 1920, were a 351cc single and 495cc V-twin, both powered by ‘F-head’ (inlet-over-exhaust) engines. The 495cc twin was updated the following year and was joined by a 995cc V-twin, featuring a three-speed gearbox and all-chain drive.


1929 NSU 301T – Jacek Fedor


Although they were new designs, these early post-war NSUs represented the company’s past rather than its future, and as the 1920s progressed they gave way to a new line-up powered by side-valve and overhead-valve motors, typified in 1924 by the OHV 251R and 250 2PS.

1929 301TS and 351 differed in that the touring TS had a side-valve engine and the 351 had a bevel-drive, overhead camshaft.

The 1930 501TS and 501T 497cc models were also overhead-camshaft models.


NSU 125ZDB – Joachim Kohler


In the mid-1930s, NSU was the leading motorcycle maker in the world and was trying to succeed as well in the car business. However, in 1932, under pressure from the Dresdner Bank, NSU sold its recently-built car factory in Heilbronn to Fiat. 

The combination of the Great Depression and German inflation prompted development of a lower-cost two-stroke 201ZDB model, but it wasn’t introduced until in 1938.

NSU was prominent in pre-War racing, scoring a 500cc class win in the Italian Grand Prix in 1930 and a 350 SOHC bike had the fastest lap at Monza in 1936. Both 350 and 500 race bikes had DOHC engines in 1937.

In 1939 came a supercharged NSU 350 DOHC race bike, with an estimated 60bhp.


NSU Kettenkrad – Bundesarchiv


During World War II NSU produced the Kettenkrad, the NSU HK101, a half-tracked motorcycle, powered by the car engine out of the Opel Olympia. Designed and patented in June 1939, it was used for the first time during the invasion of the Soviet Union, in the ill-fated Operation Barbarossa of 1941.

NSU also made the 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, in a completely destroyed plant, with prewar designs and the HK101 continued to be sold by NSU as an all-terrain civilian vehicle. 


NSU 251OSL – Lothar Spurzem


The first new post-War model was the NSU Fox of 1949 that was available in 125cc two-stroke and 100cc four-stroke versions. In 1951 came the Konsul I, 350cc and Quick 100cc, followed by the 1952 Konsul II.

In 1953, the NSU Max caused a sensation, thanks to its SOHC engineering. Instead of the common vertical bevel-gear shaft between crankshaft and overhead camshaft, the 250cc Max engine featured a drive system with two connecting rods. Probably to bypass W O Bentley’s Three-Throw-Drive patent covering a three-rod drive system, NSU adopted a twin-rod design.


NSU Max two-rod camshaft drive – Schubstangenantrieb


The concept was similar to the connecting rods that join a steam locomotive’s drive wheels together.

NSU went that way to avoid the in-service adjustment and wear issues with bevel drive gears. Chain drive wasn’t an option back then, because there wasn’t the metallurgy to make chains reliable.

The Max also had an innovative monocoque frame of pressed steel and a central rear suspension unit, in conjunction with a swing-arm. 


NSU Sport Max – NSU Archive


Albert Roder was NSU’s chief engineer behind this bike that helped NSU become the largest-volume motorcycle producer in the world, selling 350,000 machines that year. 

The NSU Quickly was the most popular moped of its time. More than one million were produced between 1953 and 1966 and more than 60-percent were exported.


NSU Delphin III


NSU held four world records for speed: 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 (322km/h), piloting the Delphin III, fully streamlined motorcycle with a 500cc supercharged DOHC twin-cylinder Rennsport engine.

NSU also had several successes in the Isle of Man TT races in the 1950s.


It’s not clear from the company records if all the race bikes used the twin-rod camshaft drive system, or bevel-shaft drive (bevel drive photo at left).

In 1954 came the 350, Max Special and Rennfox. In 1955 Fox and Sportmax and Sportmax 250 racer and Superlux arrived.


1957, NSU re-entered the car market with the new Prinz (Prince), a small car with ‘twinned’ NSU Max engine, resulting in an air-cooled, two-cylinder engine of 600cc and 20bhp. Motorbike production continued until 1968. NSU’s last production motorcycle was the Quick 50.


NSU Lux – Palauenc05


The development of the Wankel rotary engine was very cost-intensive for the small company. Problems with the apex seals of the engine rotor significantly damaged the brand’s reputation among consumers.

investment in Wankel engines brought about the ruin of NSU and also Norton.

In 1969, NSU was taken over by Volkswagenwerk AG.


Wankel engine cutaway – Softeis



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