"That’s it, go on, snigger. The Wankel rotary engine may have a crass-sounding name, but the cars it powered were anything but. With fewer moving parts than a traditional piston engine, the rotary was smoother, quieter, and – hurrah! – more "
How the NSU Ro80 created modern Audi
Claus Luthe’s classic design set a template unbroken to this day
If not for this beautiful, elegant piece of saloon design, we would have no modern-day Audi,
because the NSU Ro80 was, in essence, the Genesis of the now-mighty German brand.
Of course, Audi’s original beginnings lay in the combined Auto Union of the 1930s, when Horch, DKW, Wanderer and Audi came together to try and take on the might of Mercedes-Benz in showrooms and on racing tracks. Back then NSU made motorbikes, and an abortive attempt at car production had ended in disaster and the factory being flogged to Fiat. Perhaps they should have taken that as a warning…
Post-war, NSU decided to have another crack at the car thing, and designed the rear-engined Prinz, which used a neat little four-cylinder engine and, rather like its contemporary the Mini, was a small economy car that was surprisingly sporty to drive. It sold well, and thus emboldened NSU decided a bigger car, with more technology, would be appropriate. The firm had become interested in the work of Dr Felix Wankel (in spite of his somewhat dubious political history, ahem) and was keen on his light, powerful rotary engines. Suitably re-engineered by NSU’s own Hanns Dieter Paschke (something that apparently infuriated Wankel no end) NSU had some success with a small, light rotary-engined sports car called the Wankelspider. Yes, we know.
That sold well enough, so the next step was the Ro80. And here is where the birth of Audi, at least the Audi we know, really starts to come into focus. Claus Luthe is more famous these days for designing BMW’s deservedly legendary E30 3 Series and even the dart-shaped 850i but one of his first big jobs was the Ro80. In it, he gave us a true classic — a low, chamfered wedge with perfect proportions, topped by a light, glazed turret of a roof. And Audi has really not budged all that far from the Ro80 template since. Even though he moved to BMW afterwards, Luthe has been, effectively, designing Audis ever since. The relationship is most obvious the in 1980s Audi 80 and Audi 100, but even today the influence is clear. The low, jutting nose with prominent grille? Have a look at the Ro80 and then look at Audi’s recent Prologue concept coupe and tell me you don’t see the Ro80’s face in there. Or look at the outgoing A5 coupe and then compare the up-and-over curve of the rear wing to that of the NSU.
Of course, the Ro80 has had a rather more significant influence than mere styling. That rotary engine was ground-breaking, but also bank-breaking. Smooth and silent it may have been, but poor metallurgical choices and a lack of mechanical understanding in dealerships meant NSU’s accounts were drained by repeated warranty claims, and it was forced to sell to Volkswagen in 1969. VW kept the Ro in production until 1977, after which the company was folded into a reborn Audi.
Now look at Audi. OK, so it created the Quattro in 1981, which was fairly daring, and the aluminium spaceframe in 1994 but by and large Audi has been relatively mechanically conservative. It has made good use of the VW parts bin over the years, but models which seem ground-breaking (the TT Coupe, the R8 supercar) are actually pretty well grounded, using tried-and-tested mechanicals, wrapped in very stylish bodywork.
It’s almost as if, somewhere in Audi’s corporate DNA, there is a memory of a time when someone reached for the technological stars, and fell well and truly short.
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