NSU Wankel Spider

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Description: “The higher the rpm, the better it goes,” Manny Barreiros says of his 1967 NSU Wankel Spider, the first rotary-powered production car. Ironically perhaps, the rev-happy character of the

“The higher the rpm, the better it goes,” Manny Barreiros says of his 1967 NSU Wankel Spider, the first rotary-powered production car. Ironically perhaps, the rev-happy character of the Wankel would lead to the downfall of its maker.

Neckarsulm, Germany’s NSU provided chassis for Gottlieb Daimler and built motorcycles beginning in 1900. Its first car emerged in 1906. The company made cars through 1929, then for three decades focused solely on motorcycles (NSU-Fiats notwithstanding). Interestingly, NSU’s development of supercharged racing motorcycles would lead back to the Wankel Spider.

NSU’s racing bikes enjoyed success after World War II, until the firm quit racing in the mid-1950s, at which point the company was known for popular mopeds like the Quickly. To boost moped marketing, NSU embarked on record-setting with the Quickly’s 50-cc engine, placing it in an enclosed motorcycle called the Flying Hammock. In 1956 it reached 122 mph at Bonneville, by virtue of its aerodynamics and a rotary supercharger inspired by Felix Wankel.

Wankel first conceived of a rotary engine in the 1920s, though differences with the Nazis and World War II impeded its development. But Wankel’s wartime work on rotary valves and seals would attract the attention of NSU racing director Walter Froede. By 1953 Froede had convinced NSU’s board to back research into Wankel’s engine, which yielded results with the first firing of a Wankel rotary in 1957.

Simultaneously the West German economic recovery was whetting a consumer appetite for cars. In 1958 NSU introduced the diminutive Prinz, powered by an air-cooled 598-cc two-cylinder. Praised for its frugality and handling, the rear-engined car led to the Prinz II, III and IV, and to the Bertone-bodied Sport Prinz.

Work continued on Wankel’s rotary. NSU licensed the technology to Curtiss-Wright and Mazda. Mazda advanced quickly, and it was only through uncommon courtesy that the Japanese maker held its prototype back so the NSU Wankel Spider might debut first at the Frankfurt motor show in 1963.

The Spider was essentially a convertible version of the Sport Prinz, retaining its Bertone body, wishbone suspension and four-speed synchro gearbox. Chief differences lay in the Spider’s soft top, an upgrade to its front disc brakes, and the rotary engine.

Froede improved on Wankel’s design, essentially turning the rotating mass inside out. The resulting 497-cc single-rotor powerplant made 50 hp breathing through a single Solex carburetor. It weighed a wispy 275 pounds and could propel the car to 60 mph in 15 seconds en route to a 98-mph top speed.

The Spider hit dealerships in 1964, competing with the Austin-Healey Sprite and Fiat 850 Spider. When production ended in 1967, 2400 had rolled out of Neckarsulm, including this car, which sold for $2,979.

Our featured car literally found Barreiros, showing up at his Mountainside, New Jersey, garage for repair. Barreiros then took its owner up on his offer to sell.

The Wankel needed attention, which Barreiros lavished on, restoring the rotary, brakes, clutch and ragtop, and respraying it factory-original white. The surprisingly spacious interior benefited, too, its VDO gauges and Blaupunkt radio made like new. The Wankel logo on the wheel hub attracts the eye, which follows the steering column to the floor- board, where it divides the clutch from the brake and throttle.

The car starts with the turn of a key, no clutch depression needed. When revved, it sounds like a blender. The Spider handles like the neutral Sport Prinz, despite an extra 200 pounds. The combination inspires carefree tossability, but that enthusiasm often led contemporary drivers to over-rev the engine, which suffered chronic rotor-seal failures.

Similar problems with NSU’s later Ro80 sedan combined with a generous warranty policy to effectively bankrupt the company. The Ro80’s twin-rotor Wankel was perfected by 1972, but NSU had been absorbed by Audi three years earlier. Still, NSU will be remembered as first to market with a car that begged to be revved.

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