Back in the 1960s, a little German car company decided to spend a lot of money to create a new-to-them type of engine. The car company in question was NSU, and the engine that cost them so much money was a Wankel.
In a first-ever for the Rare Rides series, this will be a four-part entry. Come along as we explore the NSU brand and the Spider; a tiny roadster which ended up almost entirely responsible for the demise of its parent company.
We’ve skirted around the NSU brand previously, when Rare Rides featured a DKW 3=6 of interesting origins. You can read those history lessons here and here. The DKW articles did not mention NSU directly, as the brand was a later addition to the Auto Union group. While DKW purchased the majority of Audi in 1928, merging DKW, Horch, Audi, and Wanderer to form Auto Union in 1932, NSU would remain an independent entity up through 1969. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; we first need to talk about knitting.
NSU originated in 1873 as a manufacturer of knitting machines. The company was quite good at making the machines, apparently, growing rapidly after relocating from its initial factory in 1880. Not content with machines for knitting, the company expanded its scope into bicycle manufacturing.
The production of bicycles proved more lucrative and interesting than the knitting machine business, and by 1892 the company only produced two-wheeled transportation devices. A rebranding happened around this time, as “Werkstätte zur Herstellung von Strickmaschinen” didn’t fit well on the frame of a bicycle. The company decided NSU was more suitable, but still was not content with its product offering.
Expanding offerings into bicycles with engines, the company produced its first motorcycle in 1901. In 1905, NSU followed this effort with the first NSU automobiles. The initial automobile offering was the three-wheeled Sulmobil, designed by NSU and powered by a one-cylinder engine making 3.5 horsepower. Also on offer were two license-produced vehicles called the NSU-Pipe 34 and 50, designated by their respective metric horsepower measurements. These vehicles had much larger four-cylinder engines. However, NSU had no part in their design.
The aforementioned Sulmobile with its three-wheel setup was a sort of halfway point between motorcycle and car. Expensive for the time, the NSUs were also compromised. Maximum passenger and cargo load for the Sulmobile was between 330 and 440 pounds. But NSU was happy it had a “car” on the road, and was pushing forward with development and technology.
But development and technology didn’t ensure the company was actually making any money. Stay tuned for Part II, when NSU gets into some hot water.