NSU Wankel Spider – 1964

The long-established NSU car company was sold to Fiat in the 1930s, but the name was revived in World War II for production of the SdKfz 2, better known as the Kettenkrad — a small half-tracked all-terrain vehicle with a motorcycle front end.

After hostilities ended, NSU restarted as a motorcycle manufacturer. Its innovative machines were very successful and NSU became a world leader in motorcycle production by the mid-1950s. This encouraged the company to start building cars.

The first four-wheeled offering was the small Prinz saloon, launched in 1957, but NSU might have become a footnote in postwar automobile history had it not been for the extraordinary Wankelspider. At first glance there was nothing very special about the plainly styled but attractive little convertible that appeared at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1964, based on NSU’s four-year-old Sport Prinz coupe.

The special secret lay beneath a shallow luggage locker at the back — an innovative Wankel rotary engine positioned over the rear axle. This was an incredibly efficient single-cylinder power plant developed by the gifted German engineer Felix Wankel. A rolling rotor turned within the single combustion chamber converting combustion pressure directly into rotary movement, eliminating energy loss experienced in a conventional piston engine when reciprocating movement is converted into rotational movement. The result was a very compact high-revving engine that generated enormous excitement and was initially hailed the next great advance in automotive technology. It wasn’t, but that’s another story.

The little Wankel Spider was something of a test bed for the new engine, and NSU was not overly concerned with sales. The company was more interested in pioneering the engine concept that was intended to make its fortune, and only some 2,400 units were produced before the little roadster was discontinued in 1966. And after that the fun really began.




1964 (until 1966)


498 cc Single-rotor Wankel


Top speed of 92 mph (148 km/h); 0-60 mph (97 km /h) in 16.7 secs


Despite the many licenses issued to produce the Wankel engine, the only manufacturer to have overcome the technical problems and use it consistently in production cars has been Mazda, in such niche performance cars as the RX-7 introduced in the late 1970s.


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