NSU Motorenwerke Museum. Neckarsulm, Germany

crankandpiston visits the NSU Motorenworke Museum in Neckarsulm, Germany.

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The Deutsches Zweirad- und NSU-Museum in Germany might not feature at the top of most petrol sniffers ‘must see’ places of automotive interest. For many, even the name will be hard to pronounce. Being in Neckarsulm – with an Audi RS7 at our disposal – we decided to stop by and have a nosey anyway.

NSU Motorenwerke has almost disappeared from our collective consciousness and rarely gets a mention except as a footnote in the history of Audi. Volkswagen’s takeover of NSU Motorenwerke in 1969 and the subsequent merging of the company into the Auto Union brand means that the ghost of NSU’s greatness only survives as one of the symbolic rings on the grille of an Audi.

From humble beginnings as a knitting machine manufacturer, NSU progressed to bicycles and then motorcycles. By 1955 NSU had become the biggest motorcycle producer in the world with sporting success in the Isle of Man TT races as well as setting many world speed records. The majority of vehicles on display in the museum are therefore of the two-wheeled variety which, I must confess, I know very little about.

It is a massive and eclectic mix of machinery piled in to the small confines of this tiny museum and features bikes from other manufacturers as well as NSU. My natural JDM persuasion attracts me to the Japanese sports bikes, however, it is the steampunk-esque curious contraptions of yesteryear that surprisingly prove most interesting.

One of these motorised death traps (um, maybe that should read ‘interesting motorbikes’) features a steering wheel, three pedals and a centre mounted gear selector. Even that seems relatively ‘normal’ in comparison to what must rate as the most awesome motorbike ever made. How does a five cylinder, front-wheel drive, front-wheel mounted radial engined bike take your fancy? Wonder why that never caught on…

Something that did catch on was the NSU Kleines Kettenkraftrad HK 10 also known as the SdKfz 2. This half-track motorcycle military vehicle was used throughout much of the Second World War and saw action mainly on the Eastern Front and in North Africa. After the war, its ability to traverse difficult terrain gave it a new lease of life as an agricultural vehicle, and also in the odd Hollywood movie.

It is the cars from NSU that intrigue me the most. The NSU TT – with its rear mounted straight four – used to lap the Nürburgring with astonishing agility until Volkswagen decided it was a little too competitive against their products and pulled the plug. Even sitting in a cramped corner of this little museum it looks as feisty and ready for action as ever. I wonder if they occasionally let the little fella out for a nostalgic lap or two?

With NSU though, the single most important thing is not to dis the Wankel. NSU produced the first Wankel engined car – the Wanklespider – and gave birth to the Rotard movement. Not only is this one of the best names for a car ever, its revolutionary (!) engine had pretty much every major car manufacturer purchasing licenses from NSU to develop and produce the rotary engine. The Ro 80 followed and had a twin-rotor engine, however, as historians – and Mazdafarian Rotards – will know, the Wankel rotary engine has really only had true success with one manufacturer.

With the exception of Mazda, the other manufacturers did not continue developing the Wankel engine and NSU therefore failed to profit from the royalties. The expensive development of the rotary engine had financially crippled the company and the technology – still in its infancy – proved unreliable. NSU’s reputation suffered and in 1969, the company was taken over by Volkswagen Group. Ironic to think that the greatest achievement – and reason for NSU’s importance in automotive history – was the deciding factor in its downfall.

The Deutsches Zweirad- und NSU-Museum in Nekarsulm, Germany: full of interesting and curious things and well worth a visit.


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