How rotary put new spin on engines

2013-02-18 13:20

Fuel-cell cars, hydrogen fuel, battery, hybrids, diesel – engine manufacturers must be totally confused about the way forward. Felix Wankel wasn't...

Ford's certainly set the cat among the pigeons by fitting its prize-winning one-litre EcoBoost engine in the new Fiesta being launched in South Africa this week.

Undoubtedly an exciting engine and one that has the greatest accolade to which an automaker can aspire: the 2012 International Engine of the Year, the first time Ford has won in the 13-year history of the prize. Moreover, the little EcoBoost scored the highest in the history of the awards.


Yet it’s worth recording – if only for posterity’s sake – an announcement made more than 50 years ago of an entirely different engine that also shook the motoring world. If you know your cars (as I’m sure Wheels24 readers do) you’ll have already recognised the car in the image above to be an NSU RO80, but I'd like to tell you more about it.

First, a question... What do Rolls-Royce, a Suzuki motorcycle, a John Deere tractor, Norton Motorcycles, Mercedes-Benz and the Mazda Car Company of Japan have in common? (You just never know when a question such as this could be asked at your next pub quiz.) The answer:  The research and development department of each of the above dabbled in rotary engine manufacture and at least one, Mazda, is still being a firm believer in rotary in its sports car range.

It was NSU’s Dr Felix Wankel who built and marketed the first rotary engine back in 1960, although it was to take another three years before the East German brand showcased the Sport Prinz model – with the rather special engine under – to the world at the Frankfurt auto show.

“Piston engines currently on offer are little more than a nightmare of conflicting motions,” Wankel was heard to remark on the NSU stand.


Yes, the car looked a little dated, but the engine was a revelation, the motoring media said at the time. The 1.2-litre, two-rotor was diminutive by comparison to a regular four-cylinder piston engine – but didn’t it go! It revved so freely and had such power that many customers bought the car back for an engine replacement, under warranty of course, within the first year of purchase.

Teething problems with rotor seals were never quite conquered but with the advent of the long-nosed NSU RO80 in 1967 the company hoped all those problems were firmly behind them and stood back for the good times surely ahead.

Again, the rotary-powered car was eagerly sought by customers across Europe and even further afield who had by now heard about the many virtues of owning one of the quickest sedans around. Indeed, the European motoring media gave the car the ultimate accolade: 1967 Car of the Year.

Alas, the radical engine continued to give trouble, but a worse fate was just around the corner for the oldest car company in the world that had been founded back 1873: NSU was technically bankrupt. And worse: Wankel had “forgotten” to patent all the hard work of development at the factory.


Around the same time Mercedes was dabbling in rotary engine technology with its concept C111; Rolls-Royce, it was reported at the time, was believed to have had a rotary prototype running at its Crewe plant in the British Midlands, while Norton and Suzuki took a long, hard look at these compact but really powerful units for their two-wheeled machinery.

I’m reliably informed that American tractor company John Deere bought some loosely-termed German patents for their own advancement.

Only Mazda Japan persists with rotary technology. I’m not sure if the company went through the normal channels to obtain patent rights for rotary engine manufacture in the Land of the Rising Sun but, as "learn” and “copy” are the same word in Japanese, probably not!