NSU created an engineering masterpiece with the Ro 80
In the end, NSU’s fate hung primarily on the Wankel or rotary engine, which the company had been steadily developing since the early 1950s. But even the first vehicle to feature this technology – the NSU Wankel Spider introduced in 1964 – proved to be a failure. The NSU Ro 80 introduced three years later with a twin-disc Wankel engine beneath the hood fared no better. Although the sedan was ahead of its time, it failed with customers, not least because of numerous problems with the new engine. NSU’s finances became completely precarious because the company had been developing another model since the mid-1960s, the K 70, which was supposed to complement the top of the range Ro 80 with front wheel drive and a water cooled front in-line engine. The enormously high development costs broke the camel’s back – in 1969, the company merged with its competitor Auto Union.
The DAF and Saab brands had a loyal fan base in Europe
Incidentally, innovative technology and distinctive vehicles are also the hallmarks of the DAF and Saab brands. Neither the Dutch nor the Swedes found a large audience on the European market, but they did have a loyal fan base. When it came to quaint small cars like the DAF 600, the most popular feature was the Variomatic – an infinitely variable fan belt automatic with a centrifugal clutch that enabled jerk-free driving. However, rust-prone bodywork and negligible driving characteristics were early problems for the brand’s image. The bottom line was that DAF’s foray into the passenger car business remained an episode – in view of weak capital resources, the Dutch company decided in the mid-1970s to continue its truck division. The Saab brand, on the other hand, had a longer model history. The Swedes entered the German market in 1973 through a branch in Frankfurt am Main. Aerodynamic design, turbo technology, and safety technology such as side impact protection in the doors characterized the brand’s appearance, as did the peculiarity of installing the ignition lock in the center console. Models like the Saab 99 were soon regarded as cars for non-conformists. For a long time, the Swedes’ recipe for success was to shape their model policy in close cooperation with partners such as Triumph, Lancia, Fiat, and Alfa Romeo. In the early 1990s, however, they ended up with General Motors. There, Saab increasingly lost its brand essence – when GM itself got into troubled waters in 2008, the end came for Saab three years later.
The Trabant writes a chapter in automobile history
The Trabant from VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke Zwickau has undoubtedly written a piece of automotive history. Ambitious startups should not derive strategic insights from this, however. After all, the Trabant 601 – basically the automobile of the people in the GDR – introduced in 1964, was allowed to lead an unexcited car life almost unchanged for a quarter of a century. When the Berlin Wall came down, it was literally overrun by vehicles with modern technology. On April 30, 1991, production of the small car ended after more than three million units.