First Rotary-Powered Car Whirrs to Life
Dr. Felix Wankel’s rotary engine was supposed to revolutionize the automobile. Pundits, insiders, and engineers of the ’60s and ’70s openly and enthusiastically sang its praises of simplicity of design and construction, its compact and powerful nature, and its vibrationless running. They promised it would soon be made reliable and fuel efficient relative to more conventional internal-combustion engines, at which point they speculated it would come to absolutely dominate the market—Ward’s Automotive confidently predicted “that by 1980, rotary engines will power 85% of all cars produced in the U.S.”(1)
Nearly every major world manufacturer, not just Mazda as one might imagine, heavily experimented with rotary engines during this time period. In hindsight, they might have been a tiny bit optimistic. 1973’s fuel crisis and continuing durability problems led to a major re-think of the viability of this new wondermotor within the industry, and soon even most Mazdas were retrofitted with piston engines.
The very first production car equipped with a Wankel engine was the NSU Spider, our featured car for this Vintage Friday, below which you’ll find a period brochure. Originally designed to use an existing piston engine, it was later decided that it would make a sylish showcase for a new type of non-reciprocating powerplant, which Wankel developed during his time as an NSU employee. The resultant car was a pretty little roadster featuring a diminutive and exotic motor built around a triangle spinning in a figure-eight, and it wowed the public with its free-revving character and construction that included only two moving parts. Production was limited to just under 2,400 cars between 1964 and 1967, but due to the nature of small sports cars, few acquired enough miles in this time to highlight the design’s intrinsic flaws.
Shortly afterwards NSU placed all their bets on a new rotary-powered sedan, the beautiful and incredibly advanced Ro80. Unfortunately the Ro soon became known less for its pioneering engineering and more for its dismal dependability record. Many cars needed full engine replacements after as little as 30,000 miles, and the associated warranty claims cost soon put NSU out of business forever.
In 2012 Mazda built its last RX-8, and with it shut down further rotary development, ending more than 50 years of constant and incremental improvements, none of which ever fully eliminated the engine’s thirst or longevity problems.
Photo Sources: (1) Source: Auto Neurotic Fixation