This Restored NSU Prinz 4 Is Still Rolling Its Odometer Around Europe
Photography by Máté Boér
NSU is one of those significant manufacturers of the past which has unfortunately disappeared, but their rich heritage lives on and will be never forgotten. How are they remembered today? Take a brief look into the history of one of the manufacturers of Audi’s ancestors through the brand’s most successful model to see why these cars still deserve attention.
Put the address “NSU Straße 1/Neckarsulm/Germany” into your GPS device and it will guide you to a glass and steel palace, one of Audi AG’s more important facilities (nowadays the birthplace of top of the line models, like the A6, A8, and the R8 supercar). But, as the address respectfully refers to, this was the place where the NSU (the name is an abbreviation of the city Neckarsulm) motorbikes and cars were born.
The brand’s origins lead back to 1873, when the knitting machine manufacturer of Christian Schmidt was founded in Riedlingen. Thanks to the fast development, the production moved to the Neckar River in Neckarsulm in 1880, and only a decade later, bicycle production completely overtook knitting machines. The NSU brand name first appeared on the Germania velocipedes. It didn’t take too long after that until the production of NSU’s first motorbike started in 1902, and the petrol-powered success story began.
Although the factory was heavily attacked and all but destroyed during WWII, the recovery was fast, and thanks to the company’s very talented chief engineer Albert Roder, NSU became the biggest motorcycle producer in the world by 1955. Among many other triumphs, their motorbikes gained four world speed records in 1951, 1953, 1954, and 1955, and, in 1965 Wilhelm Herz was the first man to ride faster than 200 mph on two wheels on his NSU over the famed Bonneville Salt Flats. The motorbike production continued in Neckarsulm until 1968.
In 1905 NSU started to build automobiles under license from the Belgian car manufacturer Pipe, and the NSU-Pipe 34 PS and NSU-Pipe 50 PS were the first cars to roll off the line under the company’s name. The production and development of the cars lasted until 1929, when as a result of the economic woes in Germany at the time, the car manufacturing department—NSU Automobil AG—was sold to Fiat with the then recently finished production facility in Heilbronn. The deal resulted in the confusing situation in which two different companies, NSU and NSU-Fiat existed as separate entities, but were only four miles apart from each other and with very similar names. This became annoying to the Germans in the heyday of their motorbike production, when the brandname’s value rose. After a long fight between lawyers, NSU-Fiat was forced to change its name, and “Neckar” branded cars were the result.
After the clarification of the naming issue in 1957, the stage was all set for NSU Motorenwerke AG to reenter the car market. This time with its own design, the tiny Prinz I, powered by a 600cc engine—more or less doubled-up motorbike units. The advertising slogan said: “Fahre Prinz und Du bist König!” (“Drive a Prince and you are a King!”). The first model had different trim levels as well: the better equipped Prinz II, and the “sportier” Prinz III.
The Prinz 4—the car pictured in this article—a much improved successor to the Prinz III, arrived in 1961. It was priced similarly to the Mini 850 and the Fiat 600D (and Neckar Jagst) and came with a heater, an electric clock, and parking lights as standard. The 598cc air-cooled, two-cylinder rear-mounted engine represents the common origin with the motorbikes: the camshaft is driven by an eccentric rod, the engine and the transmission sits in the same housing. The 30 horsepower unit made the 570kg five-seater capable of 70mph. The Prinz 4 was very popular in Italy during the 1960s, and between 1968 and 1970, more than 70% of the cars made were exported there! Fun fact: this model was the first mass-produced car in Egypt, bearing the locationally-appropriate name, Ramses II.
The beige 4L shown here though arrived in Hungary as a subsidiary part of a deal between an Italian seller and Hungarian NSU enthusiasts. They went to buy the more desirable, four-cylinder NSU 1000C, but the seller of that car wanted to get rid of this Prinz 4 as well. It sat behind and under boxes, with only the front left headlight visible through the mess.
“It took us hours to get the car out of the garage. There were dozens of boxes inside and on the car, the panels dented at some points under the heavy weight. It didn’t look promising, especially because these cars aren’t worth much to start with. But, it had soul and we discovered that the engine didn’t get stuck in the 20 years it’d been standing,” says Feri as he recounts the story of his favorite NSU.
Feri was born into an NSU enthusiast family, and to prove it, his first ever ride was in an NSU from the hospital to the family’s home! His father was a well-known mechanic for these little German cars, while his brother-in-law was successful on racetracks and hillclimbs with the make. He now carries on the tradition, and has become an acknowledged figure in the air-cooled NSU community, often asked to build an engines for international fans of the brand. My girlfriend nicknamed him “Carburetor Feri”, after hearing my consistent praise of how well he set up my classic Opel, so it’s not just the NSUs that he’s good with.
Feri says he’s always wanted the two-cylinder NSU, and though he has owned many four-cylinder NSUs, the less exotic 600 (one of the nicknames of the Prinz 4) had been missing from his collection. Shortly after the car arrived to the garage, the engine started and ran as smoothly as a Doxa watch. Under unlovely covers, the original panels were in a good shape, and the odometer showed only 67,000km.
“I had to drive it, and after repairing the brakes I could make a small test drive in the nearby streets. Eureka, this is what I want!” he says about the deciding moment of the NSU’s future. Except for the paint job and the upholstery, everything was made by Feri during the complete restoration and he is proud that all the original welding points have remained intact on his car.
The 600 is not only the most successful, but the most reliable model from NSU—Feri has friends who drive them in Namibia without hesitation, they say it’s the one that survives the heat. By today’s standards it is obviously a small machine, but upon its arrival in-period, Germans of the middle class drove the likes of BMW Isettas and Messerschmitt Kabinrollers, and so the NSU was a good option for a family car at the time.
The Prinz 4 is a great classic even for daily use, and I could never get bored of that winsome sound when it’s started by the dynastart system. Thanks to the rev-happy engine, it’s not a challenge to keep up with the rhythm of the city traffic.
From 1964, NSU made 1.0L and 1.2L four-cylinder models, which brought more attention and fame to the make, but in parallel, the Germans scored an “own goal” with the development and mass-production of the infamous Wankel rotary engine. In 1969 Volkswagen merged NSU into Auto Union AG and the Audi NSU Auto Union AG was born. Exactly 100 years after the foundation of Christian Schmidt’s factory, the production of the two- and four-cylinder rear-engine models were stopped. Rumors say, the reason behind this decision was that they were too competitive against VW’s most important product, the Beetle.
More than half a million Prinz 4s were assembled though, and this one found the best home, what any NSU, or car for that matter, could wish for. Last summer Feri and a friend drove the 600 from Hungary to Neckarsulm as part of a ritual they do with every single car they restore. It’s needless to say that the little car got through the 2000 kilometer-long trip without any notable issues. After all, you should drive it like a modern car according to Feri, which he does, giving a second life to a small but important piece of German automotive history.