1963 NSU Wankel Spider. Click image to enlarge
By Bill Vance
The NSU Wankel Spider could have been just another of the many minimalist German cars like Lloyd, Goggomobile and Isetta that evolved after the Second World War. But it stood apart from the rest because it had a rotary combustion engine designed by German engineer Felix Wankel, the first production car to use a Wankel.
Although other propulsion systems like electric motors, steam engines and gas turbines were tried, the internal combustion piston engine emerged as the power of choice for cars. For reliability, performance, power and practicality, there were no real alternatives.
Wankel was convinced there was a better way to produce power than by stopping and starting pistons many times per second. In his quest for smooth power flow Wankel began working on his rotary engine idea in the 1920s. His first patent came in the ’30s, and the engine finally came to fruition at NSU in the ’50s.
The Wankel had a triangular rotor (equivalent to a piston) that turned inside an irregular circular casing (equivalent to an engine block). The four engine cycles (intake, compression, power and exhaust) were achieved by the varying volumes created by the rotating rotor.
NSU was a world famous German motorcycle builder that had also built cars from 1905 to 1931. It returned to cars in 1958 with the NSU Prinz, a small sedan with a rear-mounted, air cooled, twin-cylinder piston engine. There was also a two-seater Sport Prinz and a Wankel Spider. Except for its rotary engine the Spider would be a slight variation of the Sport Prinz.
The NSU Wankel Spider was introduced at the 1963 Frankfurt auto show in Germany. Its lines were somewhat akin to a junior Alfa Romeo, and the novelty of the rotary engine made it the hit of the show.