NSU began as a knitting machine manufacturer in the town of Riedlingen on the Danube in 1873, and moved to Neckarsulm, where the river Sulm flows into the river Neckar, in 1884. The company soon began to produce bicycles as well, and by 1892, bicycle manufacturing had completely replaced the knitting machine production. At about this time, the name NSU (from Neckar and Sulm) appeared as a brand name.
In the early years of the 20th century NSU motorcycles were developed, and in 1905 the first NSU cars appeared. In 1932 the car production in Heilbronn was sold to Fiat.
During World War II NSU designed and produced the famous Kettenkrad, NSU HK101 a half-tracked motorcycle with the engine of the Opel Olympia.
In 1873 two young mechanics, Heinrich Stoll and Christian Schmidt, opened a "Mechanical shop for manufacturing knitting machines" in Riedlingen an der Donau before moving to more suitable facilities in Neckarsulm.
They derived the name NSU from the first letters in the names of the rivers surrounding the plant: Neckar and SUlm.
The knitting machines sold well but the bicycle had become extremely popular and the young entrepreneurs were early adopters - they became "Neckarsulmer Fahrradwerke". The NSU bicycles gained widespread acceptance and the development from high wheeler to more modern ball-bearing equipped bicycles progressed rapidly.
From the bicycle to the motorcycle was not a long step and by 1901 the very first NSU motorcycle was ready. It had a 1,5 hp motor, imported from Zedel of Switzerland.
In 1903 NSU began production of motors and by 1904 there were six different models to choose from. NSU was well aware of the importance of racing their products and that doing so had a positive effect both for development, and sales. And many were the records and victories.
NSU built a number of three-wheeled commercial transports (Dreirad), the first appearing around 1903 with a watercooled single-cylinder engine driving the rear wheel, and two wheels at the front supporting the goods container. Steering was by steering wheel.
The "Sulmobil" type IV Transport-Dreirad was built from 1906 to 1908 had a 3.5 h.p engine mounted above the front wheel which it drove by chain. It had a 200kg payload.
In 1905 NSU had a very popular 3 hp version and in 1909 a large V-twin of almost 1000cc was introduced.
Along side the successful motorcycle production the manufacturing of automobiles slowly began. In 1905 the first car was presented and only a couple of years later several motor alternatives ranging from 1300cc to almost 4 litres were available. Soon also taxicabs and small lorries (trucks) were put in production. WW 1 slowed the speed of development down as NSU contributed with both cars and motorcycles to the "Wehrmacht".
By 1910, strong inroads into export markets had been achieved. with NSU accounting for 22% of motorcycle sales in Great Britain. Their factory in England had 1500 employees in 1914.
The development of the 250cc ohv engine was undertaken in 1925 by NSU chief designer Ing. Otto Reitz. He revised the V-twin racing models of the larger classes and developed the new block engine model series.
In the mid-1920s NSU car racing was at its peak, and several Grand Prix victories were a achieved. Some believe that the Audi A8 was the first car with a body made entirely from aluminium, however in 1923 NSU built an aluminium bodied car, the 8/24.
Due to financial difficulties (arising no doubt from hyperinflation), the car division was sold to Fiat in 1928. This was shortly after the "running band" was introduced at the production plant. FIAT committed to build NSU cars until 1932.
1933 NSU again built a car - "the beetle" for Ferdinand Porsche, stolen by the Nazis from its Jewish designer, Joseph Ganz. NSU built three prototypes "Typ32" models, one of which is in the VW museum in Wolfsburg, before Fiat intervened and prevented further automobile production on contractual grounds. The 4th prototype was built by Porsche.
In 1931 NSU again motorized the bicycle with the Motosulm. 1936 is another notable year for NSU when the bicycle production of Adam Opel was taken over and the two major sales successes Quick and Pony were introduced. That same year, designer Albert Roder joined the firm.
Then came WW II and yet again NSU was ordered to produce for the military: the 250 ZDB motorcycle and the Kettenkrad, a half track vehicle equipped with an Opel Olympia motor were the two main items.
The factory at Neckarsulm was partly destroyed in a bomb raid only a couple of weeks before the end of the war. The plant was used as a "repair- shop" for the allied forces right after the war, but from the wreckage emerged the 98 Quick, entering production in 1945.
In 1948 NSU celebrated its 75 year anniversary and the Fox was presented, a 4 stroke of 100cc. It was marketed with the slogan: "Fixe Fahrer Fahren Fox" (smart riders rides the Fox), during a broad advertising campaign.
Development and recovery from the devastation of the war was rapid, and in the early 50's NSU began manufacturing the Italian Lambretta scooter under license.
The Quick continued as a best-seller, and the Konsul I and II of 350 and 500cc based on pre-war models were reintroduced in an effort to compete with BMW and Zündapp. The "oldtimers" disappeared in 1953 when the Roder-designed Max 250cc fourstroke was introduced. The Max rapidly achieved a reputation of being an extremely well built and driveable motorcycle. Later that year the Quickly moped (50cc) was released to popular acclaim, and by 1954 the factory was producing some 1000 of the classy little machines daily. By 1960 over one million units had been produced.
In the 50's NSU had great success on the race tracks all over the world with their motorcycles. Many records were broken and some remain intact to this day.
The license to build Lambretta scooters expired in 1955 and the NSU constructors created their own version, the 147cc Prima D, which hit the market in 1956. The scooters developed fast and soon the 150cc Prima III and the 175cc Prima V (Fünfstern) were brought to market.
NSU had a 4- stroke, Max-engined scooter, the Maxima, almost ready for production in the early 60's, but as the scooter sales dropped the project was scrapped.
During the 1950s NSU cast their eyes towards the car market. The first draft was the three-wheeled microcar dubbed the Max Kabine. At the start of the car production in 1957 it fortunately had four wheels and was named Prinz I & II. The power source of the minicar was a "double" Max motor at 598cc and 20 hp. The cooperation with Dr Felix Wankel was already in progress and the experiments with the Wankel motor were a fact.
The same year, 1963, the "mini- Corvair" Prinz 4 was
introduced, using the powerplant from the smaller Prinz, a 600cc 30
hp engine. The P4 was in production all until the end of NSU car
production in 1973. It was the most produced car of all the NSUs, and at
some point it was the most popular car imported in Italy.
In 1959 the very smart Bertone designed Sport Prinz was introduced. The first 2.400 cars were actually assembled in Torino in Italy. The Prinz motor was tuned to 30 hp and this engine was also placed in Prinz III which basically was a refreshed Prinz II.
During these years bicycle production was also in full swing.
The Prinz 1000 arrived in 1964. As the model designation suggests it was equipped with a 1 litre (996cc), fan cooled, inline 4 OHC 45 hp engine. Weighing only 700 kgs and with excellent roadholding, it was a fast car that became popular for racing. Some ,even sportier, versions were the TT, which came in 1965, with 1085cc/65 hp which later developed into the 1200TT of 1177cc.
They also built some 2400 TTS-engined cars most of which went into the hands of competition drivers. The TTS was of 997cc with two Solex 40 carburettors and delivered 70 hp.
Both the TT and the TTS engines were used in Munch motorcycles
The very last scooters left the factory in 1964 and the motorcycle era ended in 1965 with Quick 50. Not even the bicycles were genuinely NSU anymore as they were license-made by Heinemann.
The long nosed Typ110 (1085cc) saw the streets in 1966. It was the limousine of the NSU family and was followed by the 110SC which was the first car to have the 1200 engine (1177cc), delivering 60hp. In 1967 the power output was reduced to 55hp. Production of the Typ110 along with the Prinz 4 and 1000 continued until 1973.
NSU built the first Wankel motor that was ready to be tested in a car in 1960, and in September of 1963 the Wankel Spider was presented at the Frankfurt fair. It had quite attractive lines, rather like a convertible Sport Prinz. Some 2,400 cars were built until production ceased in 1967.
The Spider was a source of many problems, the single-rotor engine having not been thoroughly tested. A good part of the problem was that the engine loved to rev, and despite the owners manual stating that this was not a good look, the tacho needle was frequently wound well into the red.
The NSU Ro80 was unveiled in Frankfurt autumn of 1967. It was a revolutionary car in a quite new size bracket for NSU. The two-rotor Wankel engine, with a displacement of nearly one litre, gave 115 hp. It was a modern, streamlined, car with timeless lines. Unfortunately the engines also here suffered from many teething problems and that cost both effort and money for the NSU company.
In the mean time NSU also worked on the model K70, yet another modern family car, somewhat smaller than the Ro80 and with an NSU first: a watercooled engine. The engine looked rather like the 1000- 1200 motors, but displaces 1600 cc. Only 23 prototypes were made under the name NSU. At the Frankfurt fair in 1969 the emblems were changed to VW and it was marketed as a VW K70.
Under pressure from one of the main stock holders, a large German bank, NSU was sold to VW/Audi in 1969. The Wankel cars had, simply put, cost NSU too much.
Much of the R&D work on the Wankel motor was done at NSU in Neckarsulm. The Ro80 was produced until 1977 with a total build of about 33.000 units, unfortunately without implementing any of the things they discovered during the development process.
The fine technicians and constructors, the key to NSU's successful years, and which VW previously lacked, entered the VW/Audi sphere. Some of them continued working on the new generation of cars: Golf (in the US: Rabbit), Passat and many more. The first to hit the streets was Audi 50, that more or less took over from the small NSUs in 1973. One can clearly see its heritage, as with the Passat, that claims to have been on the NSU drawing boards as early as 1969. The 100 year- anniversary in 1973 wasn't a happy one at NSU!
By 1984 the name NSU was discontinued within the VW/Audi concern.
Audi-Werke in Neckarsulm where Audi A2, A6 and A8 are produced, has the address NSU-Strasse. In 1998 Audi held the 125th anniversary as a tribute to NSU. Audi established NSU GmbH, a department serving under Audi Traditions GmbH.
Sadly, the original NSU showroom at the entrance of the plant in Neckarsulm on the corner of NSU Strasse and Felix Wankel Strasse was demolished in the autumn of 2001.
See also NSU Great Britain