HomeCar CultureLeno Wrangles the Wankel

Leno Wrangles the Wankel

Jay schools us on the NSU Spider


Is there an automotive enthusiast who dislikes Jay Leno? Doesn’t exist! Who can resist a good-humored guy who has the resources to build an eclectic collection we all dream about?

But, for all the variety in Jay’s collection, few Americans will be familiar with the NSU that’s on the below video. A German manufacturer that was once the world’s largest manufacturer of motorcycles, NSU has the distinction of building the first production automobile powered by the Wankel rotary engine: the 1964-67 Spider. Designed by Bertone, the NSU Spider was a convertible of the more conventionally powered NSU Sport Prinz coupe. The single-rotor Wankel measured 996cc and offered between 50-54 horsepower depending on when it was built. However, for all its clever packaging and new-fangled engineering, the Wankel experienced teething problems and fought a reputation for unreliability.

NSU tried again with the Citroen-esque 1968-77 Ro 80, this one a twin-rotor Wankel, but the company was left in a weak position and Volkswagen bought the company in 1969 and merged it with Auto Union (which had previously entered the American market in the 1950s with its two-stroke sedans) to create what we now know as Audi.

And the Wankel? Several manufacturers were seduced by it but only Mazda truly made the investment, even managing to sort out its teething problems and finding American success in a series of sedans. The Wankel proved itself to be a gas guzzler in a time when Americans were pining for fuel efficiency, so the Wankel’s availability evolved into a dedicated sports car that everyone knows as the RX-7 . . . but that’s for another story.

The above video has Leno driving around Burbank and vicinity where he extols the virtues of the vehicle that started it all — enjoy!

Diego Rosenberg
Diego Rosenberg
Lead Writer Diego Rosenberg is a native of Wilmington, Delaware and Princeton, New Jersey, giving him plenty of exposure to the charms of Carlisle and Englishtown. Though his first love is Citroen, he fell for muscle cars after being seduced by 1950s finned flyers—in fact, he’s written two books on American muscle. But please don’t think there is a strong American bias because foreign weirdness is never far from his heart. With a penchant for underground music from the 1960-70s, Diego and his family reside in the Southwest.



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