Mazda is the only brand associated with the rotary engine, powering its iconic RX-7 and RX-8 sports cars. However, the first production car to feature a Wankel is the NSU Spider. You may not have heard about it, but Jay Leno owns one and he just took it out for a drive.
The Wankel engine is named after its inventor, German mechanical engineer Felix Heinrich Wankel. In 1954, he created a smooth, refined powertrain that replaced moving pistons with spinning rotors inside an oval chamber (cylinder). This meant it had fewer moving parts and was much lighter, but it also came with many drawbacks.
Two years later, NSU engineer Hanns Dieter Paschke redesigned the Wankel motor to be cheaper for mass production. Its debut was in the NSU Spider, a 1,550-pound two-seater convertible. It only had one rotor in the rear which produced almost 50 horsepower.
Jay Leno has a great time showing off the engine. First, he opens the hood, and it’s not there. Popping open the trunk doesn’t reveal an engine either. Only once the secret compartment is located do we see the Wankel, which is “so tiny.”
Leno admits that the tachometer doesn’t always work right, which can be a problem. As the rotary engine’s RPMs climb, you run the risk of damaging the seals. Years later, Mazda found an engineering solution to this problem, graphite seals. However, it still wasn’t as reliable and efficient as piston engines, which ultimately led to its discontinuation in 2012.
Wankel problems, the Japanese answer
The NSU Spider is a very rare car, with only 2,375 units made from 1964 to 1967. Although many survived, it’s pretty rare to see one for sale, and prices vary wildly depending on the condition. It retailed for around $3,600 back in the day, and because it only offered a fraction of the power of a V8 Mustang, the Spider wasn’t popular. Yet Jay Leno says the car is a joy to drive, particularly thanks to its light weight and 4-speed gearbox.
In a way, the Wankel killed NSU and resulted in the creation of Audi. The rotary engines of the Spider and its successor the Ro 80 required frequent rebuilding to replace worn apex seals, and warranty costs destroyed the financial stability of the German company founded all the way back in 1873. VW bought them in 1969, created a merger with Auto Union under Audi NSU Auto Union AG, and ultimately Audi.
Technically, the first rotary-powered car is the Skoda 1000 MB, of which an unknown number were produced in the early 1960s. However, they were prototypes, not for sale.
Mazda’s first rotary car was the Cosmo, introduced in 1967. It was the first production vehicle with a twin-rotor engine, just a few days ahead of the NSU Ro 80. The Japanese car had a similar displacement to the Spider at just under one liter yet produced an impressive 110 hp (thus the 110S name used in export markets). Jay Leno owns a 1970 Series II Cosmo which he’s featured multiple times.