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In late-1950s Germany, with the economic miracle well under way, NSU of Neckarsulm decided that the time was right to go after a piece of the sub-Beetle domestic market, with a car that was as fast as the ubiquitous Volkswagen with half as much engine and a lot less ponderous to drive.
Enter, in 1957, the Prinz.
Here was the company’s first four-wheeler since the ’20s, its intriguing engineering somewhat undermined by its comic styling and the motorcycle connotations of a two-cylinder, 583cc air-cooled engine that shared its oil with the gearbox.
It boasted Dynastart – a combined starter-cum-generator – and an overhead camshaft driven by concentric links like a vintage Bentley.
NSU had been building Fiats under licence since 1930 and fell out badly with the Italians over this new model being entirely of its own conception.
The car’s detractors dismissed it as yet another oddity of West German austerity motoring in the ’50s, but those who drove one of the near-100,000 built between 1958 and ’62 realised that the first Prinz was a ‘real’ 70mph car.
It was ideal for the young family trading up from a motorbike and sidecar combination but who didn’t fancy the indignity of a ‘bubble’.
Unlike many of its poverty car-making competitors, NSU had credibility. If its former indigenous automotive pedigree had mostly been forgotten, its talent for building recording-breaking and World Championship-winning motorcycles certainly had not.
For most people, NSU still equalled mopeds and the famous 50cc Quickly – a streamlined and highly tuned version of which the firm had even persuaded to clock 121mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats.
A few of those early Prinzs came to Britain, and were received enthusiastically enough to generate a UK NSU Owners’ Club that has now been in existence for 53 years.
Yet it was not until the introduction of the Prinz 4 in 1961 that the marque gained international appeal.
It featured much refined suspension, plus a far roomier and more modern Corvair-like body that would be stretched and remodelled through various stages of development.
Sales topped one million units as the car’s popularity spread all over Europe, especially in Italy where the Prinz was the most successful imported car. In Rome in the ’60s and ’70s, they were particularly favoured by nuns.
Thanks to Rosie Canning of the NSU OC, we were able to sample a representative set of these often-overlooked German baby cars – once such familiar pieces of our street furniture – as well as a Quickly moped that Graham Rankin Horley has owned since he was 15.
The Prinz 4, launched at Frankfurt in 1961, was the mainstay of the range that accounted for more than half of those sales and stayed in production right through to 1973, by which time its rear-mounted, in-line twin was looking distinctly outdated in a world of four-cylinder Mini-inspired water-cooled front-drivers.
The featured two-owner 1971 example is a fairly late Prinz L (formerly the De Luxe) owned by Rob Talbot, who grew up with NSUs in his native Canada. He plans to take this one with him when he goes back there to live.
With such ‘luxury’ touches as a separate fuel gauge, windscreen washers and adjustable front seats, it must have seemed positively lavish compared to the similarly priced Mini 850.
There was a more basically trimmed version for Germany and, for chrome-loving UK buyers, a Super Prinz, distinguished by a fake front grille and overriders for the bumpers.
The first thing that you notice, having squeezed in, is that the imposition of the front wheelarches impedes entry and cramps the footwell, slewing the pedals to the left. It’s a common factor with all of these cars.
On its soft mountings, the tiny and heavily cowelled engine has less vibration than you might imagine and it’s really quite sweet from 2000rpm up to as much as 7000 – not that you’d know because there’s no rev counter.
It feels surprisingly lively on a mere 30bhp because it weighs only 1200lb (544kg) and, despite the presence of swing axles, has none of the handling problems linked to tail-heavy rear-engined cars.
This is due to the fact that NSU had craftily inclined the cylinders back 45º so that they are only just aft of the back-axle line.
The clutch is light, as are the delightful steering and gearchange, but the drum brakes – with no servo, as you would expect with such a featherweight car – need quite a heavy shove.
It is hard to reconcile the pretty Bertone-styled Sport Prinz with the shopping-car image of the little bathtub-shaped four-seater.
Low-slung with two seats and additional luggage space, the dainty coupé is a car for slim, slinky people – yet it thrums along cheerfully in much the same way as its saloon brethren.
That said, the clutch is more abrupt in action and for some reason it objects to going through puddles, responding each time with a cough.
This is the second Sport Prinz that Peter Hayward has owned. He uses it most days – he lives on the Isle of Wight – and enjoys its roadholding, but admits that it is ‘sport’ in name only in terms of performance. Its top speed is 75mph.
The Sport Prinz predates the Prinz 4, in fact. First shown in 1959, it was offered as a glamorous coupé alternative to the utilitarian Prinz 30 – the most developed version of the original 1957-’62 Prinz saloon – and the first 250 bodies were actually built in Italy, the remainder being produced in Germany by a coachbuilder local to NSU.
Production finished in ’67 at 20,831 cars, some of which made it to the UK (there are thought to be about six survivors here), although at just under £1000 after import duties it was very much a curiosity.
This is one of the later cars with the 598cc engine and improved suspension of the Prinz 4; front discs were fitted from ’65.
The Prinz 1000 of 1963 – with its lozenge-shaped headlamps – was the first of the four-cylinder models with which NSU could fully square-up to Volkswagen in the marketplace.
The light-alloy engine, with five main bearings and chain-driven overhead camshaft, was slung transversely between the rear wheels, but – as with the Prinz 4 – the centre of gravity was only just behind the axle line.
This was one of the few in-line air-cooled engines in a production car, and the first thing you notice is that each of the cylinders has its own individual cam cover and its exhaust manifolds feed directly into the heat exchanger.
It all looks accessible and easy to work on; it was a selling point of these little NSUs that they had only two grease points compared to the six of a Mini.
Semi-trailing-arm rear suspension was a refinement on the bigger Prinz and the handling of the 1000C holds no nasty surprises as understeer gradually changes into modest oversteer.
Kip Haskell’s 1000C – built in 1972 – is one of the last. The former NSU mechanic bought the car in 1996 and had the bodywork tidied and resprayed last year.
He says that it cruises easily at 70mph with another 10mph in hand, although economy suffers noticeably when you drive any of these air-cooled vehicles hard.
Most of its additional length is accounted for in the wheelbase, so the 1000 is a real four-seater that looks and feels more grown-up than the Prinz 4.
This 45bhp middle child of the NSU siblings was launched as a 1000L or LS depending on the trim, but was later rebadged C or CS.
The most famous and charismatic of the baby NSUs were the 1965-’72 TT and TTS models, which, with their trademark propped-open engine covers – not a pose but a real aid to cooling – and wide wheels with hefty negative camber were Germany’s answer to the Mini Cooper and Cooper ‘S’.
The TTS had the added distinction of an oil cooler slung in the airstream below its front bumper and was bereft of hubcaps. The quickest way to identify one of these hot versions is by its quad headlamps.
The four-cylinder engine’s rugged build hinted at the fact that it had been designed as a 1500cc unit, so there was plenty of meat left in it to extract more power.
The twin-Solex-carb TT had 69bhp, while the TTS homologation special – with forged pistons, extra-high compression ratio and wild cam timing – was good for up to 100bhp if you opted for the Group 2 tuning kit.
NSU claimed that the 100mph-plus TTS was the fastest 1-litre production car in the world even in standard 89bhp form, with a wide range of gear and final-drive ratios available depending on what you wanted to do with it.
For the not quite so wild TT, NSU upped the capacity to 1177cc to make the 1200TT in 1968, but kept the TTS at 998cc so as to maintain its competitiveness in sub-1-litre racing and rallying.
Tony Oldman is a service driver for Porsche who acquired his taste for Prinz motoring from a 1000C, but always wanted a TT. He bought this 1970 1200TT – one of maybe 10 in the UK – from its first owner 14 years ago.
Slightly more peak torque at much lower revs probably makes this a nicer all-round road car than the TTS. The only real internal evidence that you are driving the ‘hot’ variant is the rev counter and a sports wheel.
The handling does exactly your bidding and you are never made especially aware of the mass of machinery in the tail except in terms of noise.
With no water jacket, there’s an urgent ring to the engine and a constant whine from the transmission where top is indirect and two pairs of gears are always transmitting torque.
The gearchange itself feels disconnected: not vague, just fingertip light, fast and a joy to use.
The TT squats and pulls hard from 2000 to 6000rpm with another 1000 to go; 70mph comes up quickly before you have to change into top.
The 1200 range was a move in another direction. Germans were becoming more affluent and wanted bigger, more impressive-looking cars.
NSU’s response – the only one it could afford pending the introduction of the water-cooled, front-drive K70 in ’69 – was to stretch the Prinz’s wheelbase by 8in and give it a fake front ‘grille’.
Launched as the 1085cc Type 110 in 1965, it became the 1177cc 110SC in 1966.
NSU added to the confusion by almost immediately renaming this flagship Prinz derivative the 1200C.
‘Our’ 1971 car in Iberian Red belongs to Paul Burgess from south Wales and is one of only three 1200C Automatiks known to the club.
It is a semi-auto, in fact, like the one found in the Ro80 with a microswitch in the top of the gearknob that operates the clutch via a vacuum unit.
In other words, you move the gearstick around as required but there is no clutch pedal. It works surprisingly well, although the standard four-speed ’box is so sweet that you wonder who preferred this slightly clunky arrangement with a noticeable gap between second and third.
By the time this 1200C was being built, the fate of the baby NSUs had already been sealed.
Air-cooled rear-engined cars were increasingly out of favour with environmentalists because their emissions were more difficult to control, and with safety legislators because their handling – after Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed – was not deemed to be as ‘safe’ as conventional cars.
Even if that was an unfair criticism of the nimble Prinz, nobody could deny that an NSU felt a bit dodgy on a windy motorway – like most of its ilk.
But worst of all, they were out of favour with the public because rear-engined cars had an image problem that linked them with miserable post-war austerity motoring rather than the prosperous new horizons of the 1970s.
The noble failure of the Ro80 was underpinned by the decade and a half long success of this well-engineered breed of small rear-engined NSUs that came before it.
They now represent a long-lost world of Euro-austerity motoring in cars that were not sterile blobs of well-honed international uniformity, but had a strong national character and identity.
Simon Sapsted’s squat black TT special is really an NSU in name and body panels only.
Under the skin lurks a Lotus Europa Twin Cam chassis powered by a ‘red top’ Astra GTE 2-litre engine with a Renault 21 gearbox, the latter a popular item with Ford GT40 replica-makers because of its inherent strength.
The TT shell was acquired 27 years ago in a totally rotten state for £75.
Sapsted joined the NSU OC and, after getting an angle grinder as a Christmas present, set to work uniting it with the mid-engined Lotus chassis (that just happens to have a similar wheelbase).
This turned into a near-five-year project. You may have seen the car at the Brighton Speed Trials (98mph across the line) or doing 102-second Goodwood laps at 99mph.
So, yes, it’s rather quick, with a raucous exhaust note, few creature comforts – but a recognisably NSU dash – and responsive handling. Plus, there’s more power and torque than the Europa ever had, so you can flick the tail at will. It’s great fun, even if it doesn’t have much to do with a Prinz!
Images: Tony Baker
Thanks to the NSU Owners’ Club
This was originally in our August 2014 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication