Lance Cole looks at the revolutionary design of the NSU Ro 80, whose influence can be seen today

'Vorsprung durch Technik" (progress through technology) runs the Audi marketing mantra. Make no mistake, Audi makes superb cars - now at the leading edge of automotive design. It has pioneered the aero-weapon "wedge" car designs - curved fronts, high tails and flush-glazed elegance. But Audi did not invent this style - someone else did.

The trick is that the someone else was part of a reborn Audi-NSU car company that re-emerged with VW in the 1960s. "The Future through Design". That was the legend printed all over the adverts for a car that had a unique never-seen-before design with a high rear-tail deck, flush glazing, a low front, curved roof, tuned aerodynamics and an advanced engine.

The car with all this was German and produced from 1967 to 1977 in just under 40,000 examples. Sadly, its advanced design became lost in the fog of an engine that kept going wrong. The car was the NSU Ro 80 and it was as revolutionary as the Citroën DS was in its time. This car was industrial design taken to the exquisite. In its shape lay the roots of modern car design - not least later Audis. Bertoni, Jaray, Sayer, Sason, Ledwinka, Porsche, etc, these are the names of earlier forays into aerodynamic car design. But advertising is strong stuff.

The names are forgotten by the public, and giant car-maker ad-men claim the fame - after all, was it not the Ford Sierra that invented modern aerodynamic styling? The Ford adverts of the time - as ultimate 'spin' - tried to suggest it, but this was crapiola.

The first car to "chop" the tail, build it up high and massively reduce the drag behind the car, as researched by a Dr Kamm, was the NSU Ro 80. In the 1960s, there was no other car like it, and even today its shape is aped by all (even Jaguar), and still looks fresh. NSU was established in southern Germany in 1905 - they made motorbikes in the town of Neckarsulm. Their first proper car came along in 1908. From the 1950s, NSU turned out small cars - weird little things with two-cylinder engines that looked like bathtubs and were named "Prinz". By 1963, NSU launched a rotary Wankel-engined coupe - the Spider - the world's first mass-produced use of this piston-less engine.

Not long afterwards, the twin-rotor Ro 80 came and went - as did a VW labelled K70 saloon that had started life as a smaller brother for the Ro 80, which VW inherited when it acquired the brand in 1969. For a few short years, the Ro 80's star shone over Europe. The problem was that the engine failed regularly, resulting in massive warranty bills for NSU and, later, bills for owners.

Worn rotor tips, and poor fuel economy eclipsed the engine's turbine-smooth wall of power, in-board brakes, superb handling and rare early clutchless, semi-automatic transmission. Also eclipsed was the car's design. Remember, when this car stunned the Frankfurt motor show in 1967, most cars had fins, chromed bulges, swages, and channels and gutters you could slice cheese on.

It really was the future, if you compared it with the Rover P5, the Ford Zephyr, or the Austin 1800 dinosaur-by-design. NSU's design team, led by Claus Luthe, created what they wanted - an organic piece of modern architecture that happened to be a car. It had brushed stainless-steel trim on the smooth roof pillars, headlamp lenses that were chamfered into the body, a "greenhouse" cabin with elegant rear quarter windows, and, above all that, a unique, high tail.

The shape had a stunning-for-the-time 0.35 CD drag figure and it kept its rear end clean in rain; likewise, the side windows. The car created a sensation in the motoring press and much debate - not least as to who designed it. Luthe gets the credit now, but NSU kept his name quiet at the time - and it was his first big success. Latterly, his hand can be seen in the shape of the early 1990s BMWs. Since those heady 1960s days, Ro 80s have become classics.

Now there is an Ro 80 club movement, and the cars are loved in Europe. Values are rising, and because it's not a French rust box, the bodies last. Three decades on, most of the fittings function. It's also a serene drive and just has to be a classic jewel in the making. This car is the great unsung hero of modern car design. It deserves a place in the motoring hall of fame. And is Audi making "Vorsprung through looking backwards" then?

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