On being granted a private tour of the NSU collection of the Audi Museum, I asked, ‘What collection?’  In 2009, Audi only exhibited DKW and Wanderer motorcycles in its museum, as these companies were two of the ‘four rings’ of the Auto Union logo: Audi, Wanderer, Horch, and DKW, who banded together in 1932, during the Depression, as a survival strategy.  The four rings logo is now Audi’s alone, after Volkswagen purchased Auto Union in 1964, and set about its own re-branding over the years.  NSU was merged into VW/Auto Union in 1969, and its designs and research absorbed into group, with NSU effectively disappearing.  The purchase of NSU included a considerable stock of the brand’s history, including most of their amazing Grand Prix racers, including the all-dominant Rennmax twins that took the World Championship three years in a row from 1952-54 in the 250cc class, and two years in the 125cc class.  Even after NSU quit the Grand Prix scene for the 1955 season, and NSU still won the 250cc World Championship, as HP ‘Happy’ Müller took a private NSU Sportmax production racer to glory – the first privateer to win a World Championship.

The Delphin III world-record breaker: the first motorcycle to exceed 200mph. Read our story here. [Paul d’Orléans]
So, the NSU collection had been absorbed into the Audi Museum, which has a lovely new facility built in 2000 in Ingolstadt, Bavaria.  But on my 2009 visit, there were none of the remarkable NSUs on display: they were in the basement.  Luckily, my host Wolfgang Schneider had arranged a private tour of the NSU storage area, which was truly an Aladdin’s Cave of treasures.  Rennmax, Delpin III, Baumm II, supercharged 500cc twin, 500cc DOHC four, Kettenkrad, etc: all the great designs from NSU were present, awaiting reassembly, or simply polishing, but in every case – display.

This photo was taken by a US soldier who was an amateur photographer / motorcycle enthusiast, and shows the NSU RS54 in action at the Nurburgring ca 1951, and is probably Heiner Fleischmann aboard. Note the enthusiastic response of the children in the background! ‘Go!’ [The Vintagent Archive]
Among the most intriguing of the collection was the chassis of the amazing NSU RS54 500cc Grand Prix racer, a German cousin of Gilera and MV Agusta’s all-conquering fours, which was left undeveloped when NSU halted its racing program.  The chassis was totally complete, and looked as if the motor had been removed only recently.  When I inquired, I was told the engine was in a ‘Blue Box’ – but that box was nowhere to be seen.  We searched high and low, and eventually, I wandered down into a basement, where racks of old office equipment from NSU were mixed with various oddments from that company’s history, and deep in the recesses, disguised by an old mannequin and a few blankets, I discovered the Blue Box itself.  Amazing!

The Blue Box, as found behind a row of shelving, and under a blanket. [Paul d’Orléans]
I alerted Wolfgang and our host, NSU historian Ralf Plagmann, that I’d found the box, and we set about opening it, and a few other nearby boxes holding spare engines and parts from the 1954 Isle of Man TT, left just as they were.  Treasure upon treasure!  Opening the boxes was thrilling, with the piquant perfume of old castor oil mixing with smells of old wood, dust, and mildew – a heady mix.  I only had my phone to shoot photos, but at least I could document these remarkable engines up close.

The four-cylinder DOHC NSU RS51 motor, intact barring the sump casting [Paul d’Orléans]
The RS54 engine in the Blue Box was awaiting remedial work; the wet sump casting was missing, and would need replication. The sump had been removed while the motor was tested, likely, and lost in the shuffle of the race shop closure, and later sale to VW. It’s a fascinating engine, clearly influenced by the Giuliano Carcano design for the CNA Rondine, which became the Gilera Quattro Grand Prix racer postwar: it’s a masterpiece of compact design that set the standard for transverse four-cylinder engines for half a century.

The four Amal-Fisher TT carbs and complicated plug wiring. [Paul d’Orléans]
In the two boxes marked ‘Spare parts for T.T.’ were other NSU gems, including one of the early R11 Rennfox 125cc engines from 1951, with shaft-and-bevel driven dohc, and the funny canted angle of the cylinder head, desaxe the crankcase; see the photos of the whole machine, taken at the Deutsches Zwierad Museum in Neckarsulm (just a few minutes away from the Audi plant, and with a wonderful collection of machines in a converted Schloss). There has been much speculation about why this cylinder head was designed off-angle in this way, but the simple truth is the pressed-steel frame wouldn’t permit this large head to fit in the frame any other way.

The NSU R11 Rennfox engine in another crate, ‘For the TT’…which would have been the 1956 TT. The cylinder head is désaxe the centerline of the engine. [Paul d’Orléans]
In later models, the cylinder head was redesigned, and sat straight relative to the crankcase.The R11-51 model also used a petrol tank which was stretched and modified from the original steel roadster item, and lacked the graceful hammered alloy bodywork of the later models. Still, it has a rustic charm, and was certainly effective on the track, producing 12.5hp @ 9500rpm. I’ll make a more thorough investigation of the Works versions of the NSU Max/Fox models as time permits this year; their history is amazing, and includes the all-conquering ‘if it started the race, it won the race’ Rennmax model of 1954.

Another R11 Rennmax at the Neckarsulm Motorrad Museum, showing the offset cylinder head with DOHC shaft-and-bevel gear. [Paul d’Orléans]
The sort of box one hopes to stumble across in one’s life…having sat unmolested since the company abandoned GP racing in 1957, and was sold to Auto Union in 1962. [Paul d’Orléans]
Related Posts

The Vintagent Trailers: Dream Racer

Dream Racer is an inspiring account of...

The Vintagent Selects: Janus Motorcycles

Motorcycles are like architecture: They...

The Vintagent Selects: The Museum

A Short Film by Tom Rochester,...


Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter