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NSU Motorenwerke AG, or NSU began manufacturing knitting machines in 1873, but was onto automobiles by 1905. Selling the autoworks to Fiat in the early 30s, NSU focused on their two-wheeled vehicles for the next fifty years, becoming the biggest motorcycle producer in the world by 1955. It wasn't until 1957 that the company decided to re-enter the car market, which was about the same time Felix Wankel was looking for a development partner for his revolutionary technology.
Lacking the means for a formal education, Wankel was more of an intuitive engineer, and first conceived of the rotary piston engine at the age of 22. In his designs, the rotary engine would function just as an internal combustion engine, with intake, compression, ignition and exhaust. But - it would have only two moving parts, the rotor and the crankshaft. Compact, and free-revving with very little vibration. Long before computer assistance was possible, Wankel toiled away, considering 800 possible shapes and 150 basic configurations for the engine that was to bear his name.
It wasn't until 14 years later, in 1936, that Wankel was granted his first patent. In the late 1950s, he joined forces with NSU to develop the engine so that it could power a motor vehicle, which was first road tested in 1960, and quickly presented to a consortium of German engineers. Wankel won over the skeptics, and the prototype for the first production rotary-engined vehicle, the NSU Wankelspider was presented at the 1963 Frankfurt Motor Show to rave reviews. Hyped as a visionary step forward in automobile power, the Spider was a two-seat cabriolet, bodied by Bertone and based on NSU's Sport Prinz of 1959. Full production started in the fall of 1964. Sold with convertible and/or hard top, it sported a rear-mounted, water-cooled, single-rotor 500cc engine, producing 50 hp. Back in the day, NSU doubled output for its Rennspider race cars, which were capable of over 120 mph, and won a few titles at the track.
Major carmakers fell in line and licensed the technology from Wankel and NSU. GM built a few Corvette prototypes, and Mercedes even did a run with their C111. Developing its own take on the rotary engine, Mazda has evidently had the most success, beginning with the 1967 Cosmo. Check out Jay's Mazda Cosmo Sport 110S. That same year, NSU put the Spider to bed in favor their new two-rotor Wankel, the R080. Despite being hailed as the "car of the year" by the press, it was clear that there were issues with various aspects of the engine, primarily the seals. Sales weren't stellar, and warranty costs eventually destroyed NSU's financial viability. By 1969, the company had been absorbed by Volkswagen and smushed together with Auto Union to revive the Audi marque, and the rotary engine was put on the shelf.
Still, the Wankel lives on, per the stamp emblazoned on every Mazda rotary. Their new, hydrogen-powered rotary engine, the Renesis was unveiled in 2003, and powers a fleet of commercially leased vehicles with almost no emissions whatsoever.