October 15, 2010

Ka siebzig.

NSU was in trouble in the late 1960s. The Wankel engines it had spent a significant amount of time developing proved unsuccessful and unreliable, costing the company an astronomical amount of money. The company’s lineup consisted mostly of small, rear-engined cars that were in vogue in the beginning of the decade but quickly going out of style as the 1970s drew nearer. The bigger and more modern Ro80 was introduced in 1967 but its Wankel engine was notorious for leaking rotor seals, the same problem that plagued other rotary-powered NSUs. In 1969 Volkswagen acquired NSU and the projects the company was working on, including the near production-ready K70 (ka siebzig in German), a smaller sedan that would fill the gap between the Prinz models and the larger Ro80. The K in its name denotes that NSU developed a traditional piston engine for it - piston in German is kolben.

Volkswagen initially cancelled the K70 project, a move heavily criticized by both the press and potential customers. What was the point of turning down a new, modern, car to produce the ancient Beetle and other Beetle-derived cars? Volkswagen was not deaf to criticism and gave the K70 a green light for production. There was a catch: the car would sport a VW emblem on its grille, not an NSU emblem.

Designed by NSU, the K70 was diametrically opposed to anything that had previously come out of a Volkswagen factory: it was the first water-cooled Volkswagen. It was also the first front-engined Volkswagen. Under the front hood was Volkswagen’s first in-line engine. And to take it further, it was the first front wheel drive Volkswagen! The public was shocked, it was difficult to envisage a Volkswagen without an air-cooled boxer engine; it was like if Citroen had come out with a rear-engined sedan to replace the DS. Even more shocking to drivers accustomed to the Beetle’s questionable handling was that the car actually drove pretty well. Front disk brakes stopped the car efficiently, typically-German seats provided just the right amount of support and the car’s independent suspension gave it a comfortable ride. The boxy body, penned by Claus Luthe, prefigured the styling trend of the 1970s. (A bit of automotive design trivia: Claus Luthe is the same man who is responsible for designing the BMW E30.)

The 1605cc four-cylinder that powered the K70 was a distant cousin of the NSU 1200’s engine. Buyers could choose between a 75hp version of the engine and a 90hp version. An 1807cc four-cylinder (100hp) was available in 1973 on the top-of-the-line K70 LS, which had four round headlights instead of the two square units that other models had. The K70’s drivetrain is worth a mention: the engine was longitudinally mounted and the four speed manual transmission was bolted directly to the back of the engine; nothing to rave about here. However, to actually drive the wheels a differential was mounted in front of the transmission, so under the engine, approximately where cylinders 3 and 4 are. To avoid the whole setup being too tall the engine was tilted 32 degrees towards the passenger side of the car. Another neat feature of this engine is the possibility to adjust the valves without removing the valve cover. Instead, each valve had a removable cap on the valve cover, a setup also used in the NSU Prinz.

Available in either base, L or LS trim, the K70 was a promising package. The European motoring press liked it, too. Complaints about it from period road test include the car’s high fuel consumption, the noisy engine, its dim headlights and its ashtray which is too far to the right of the driver. The car lost the 1971 Car of the Year award to the Citroen GS but came ahead of the Citroen SM. The K70 could have had a brilliant career as an NSU but as a Volkswagen it had to fight for its right to exist. Wolfsburg didn’t want it, it was trespassing on the type 4’s land.

The type 4 and the K70 were completely different in architecture and design but competed against each other; their dimensions, performance and their price were very close. The K70 measured 442 centimeters long (174 inches) and weighed 1080 kilos (2380 pounds). On the other hand, the 412 was 455 centimeters long (179 inches) and also weighed 1080 kilos. The K70 went from 0-100 km/h in 13.3 seconds, a task that took the 412 (equipped with a manual transmission) 16.5 seconds.

In 1974 a 412 cost 18,800 francs while a K70 set a buyer back 18,920. By comparison, the Passat ranged from 13,990 for a base two-door model and 17,990 for a top of the range four-door model. A 911 Turbo cost 48,000 francs and a 1200 sedan (better known as the Beetle) started at 8,990 francs.

The K70 had another enemy from within the Volkswagen group: the Audi 100, launched in 1968. It, too, had the same basic dimensions, performance and price as the K70. It measured 462 centimeters (181 inches), weighed 1090 kilos (2,403 pounds) and sprinted from zero to 100 km/h in 12.5 seconds, all for 19,690 francs (price in 1974). The Audi 100 looked very similar to the K70 which created further confusion between the two cousins. The 100 didn't have rear independent suspension so the K70 had a more comfortable ride, arguably.

The K70 was overshadowed by the 411/412 range and the Audi 100 and failed to find its public, a disappointing fate for a modern, well-designed car. NSU had planned a station wagon version of it which Volkswagen nixed because it already had the 411 Variant. Had this version seen the light of day the K70 might have had a better chance of imposing its presence on the market. Production ended in February of 1975. The International K70 Club (based in Germany) claims that 210,082 K70s were produced while other sources say that 211,341 is the correct number. This number may seem fairly low for a high-volume manufacturer like Volkswagen but it’s very close to the 45,000 K70s NSU had planned to build each year.

It’s worth noting that the K70 wasn’t the only NSU project that wound up on showroom floors wearing a Volkswagen crest. The Volkswagen Polo was born as the Audi 50; the 50 project was started by NSU as a replacement for the Prinz.

Below, a diagram of the K70's drivetrain:

Below, the K70’s engine bay. Note the caps for valve adjustements:
All photos scanned out of period documents for Ran When Parked.

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