The NSU Legacy: How Audi revolutionized classic car aerodynamics

Audi: A History of Innovation and Aerodynamics from NSU

The history of Audi is filled with innovations and revolutionary moments that have marked the evolution of the automotive industry. However, to fully understand the legacy of this iconic brand, it is essential to know its roots in NSU, a company renowned for its pioneering focus on aerodynamics and engineering. From motorcycles with unusual shapes to futuristic cars, NSU laid the foundation for what Audi is today.

NSU’s Golden Age in Motorcycle Aerodynamics

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, NSU embarked on a series of ambitious projects to break speed records using innovative aerodynamic designs. One of the key figures in this effort was Wilhelm Herz, an experienced rider who had worked with NSU for years. Herz managed to convince the company’s engineers to support his plan to set a world record with a motorcycle designed by Reinhard Freiherr von Koenig-Fachsenfeld, a pioneer in aerodynamics. Thus, the “record cigar” was born, a vehicle with a unique shape and length that promised high speeds.

Although the project suffered a setback when Herz had an accident, NSU did not abandon its quest for records. In 1951, Herz piloted a 500 cc NSU motorcycle with a distinctive fairing, called “Dolphin I,” reaching an impressive speed of 290 km/h and setting a new world record. That same year, NSU broke eight other world records, consolidating its reputation as a leader in aerodynamic innovation.

Photo: © Audi

Of Flying Armchairs and Blue Whales

Creativity and innovation did not stop there. Gustav Adolf Baumm, a graphic designer with bold ideas, approached NSU with a project that defied conventional limits. Using an ironing board as a base, Baumm designed a motorcycle where the rider lay on their back, achieving a height of only 75 centimeters. This strange but effective bike was nicknamed the “flying armchair.” Despite its lack of comfort, Baumm’s design broke multiple records in 1954.

Meanwhile, NSU continued to develop other aerodynamic concepts, such as the “Rennmax Dolphin” and the “Blue Whale.” These motorcycles were not only fast but also dominated the racing tracks. In 1954, Werner Haas and Rupert Hollaus led the “Blue Whale” to victory in the Solitude race near Stuttgart, with Haas winning the world championship and the German championship in the 250 cc category.

The NSU Ro 80: A Milestone in Automotive History

The legacy of NSU is not limited to motorcycles. In the 1960s, NSU launched the Ro 80, a car that stood out for its futuristic design and innovative Wankel engine. With a drag coefficient of only 0.35, the Ro 80 set a new standard for production cars. Its wedge shape not only improved aerodynamics but also gave it an appearance ahead of its time. In 1967, the Ro 80 was voted “Car of the Year,” largely thanks to its advanced design and technology.

Photo: ©Audi

Records at Bonneville and Beyond

NSU’s passion for breaking records reached its peak in 1956 at the famous Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. This place, known for its ideal conditions for speed trials, was the perfect setting for Wilhelm Herz to reach a speed of 339 km/h on a “Dolphin III.” Accompanied by a team of engineers and under the supervision of NSU’s CEO, Gerd Stieler von Heydekampf, Herz once again demonstrated NSU’s technical superiority.

‘Windschnittig’ Exhibition at the Audi Museum

For technology and automotive history enthusiasts, the “Windschnittig” exhibition at the Audi mobile museum in Ingolstadt is a must-see. This exhibition, which will be available until June 2024, offers a fascinating journey through aerodynamic concepts from the early 20th century to post-World War II. Visitors can admire rare and unique vehicles that illustrate the evolution of aerodynamics in the automotive industry.

Photo: ©Audi

Among the notable names in this exhibition are Edmund Rumpler, Paul Jaray, and, of course, Reinhard Freiherr von Koenig-Fachsenfeld. These visionary engineers were instrumental in adapting car shapes to the flow of air, laying the foundation for modern designs. The exhibition will also travel to the August Horch Museum in Zwickau, where the second part titled “Form vollendet” will be presented.


The story of NSU and its impact on vehicle aerodynamics is a tale full of innovation, challenges, and impressive achievements. From strangely shaped but effective motorcycles to the revolutionary NSU Ro 80, NSU’s heritage is a testament to the human capacity to push the limits of what is possible. Today, under the umbrella of Audi, this legacy lives on, inspiring new generations of engineers and designers to dream big and fly high.