NSU Trapeze by Bertone

One of the things I struggled with most when setting up Car of the Day was whether or not to include commenting on the website.

Every other automotive website has commenting, it's useful, sometimes insightful…but even some of the better publications online have trouble with spammers and those who have not yet found their manners.

I'm glad I didn't, because it turns out that when you write about interesting vehicles, enthusiasts can't help but reach out. Some of the most rewarding exchanges I've ever had have happened over the last 100-odd days.

Sometime during Mazda Week, a few of you wrote me to mention the true first rotary, the NSU Spider. With both that car and the Ro 80 in the back of my mind, I thought it'd be time to feature an NSU rotary-powered car.

(Sorry-but-not-really for two Bertone concept cars in two days! Are you really that tired of the eye candy?)

Introduced at the Paris Motor Show in 1973, six years after the Ro 80, with which it shared an engine, the Trapeze envisioned a rotary-powered car like few have managed since.

First, it's mid-engined. What does that really mean? Usually, any vehicle with its engine mounted largely within the wheelbase is marketed as being mid-engined.

Outside of a Formula SAE or Formula 1 race car, you'd be hard-pressed to find an example of a production vehicle with an engine mounted as close to the centre of the chassis as possible.

Even though it may look in many respects like a softer Lancia Stratos (its windshield looks identical to a Stratos', doesn't it?) the 2+2 Trapeze was essentially built around its rotary engine.


You'll notice something else from this overhead shot: the space between the side of the car and the front seat passengers. As automobile safety hit a fever pitch in the 1970s, with mandatory seatbelt laws and airbags making their debut across the world in less than a decade, designers were trying novel ways of protecting passengers.

(Maybe I should do a Safety Week where we look at all of the hilarious "safe"concept cars that automakers rolled out in the 1970s…)

Bertone's idea: move people inboard so they're less likely to be injured in a crash. Simple, right? Imagine how safe the Hummer H1 would be if there was room to sit above the centre transmission tunnel!

Its other safety-minded feature was the bright blue bumper that wraps around the entire car! I think it looks great…


Trapeze gets its name not from the circus feat but because its seats are arranged in a trapezoidal shape around the mid-mounted rotary engine.

Taken from the Ro 80, the engine would have produced about 115 horsepower at 5,500 rpm. Period road tests of the Ro 80 sedan remarked at its unmatched smoothness, something that would have been fantastic in a Toyota MR2-sized sports car.

The Ro 80 has no particular objection to cruising at 100 or a bit more, and it is so fussless mechanically that one tends to make use of this potential almost inadvertently.
— Car Magazine, 1973

If you can believe it, the Trapeze is identical in length to the Honda CR-Z hybrid hatchback, a car that without offset rear seats struggles to offer anything resembling passenger space behind the front seats.

Inside, a stunning wraparound cockpit is not unlike an 80s Chevrolet Camaro: flat dash top and recessed gauges; the Trapeze, however, has a Braun-like silver panel that forms the dash face. The gauges are visible through shapely cut-outs of the panel.

It's slick.

The only real problem with the Trapeze is also what made it possible: it was an NSU concept in 1973—four years after severe financial troubles ended in being acquired by Volkswagen and merged into "Auto Union" (but really it was absorbed into Audi.)

By 1973, the firm's ageing small cars were taken out of production and when Ro 80 production finished in early 1977, NSU was done.

At least the Trapeze showed the world how innovative a rotary-powered car could be.

Sources / Recommended reading