Being a successful motorbike manufacturer takes a lot of skill and creativity. It means you have to adapt to customer demand, and even when things are going well, there is no guarantee that it will stay that way forever. Some manufacturers started off with a lot of success, but were unable to maintain their momentum and eventually became defunct.This is the case with German company NSU, who were the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer at one point. We’re looking into NSU’s history to see how the company got started and uncover why they weren’t able to stay in business.
From knitting to motorcycles
NSU was founded by Christian Schmidt in 1873 and started life as a knitting machine manufacturer. Originally located in the town of Riedlingen, NSU relocated to Neckarsulm in 1880. The company grew rapidly and in 1886 it started producing bicycles. The first bicycle NSU created was a ‘Penny-farthing’ branded as the Germania.
In 1901, the first NSU motorbike appeared. It featured a Swiss Zedel single-cylinder AIV motor with battery/coil ignition. Specialised racing motorbikes were developed, with several appearing in 1905 at events across the world. An NSU machine was used at the 1907 Isle of Man TT. British rider Martin Geiger rode it and finished in fifth place. At the 1908 Ormonde-Daytona beach speed race a NSU V-twin was used.
During WW2, the company produced the Kettenkrad and a half-tracked motorbike called the NSU HK101. The factory suffered major damage, but it didn’t stop NSU from moving forward in 1946. New models included the 1949 NSU Fox and NSU Max. The new motorbikes featured an innovative monocoque frame of pressed steel and a central rear suspension unit.
By the mid-1950s, NSU had become the largest motorbike producer in the world, with it putting out 350,000 machines in 1955. Much of this can be attributed to chief engineer Albert Roder. NSU also claimed four world speed records in 1951, 1953, 1954 and 1955.
NSU didn’t limit themselves to motorbikes. They attempted to produce cars, which led to the development of the of the first Wankel engined car called the Wankelspider. This proved to be costly for the company and the engine struggled with poor apex seals. NSU’s reputation was damaged beyond repair.
In 1969, the company was bought out by Volkswagenwerk AG, which merged NSU with Auto Union. This rendered the company defunct, but they remain an important part of motorcycle history.