Race, Daily, Restore: 4-Door Rotaries

When we think of Wankel rotary engines, usually what comes to mind are sporty coupes, compact econoboxes, (or perhaps mini-pickups, if you’re particular twisted). But there was a time that the Torqueless Wonder was considered a viable means of propelling a crew of four or more, with vier Türen or shi doa. Today, your trilemma is to sort through how you’d employ three such cars.

  • 1967 NSU Ro80 – From the earliest adopter and first champion of the Wankel engine, the Ro80 has timeless elegance, disc brakes and independent suspension all around, and a funky auto-clutch. And probably a trio of worn-out apex seals.
  • 1982 Mazda Cosmo Turbo – Long after NSU went belly-up and Audi had given up on rotaries, Mazda kept the Holy Church of the Wobbling Triangle alive. Stuffing a turbocharged 12A good for 163 horsepower under the hood of an HB Cosmo/929 sedan was a remarkable sign of their passion, to say the least.
  • 2009 Mazda RX8 – This one is really a sports coupe, but it barely slides into 4-door territory thanks to its two rear slave doors. People either love or hate the RX8, but proves that a Wankel engine really can work well in a modern car. Until it doesn’t.

You say you prefer POCKITA-POCKITA to HMMMMMM and two doors versus four? Too bad, those aren’t your choices today. You are restricted to these three. Which would you choose to:

  • RACE – build into some sort of dedicated racing machine (not street legal) for your choice of competition — any legitimate, sanctioned form of motorsport: road course, rally, drag, LSR, Baja, etc.;
  • DAILY – have as your sole street-registered car, for all your commuting and general transportation needs.
  • RESTORE – do a museum-quality, factory-correct, frame-off restoration, then add to your collection, but not register to drive on the street.

Your choices should be accompanied by your persuasive justification, or at the very least which choice you felt most strongly about. As always, more caveats (there are always caveats) appear after the jump.


  1. Assume that you’re given these three vehicles outright, so there’s no acquisition cost, but the cost of race-prepping, maintaining, insuring and restoring them will be on you.
  2. Assume the cars are in “average condition” for their age; neither junk nor in flawless condition.
  3. These are your ONLY three cars. You cannot factor in any other cars you might actually own, e.g., “I’ll daily the MR2 because I have a van I can take the kids in…” Likewise, you can’t sell the restored car to buy another vehicle.
  4. You must assign one of the cars to each category. You can’t say, “I’ll race my street car,” or “I’ll drive that one for a season then restore it.”
  5. You can’t half-ass a car you don’t like, such as theoretically racing Lemons or doing a “20-footer” cosmetic restoration.

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20 responses to “Race, Daily, Restore: 4-Door Rotaries”

  1. Jofes2 Avatar

    Race – RX-8. The best track car of the three without a doubt. Too weird to daily and too new to restore.
    Daily – NSU. Rubbish as a racer and too cool to be sitting in a garage.
    Restore – Cosmo. Doesn’t fit my personal style to daily drive, but still interesting and worthy of preservation.

    1. nanoop Avatar

      Exactly – but for the slightly different reasons:
      RX8 still has an aftermarket for tuning and proper tires.
      The NSU has had its peak as a collectors’ item, and is only a good looking curiosity (and hence perfect as a DD), whereas the Cosmo is still awaiting a JDM/80ies nostalgia wave, so restoring and preserving it might turn over some appreciation.

  2. Walter Joy Avatar
    Walter Joy

    My mom’s cousin’s wife’s sister has her late father’s Ro80 being restored down in Florida. The cousin and his wife currently have a NSU Spider that also was the late father’s. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/7bd01860b01efc22f32fa5df96be63f9917bb59a303502334a8cbb4935a3afb6.jpg

  3. Alff Avatar

    Daily NSU because I want the whole world to admire my weirdness.
    Race uncool generation Cosmo because I am a shitty driver and sure to crash it.
    Restore RX-8 because I’m not particularly fond of them nor of museum pieces.

  4. ptschett Avatar

    Daily the RX8. (After an LS swap. YOU’RE NOT MY ENGINE SUPERVISOR!)
    Race the other Mazda and restore the NSU… I guess… if I must.

    1. outback_ute Avatar

      My thoughts exactly. I’m sure the RX8 would be much nicer to daily than the older Mazda. I knew a guy with a 929 turbo coupe with an engine built by a guy who raced rotaries, and it was faster than most things on the road (eg Porsches) in the mid 80s, so these have potential.

  5. Sjalabais Avatar

    The Cosmo hits my design nerve pretty spot on, so I’d like to see it every day. The NSU is a really nice car, too, so why not race it? The RX8…not sure what to do with such a “new” vehicle. Also, I’d probably hurt myself with something that is actually fast. Stow it away.

    1. crank_case Avatar

      The RX8 is a car I doubt would get you into trouble. As for what to do with it… well if I had the cash…
      I mean I like rotaries as much as the next enthusiast, but after your 3rd rebuild, it might get a bit old, plus, why put up with V8 fuel consumption without V8 shove?
      Also, customary weekly protest on the restore and not register thing has been brought to you by the letters L, S and the number 1.

      1. Sjalabais Avatar

        Nice illustration of the the term “shoehorn (verb)”. What about an agricultural diesel? Just to stick it to those fuel bills.

        1. crank_case Avatar

          That’s just a step too far.

          1. crank_case Avatar

            Reminder of the infinite malleability of the physical

  6. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

    Race the RX-8 – you’re unlikely to win anything, but it’ll be good practice while you save up for an RX-7. There’s plentiful supply of cheap ones, too. Maybe not race, maybe trackday.
    Daily the Cosmo – I’m not sure I could ever get bored of the MAX-80s design or the cassette door on the stereo. I’d prefer it to be the pillarless coupe with concealed headlights, of course.
    Restore the NSU. Although I’d be tempted to retromod it. A later, turboed rotary and some sympathetic wheel, tyre, suspension, brake improvements. But leave the looks essentially untouched. Claus Luthe achieved near perfection.

    1. Rover 1 Avatar
      Rover 1

      Everyone forgets that they drive really well too, with a ride like a Citroen CX and power steering better and far less numb than any Audis that followed until the UrQuattro.
      Edit: Am I the only person on Hooniverse to have driven all three of these?

  7. Hillman_Hunter Avatar

    I need an intervention: thanks to this post I’ve started shopping for another RX-8. As if my first go-round with the Rexxon Valdez wasn’t enough…

  8. theskitter Avatar

    Race the NSU, assuming I can take it to the Carrera Panamerica.
    Daily the Mazda, and restore the Mazda.

  9. SlowJoeCrow Avatar

    Race the RX-8 as the logical track car, restore the Cosmo for rarity and weirdness, daily the Ro80 as a restomod with a Mazda rotary to deal with the tip seal failure issue and uprated running gear, working air conditioner etc.

  10. Manxman Avatar

    For sure daily the NSU. Always wanted one but could never find one in drivable condition, much like my search for a DS. But then I would have to explain to the rubes when they asked “what the hell is that dang deal?”. Race the RX8 for the same reason as naoop. Restore the Cosmo because I like the name Cosmo.