It was fairly early in 1969, I seem to remember, that you published my notes on early experience with my Ro 80, one of the first in this country with right-hand-drive. I have kept a log since and now that I have disposed of it some 30 months and 26,000 miles later, I am completing the story.
Summarising, it was a proper curate’s egg. It certainly cost more in depreciation than the faithful 1966 Mercedes Benz would have cost me, had I kept it for five years, but I have no regrets for taking a calculated risk in buying it and my family, who were up in arms at seeing the Mercedes go, now mourn the Ro 80 even more deeply. When it was on form nothing could have been more seductive and no other car nearer a transport of delight (usual acknowledgements to Michael Flanders and Donald Swann). I even used to go out seeking ice, snow and slush for the sheer joy of being so completely in control and the driving position could have been personally tailored.
That was one side. How about the other? I related in 1969 that trouble with the ZF power steering had been cured by the service department at Shoreham lapping in the piston valve on the pump unit and that I had cured a persistent rattle by taping the bonnet locking bar. I was wrong on both counts. 1,500 miles later the power steering effort diminished again and we had to change the pump unit. The rattle reasserted itself and proved untraceable until I discovered much later that rhythmic pitching, typically over road expansion joints, was causing the front suspension coil springs to jump in their bottom housings and that the rattle came from the ends of the coils. Apparently this was cured by radiusing the ends and fitting a nylon thimble. This in turn meant stripping down the front suspension, which was otherwise working perfectly. So I chose to live with my type fault now that I knew what it was.
The car stood for a fortnight while we were on holiday that year. On being started fuel poured from the tops of both Solex carburetters. Then and later I got quite adept at removing the float chamber lids and checking that the gaskets were seating properly, which ironically usually effected a temporary cure, because Neckar Tudor Motors at Kingston, who had by now assumed the burden of responsibility in agreement with Shoreham, diagnosed incorrect fuel pump delivery pressure and corrected the fault rather less temporarily by adjusting the pump pressure. All the same this fault kept sporadically repeating itself and was only cured outright by replacing the pump. By November 1969 I had done 9,200 miles.
Starting had got a thought difficult, to the extent that the engine tended to stall when put into gear on a cold morning. The car was due for servicing, but I was taken right aback when Neckar Tudor, now incidentally renamed Palace Motors, telephoned to say that the engine was down on power and was being replaced by instructions from the works. There was a certain air of secrecy, but I was given the impression that the subsequently infamous performing seals had played up due to excessive carbon forming beneath them and playing hell with the temper of the backing springs. This in turn was probably due to excessive oil consumption. Mystifying, as I had kept check continuously on the oil consumption and Neckar Tudor had adjusted the metering oil pump to keep the consumption in line with the latest directive from the works. The issue of new, and to some extent mutually contradictory directives, was the first inkling that even the works were not too sure.
The new engine was also a twin-plug unit and never as sweet as the original one. Although it had come from Germany, it did not seem possible to find out whether it was new or reconditioned. However we soldiered on for another 5,000 miles with the only snag an intermittent bad contact to the side lamp bulb on the offside headlamp. A minor fault, but only cured by renewing the connector. Then a really irritating series of faults developed.
First in May 1970 at 14,700 miles the clutch failed completely. The gear knob micro-switch and vacuum servo were vigorously banging the clutch operating lever out, but patently ineffectively, so out came No. 2 engine. Both operating forks at the end of the lever had fractured. There was the tell-tale sign of an old flaw in one fork, which had clearly failed some time before the other. I could not help noticing the contrast in arm lengths of the servo connection and ultra short fork. Obviously the vacuum servo gave the fork quite a stirring time. With new arm fitted, the engine was replaced. Next month in June 1970 at 16,540 miles the engine itself showed the now familiar signs of low torque and came out again to be replaced by engine No. 3, still a two-plug unit, but reputedly fitted with the latest seals as current in the new single-plug engine. A bare month later the oil seal on the nearside of the gearbox failed, soaked the disc brake inboard on that side and induced a vicious skid the first time the brakes were applied, so out came the engine yet again for replacement of the oil seal. This vo-yo exerise added, as a final straw, to the failure of the second ZF steering pump unit, brought us to rock bottom and I started thinking of another car.
Fortunately a determination not to be beat prevailed and we played out time until last month and 26,195 miles precisely, without any further calamity. The micro switch contacts on the gearlever had backed off on one occasion, leaving me initially clutchless, but the timely discovery that they still contacted if the knob was always pushed forwards kept us going until the ever faithful Neckar Tudor readjusted them. Finally the near side front hub race went. Up till this point in time someone, certainly not me and I sincerely hoped not Neckar Tudor either, had stood all the labour and material costs, but now with the expiry of the guarantee period I was on my own. I was beginning to have my doubts about second gear synchromesh. I never liked the fancy semi-automatic gear change. Instead of progressive foot control of the clutch, the vacuum servo bangs the clutch in viciously, so that it’s paradoxically more difficult to make a smooth downward change than with an ordinary manual gearbox. I also argue that this must knock hell out of the synchromesh cones and was intrigued to read that the second gear synchromesh on the car tested by Motor in February 1968 was so weak, that it was necessary to contrive a form of double declutching by releasing the gear lever knob momentarily in mid travel. My own experience was identical. Latterly this was the only way to avoid a bad crunch.
Finally I had my doubts what the attitude of Father Volkswagen was going to be to his new rotary foster child after the first flush of foster parentage. This all added up to a decision to part.
Final impressions? Fundamentally a beautiful car, but put on the road before its time. It was also beautifully and expensively made, which made it all the more exasperating that so many failures were unconnected with the Wankel engine. Body, brakes, suspension and the electrics, with the one exception of poor quality lamp connectors, gave uo trouble. The front Michelin XAS tyres lasted for 19,300 miles and even then were replaced as a cautious measure with all of 3 mm. of tread. The rear tyres at over 26,000 miles were still going strong and relatively little worn. At various times the works attributed seal wear to excessive revs, excessive use of top gear from rest and inattention to the right rate of oil flow on the metering pump. In my case I know positively from my records that the works recommendations were rigidly followed. Others may have different experience. Both the second and third engines had a strong tendency to detonation at low speed, especially when cold. I suspect that much, lightly dismissed as “seal chatter”, was in fact detonation and very possibly that the underlying cause was the extreme difficulty of timing the twin mechanical contact breakers sufficiently accurately. In fact I also suspect that I have Neckar Tudor Motors care to thank for the absence of actual mechanical damage to their heavy mechanisms. The new single plug transistorised design may have cured this. I just cannot speak from experience.
And talking of plugs did you know that each Beru plug costs £2.15 and replacement is recommended every 3,000 miles? I didn’t!
Basil Webb Ware.