Ray Otto has a jumbo-sized affinity for tiny little cars. He’s got a bunch of the little rascals — 14 at the moment.
He has three Nash Metropolitans at last count. But his real claim to fame in the microcar world is his fleet of rare NSU Prinz models. He’s got 11 of those.
Otto never planned on being known as the “NSU Prinz” guy, but he has certainly become visible in micro car circles for both his knowledge and his collection, and also for the parts that he has distributed to help other NSU Prinz owners.
“I’ve been lucky, almost every car I’ve purchased has had some extra parts with it,” he chuckles. “I was kind of the go-to guy for parts and stuff and I shipped a lot of stuff to Canada and all over the U.S. to keep them going. You can only use so much stuff yourself, so you gotta spread it around.”
“Yeah, I know a lot about ’em, but there are people out there that know more than I do!”
Otto, a resident of Foley, Minn., certainly used all his knowhow and resources to restore one of his favorites — a red 1960 Sport Prinz that he likes to show off at big car gatherings like the Iola Car Show in Wisconsin, where he had it on display last summer.
“I got my first [NSU Prinz] at a farm auction. I kind of thought I knew cars and there was a German Prinz automobile for sale, and $85 later owned a car I know nothing about…. That was probably 15 , 17 years ago… Then this one came up in Pewaukee, Wis. A guy had this and a coupe, and I wanted to buy both of them. They were together.”
The affable Otto fully expected to rebuild the non-running Sport Prinz, get it humming and looking good and eventually have some real fun with it. The trouble was it needed a lot of work — the engine was frozen for starters. Then he wound up having to beat cancer, which further delayed some of his microcar activities. Finally, when he started to regain his health, he got serious about getting his little red baby back on the road.
“This one the original owner bought in 1960, and in 1961 he seized the engine up on it,” he recalled. “So it went into a warehouse and went through a series of owners and warehouses. The seats were stolen and it was in really rough shape. We bought it and I cut the whole back end engine area out of it. I was going to put a 3-cylinder Geo Metro engine into it, but it became too [complicated]…
“So I pushed it into a corner and left it. It sat for a number of years, but after I was done with my chemotherapy from cancer, I said ‘If we don’t get this car going now, we never will.’ So I proceeded to weld everything back into the car that I had taken out, and took an engine out of one of my parts cars and put it together. It’s been going like this for probably 10 or 11 years now.”
FROM TWO WHEELS TO FOUR
Building automobiles most certainly was not in the plans when Christian Schmidt and Heinrich Stoll founded their NSU Werke operation back in 1873. Their main goal at the time was manufacturing sewing machines. The company settled in Neckarsulm in Lower Swabia in 1880 and eventually went into the bicycle building business. The name officially became NSU in 1892, and it was about that time the company began assembling motorcycles — a venture that lasted into the 1960s.
The company unveiled its first car, a luxury model built under license from the Belgian Pipe Co., in 1905, then began offering its own smaller models through the 1920s. In 1934, Ferdinand Porsche developed three prototypes of his “People’s Car” vision and reached a deal with NSU to be involved, but NSU eventually backed out of the arrangement and instead returned its focus to motorcycles and scooters.
In 1957, the company returned to the automobile business with a new two-cylinder Prinz econocar. Only 29 of the two-door sedans were reportedly sold in the United States in the model’s 1958 debut year. The tiny NSUs had a back seat and room — albeit very cozy — for four passengers. The 35.6cc vertical twin-cylinder four-stroke engine was mounted transversally at the back and produced 26 hp. The engine had twin ignition coils and a Dynastart starter/generator, unit while the chassis rode on four-wheel independent suspension. The chassis had only two lubrication points. The motorcycle-style four-speed gearbox used constant-mesh gears for “easy and silent gear change,” according to the company, and operated with a single-plate clutch. Curved rear glass permitted broad visibility. Luggage and the spare tire fit into the front storage compartment. Standard equipment included a fresh-air heating/ventilation system.
The cars carried a base price of $1,383 in the U.S. and weighed in at a feathery 1,080 lbs.
In 1959, the company added a Sport Prinz coupe model with a more powerful (36-hp) engine that gave the cars a claimed top speed of 65 mph. The Nuccio Bertone styling was much different than that of the sedans and featured a fastback profile with tailfins, a raked wraparound windshield and back window, triangular rear quarter windows and wind-down windows. Standard equipment included a heater/defroster; locking glove compartment and ashtrays; and provisions for radios. The engine, four-speed gear box and differential made up a single unit, with a backward-hinged engine cover at the rear.
Distribution in the U.S. rose to a reported 3,247 for all models in ’59 before dropping slightly to 2,493 in 1960 — the same year the company began offering a Prinz 30 model sedan that had the peppier 36-hp power plant.
NSU was reasonably successful with its microcars in the U.S. and elsewhere until the mid-1960s, when it made the ill-fated decision to switch from motorcycle-like two-cylinder engines to Wankel rotary engines, which it put in its new Spider model. The change had disastrous results, as the rotary engines with plagued by problems, got poor gas mileage and ultimately got the company tied up in too many warranty claims. In 1969, NSU merged with Auto Union and eventually disappeared for good in 1977.
ANOTHER SMALL VICTORY
One of the joys of microcar ownership is often trying to figure out how to make things work with limited parts availability. Owners often figure out how to adapt things like brakes, tail lights and even drive trains from other manufacturers when authentic replacement parts — usually from donor cars — are not available. Otto has many such stories. Fortunately, he enjoys the challenges and has plenty of experience solving such problems.
The biggest challenge he faced with his broken-down ’60 Sport Prinz was getting an engine into it that would run. The rest was pretty much straight-forward restoration work — paint, bodywork and upholstery.
“The engine was in parts. He had seized the engine up. It’s an air-cooled engine, and Americans don’t know how to drive air-cooled engines,”Otto says. “You have to keep the RPMs up to keep the air going through it. The engine and transmission are a combination unit and it takes a quart-and-a-half of oil, so just by inherent design they drip oil a little bit and if you don’t keep track of it they’ll seize up. So this one was seized up at under 14,000 miles. So I took [an engine] out of another parts car that I had purchased. It’s not the original engine from this one, but it’s comparable.”
Otto did the bodywork, paint and all the assembly and troubleshooting himself, but he is quick to credit his wife Joan for the lovely upholstery work.
“My wife did the interior on her Singer sewing machine at home. She’s my sidekick,” he says. “The problem is there is zero parts availability. The taillights are reproduced in Brazil … The hubcaps are made in Argentina. I modified a Volkswagen Beetle headliner to work in this one. We had the chrome done at a professional shop, but otherwise I painted it and did the bodywork. It was pretty much rust-free except for one rocker panel that had rusted out.”
“Some liberties have been taken. The seats are from a Sports Prinz, but I kind of jockeyed the patterns … The master cylinder for the brakes is the same as a BMW Isetta, but this master cylinder is actually from a Volkswagen Beetle. On the Sports they didn’t really have much for options. On the sedans they had a few things with the chrome on the front bumpers with the turn signals and stuff like that, but for the Sport Prinzes there wasn’t much. There was a little scale you could use to weigh your luggage so you knew how much weight you were putting in the front of the car. But as far as actual stuff to go on the car, there wasn’t much that went on it.”
Otto has been driving Prinzes for so long that he’s getting pretty good at it. He isn’t ready to take off on any coast-to-coast journeys in one, but he’s pretty happy to tool around the streets and country roads near his home. The driving experience might best be described as “unrefined”, but Otto kind of likes it that way.
“It can be a real handful. We are from central Minnesota, and a lot of the country roads have wheel tracks from modern cars — wider than this,” he notes. “So with bias-ply tires and the wheel tracks, you can wind up wandering a little bit. But you’re only going about 50 mph. It will go 60, but it likes 50 better. So you are never in real danger. It’s noisy and hot and loud. It’s German engineering ‘quote-unquote’ and its finest. [laughs].”
Otto says only about 200 of the Sport Prinzes were believed to have been sold in the U.S., and he’s not sure how many might still be around. He knows of only “maybe two dozen that were running.”
“I don’t like the word rare … but it’s unusual. Just the uniqueness, is what I like. I sort of walk to the beat of a different drummer, you know. I would never knock anybody’s Mustang, Camaro or Chevelle. It’s a car they love. But I just could never get into ‘em. I never had an opportunity when I was young to get into ‘em. We drove rusted-out ’59 Fords and stuff like that, and I just like having something different and I love the education part of it and showing it and telling people about it.”
“And the only time I part next to one is at home!”
SHOW US YOUR WHEELS!
If you’ve got an old car you love, we want to hear about it. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you like stories like these and other classic car features, check out Old Cars magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.
Want a taste of Old Cars magazine first? Sign up for our weekly e-newsletter and get a FREE complimentary digital issue download of our print magazine.
*As an Amazon Associate, Old Cars earns from qualifying purchases.