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Classic Velocity Blog

Of Silver Dolphins and Blue Whales

Classic Velocity

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wikimediaIn the early 1950s, a number of German marques were battling it out both in the showroom, and on the racetrack. The one brand that was probably most often on the podium in the 1950s was NSU. They captured world championships in 1953, 1954, and 1955 with 125cc and 250cc machines, and won numerous German national championships and races as well. However, it was not just that they won the championships, it was how they won them that makes them of special interest.

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The NSU Rennfox and Rennmax engines were innovative masterpieces of the time. They resulted in part from an aborted 4 cylinder project a few years earlier. The knowledge and tricks gained from that effort informed the development of the new engines, guided by engine guru Albert Roder. The Rennfox was the 125cc single cylinder, while the Rennmax was the 250cc (actually 248cc) 4 stroke double overhead cam parallel twin. It revved to 11000RPM and produced 36HP in 1953. This combination allowed for a top speed of 131 MPH !! At the time this was unheard of for a 250cc motor, and is still pretty impressive today. However, producing a powerful motor is one thing, but making it last race distance is another. NSU had succeeded in crafting engines that were also very reliable. Part of the secret was bevel gears driving the cams and the use of superior materials. Another was a race division that was among the best in the world, housed separately from the factory. Soichiro Honda is said to have been heavily influenced by both the design and the organization of NSU.

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NSU also experimented heavily with aerodynamics. This was the era of fairings, and all of the manufacturers were trying to find an advantage by cheating the wind. Most just bolted on bikini fairings or full “dustbin” fairings. NSU was among those that tried a variety of configurations. In 1953 they used a bikini fairing along with an extensive front wheel fender. In 1954 they came up with a partial fairing enclosing the cockpit and handlebars, and incorporating a high “beak” over the front wheel. You would be forgiven for thinking that adventure bikes 40 years later took their inspiration from this proboscis. The distinctive shape and silver paint caused the bikes to become known as the Silver Dolphin. Later in the season, NSU developed a more complete fairing with strategically placed “nostrils”. Because of the blue paint color, these became known as the blue whales. In either format, they dominated. 

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One more component was in place which completed the magic formula for NSU, and that was a stable of riders lead by Werner Haas that seemed made just for the bikes. Haas in particular came out of nowhere to dominate in German races. He proved himself in his very first outings with NSU and soon became their top rider. From largely unkown in Germany in 1952, he became Germany's first motorcycle world champion in 1953, winning both 125cc and 250cc titles (only the second person to do this). He then went on to repeat as 250cc champion in 1954, winning every race entered, with Ruppert Hollaus winning the 125cc title also for NSU. These titles were earned despite withdrawal from the last two races following the death of Hollaus while practicing at Monza.

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NSU was ironically criticized for taking all of the competition out of racing by being so dominant. At the same time, Haas was considering retirement to pursue a service station business, and fellow rider Baltisburger (who was 45 !) was retiring as well. With the recent tragedy and these contributing factors, NSU decided not to mount a factory effort in 1955. Despite this, Hermann Paul Muller took his Rennmax to another 250cc title in 1955 at age 46 (!!) using the whale fairing. It is quite likely that NSU could have had a perfect season in 1954 winning every 250cc race, and that they might have repeated a win in both classes in 1955. In case that was not enough, they had already developed a 288cc version of the Rennmax which was winning races in Germany in 1954 and which was set to go after the 350cc world title in 1955 had things turned out differently. We can all speculate on what might have been, but it is certainly clear that the NSU dolphins and the whales with their Rennmax hearts dominated the small bore world in the early to mid 1950s....

Click this link for some youtube vintage footage of the silver dolphin at speed. About 1 minute in, there is a pretty clear shot of the bike, but other rennmax NSUs are also running.