5th January 1939, the day Hitler declared the Polish city of Danzig to be of German origin, proclaiming it would be German again. Invasion was coming and within days, as part of a massive military build-up this actual NSU 601 OSL ‘Motorrad und Beiwagen‘ (sidecar outfit) was presented for duty in Berlin. How this bike, frame number 1106774 survived six years of conflict will never be known, its original Zundapp chair (most likely machine gun mounted) has long departed. The Wehrmacht requisitioned civilian motorcycles as they called up their owners but the vast majority were produced specifically, using the industrial capacity of BMW, DKW, Zundapp and NSU. The German military appreciated the motorcycle more than any other force, utilising more fighting two wheelers than the opposition. As the Blitzkrieg swept through western Europe captured British, French and Belgium bikes often received a coat of grey before being turned on their makers. Motorcycles would play a massive role during WW2 but NSU like every other manufacturer never designed their machines to conquer. In 1938 the civilian 601 hit the market, producing 24hp from a 562cc single its finned alloy head and fishtail chrome exhausts courted buyers and received much interest, especially from the German army. This wouldn’t be the first time the German military had called on NSU; the company was almost exclusively used for motorcycle equipment during the first world war.
NSU – Remaining at the Front
The Neckarsulm Stick-Machen Union – NSU story began in 1873 with two engineers Heinrich Stroll and Christian Schmitt who set up a small factory producing and repairing knitting machines. Like so many motorcycle manufacturers they progressed with bicycles and after Schmitt died at just 39 his brother in law Gottlob Banzhaf joined and took the company towards powered cycles. Their first machine came in 1901 when they mated a Swiss made Zendal engine to one of their own frames. Soon after NSU produced their own V Twin engines and by 1905 the company’s first racing machine; come 1907 they achieved a respectable fifth at the Isle of Man TT, their machine piloted by Martin Geiger, UK brand manager for the marque.
After WW1 the factory employed 3000 and became the first German bike manufacturer to utilise production line techniques and during the 1930s NSU became the world’s largest motorcycle producer; a feat they would repeat during the 1950s. With technology moving a pace, NSU looked to design their own efficient OHV (overhead valve) engine, the era of the side valve was over and to achieve this they enticed Englishman Walter Moore away from Norton to head up the programme. This proved decidedly unpopular and as a consequence Moore’s designs were often referred to as Norton Spares Used. Even so, civilian sales grew to a peak of 62,619 motorcycles in 1938 and the OHV engine dominated the range with versions available in 200, 250, 350 and 500cc options. The range was topped by the 601 OSL which evidently translates to ‘overhead racing luxury’ and its rumoured 80mph top speed attracted the attention of the Wehrmacht. Finished in military grey and minus the chrome trimmings the 601 would become the dispatch riders steed of choice.
With or without a sidecar the average military rider excepted their duty, exposed to enemy fire almost daily, a sniper’s favourite whilst taking point during battle. Often specially equipped as tank hunters, racing towards the enemy was the norm and if their artillery missed there was always minefields of aircraft to claim a hit. The 601 proved robust, adaptable and most of all reliable, research unearthed a letter sent from a dispatch rider to NSU company headquarters around 1940. “On September 21, it has been five years since I bought it new at your Stuttgart branch, where I worked as a mechanic since August 1939. Since the end of August, I have been in Wehrmacht service with the motorcycle, which I myself have always driven since then. During the four years of my private driving, the machine always functioned to my complete satisfaction, as it has now, since I have been drafted. In this year I have driven it 20,000 km, at first in the Polish campaign, then during service in the operational area of the western front and on duty in France. During the campaign in France I drove about 7,000 km….
If possible, I want to buy back the machine after the end of the war we have been compelled to wage.” It is unknown if the author enjoyed post war time with his NSU or if either survived. The eastern front took its toll on men and machine, repair shops behind the lines performed miracles to keep the motorised units moving; repairing overheating cylinders or frozen oil tanks, this environment tested the ‘iron horse’. Mud so deep the engines would ingest via the air filter it’s no surprise the vast majority of motorcycles that headed east failed to return.
From Civilian to War Machine
Adapting the 601 for military use wasn’t just a case of paint finish, the addition of an extra seat was sought attached to the carrier which also secured two panniers. The front drum brake was located on the left hand side whilst the front forks received an extra centre tube to increase strength. Also, the frame was strengthened enclosing the engine, whereas the civilian version bolted to the casing. The fishtail exhaust was darkened to matt black and the fuel tank access was doubled in size, this decreed a large cap but allowed for direct filling from a ‘Jerrycan’. Gear change and kick start are both located on the right hand side with speedo positioned in the headlight bowl. With all terrain tyres the 601 weighs in at just over 400lbs including the full tank of fuel that would transport the rider 150 miles between refills.
The mystery around this actual NSU 601 OSL is unlikely to ever be solved, its existence leaving far more questions than answers. Was it left behind after D Day as the German army retreated? Discovered by a local then hidden away? Unlike the BMW design post war it was not copied by the Russians, they preferred the ‘Boxer‘ layout with their Ural brand. The smaller ‘Quick‘ model has been photographed attached to the rear of American tanks but these were just individual spoils of war.
Production of the 601 ceased in 1943, the plant had by that time become a prime target for Allied bombing raids. The fact it managed to remain in one piece and original is surprising considering survival rates it seems most likely this NSU spent the war in the West. Hidden from view until recently, chassis number 1106774 has been subjected to a detailed ten-year restoration in Holland. Purchased complete this 601 now resides in the hands of a collector located in the UK, a rare survivor especially on our shores; the one destination the fast moving ‘Blitzkrieg‘ and Panzer Divisions failed to roam.