1956 NSU Supermax

A nostalgic trip to 1956 aboard a timeless beauty, the NSU Supermax
By Ric Anderson
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John Gary Brown’s 1956 NSU Supermax is a willing runner. Light and nimble, it’s perfect for running quick errands.
Photo by Ric Anderson
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1956 NSU Supermax
Years produced:
 1956-1963
Total production: 15,000 (est.)
Claimed power: 18bhp @ 6,750rpm
Top speed: 78mph
Engine type: Overhead cam, air-cooled single
Weight: 174kg (383lb) dry 
Price then: $700 (1956, est.)
Price now: $3,000-$7,000

True love kept John Gary Brown and his 1956 NSU Supermax together. Well, that and a dead coil. 

When unanticipated health care expenses forced Brown to part with most of his collection of classic German motorcycles several years ago, he faced an agonizing choice to sacrifice either the NSU Supermax or a 1956 Adler MB250.

Each bike had its virtues. Although the single-cylinder NSU is slow and underpowered by modern standards, Brown saw timeless beauty in its engineering, fit and finish, especially the unorthodox workings of its 250cc power plant. But the teenager in his brain was screaming at him to keep the Adler, which could kick the living sauerkraut out of the NSU in speed and quickness.

Watch the NSU Supermax in action 

"It really was a toss-up," Brown says. "The NSU ran well, but so did the Adler. I rode the Adler in town a lot more than the NSU, in fact, because I could keep up with traffic better."

The Supermax, however, had one crucial part that the Adler lacked — a dual seat for Brown and the love of his life, his wife, Christy. Brown had been unable to find a two-up saddle that looked right on the Adler, and that inadequacy was enough to tip the scales.

"Finally, it came down to that," Brown says. "I wanted to be able to ride around with Christy. Plus, the Adler had stopped working for a while. I think it probably only needed a new coil, but we needed to sell it right away. So I sold it to a collector who didn’t care if it ran or not. In fact, I sold it to a guy named Adler."

Call it destiny, serendipity or circumstance, but it seems fitting that Brown, a creative artist, kept the NSU Supermax.

He and his inventive single are a well-matched pair, and both are quick to bring a smile to your face.

In good hands

Known as “Brownie’’ to his friends, Brown is a painter and photographer who has made a living far away from the 8-to-5, cubicle world. He goes his own direction in a studio sprinkled with classic motorcycle memorabilia and adorned with a mosaic mural.

His manner is calm and gracious, and his eyes are as bright as a fifth-grader’s as he talks about his classic motorcycle collection.

Brown developed a fascination for NSU motorcycles and other classic German motorcycles as a teenager in the Fifties, drawn by their crisp engineering and relative exoticism in an American motorcycling market dominated by Indian and Harley-Davidson.

Despite having a fairly limited budget, he became a collector through a collision of an offbeat passion and supply-and-demand economics. "There weren’t many German motorcycle enthusiasts when I started, which is why I was able to buy such a huge collection for such a small amount of money. It was just one of those fortunate things where I had just enough that I could spend $500 here and $1,000 there."

Early on in his collecting days, Brown figured supply would be as low as demand. "I didn’t think these things were still available. The Maico Taifun, for instance, there were only 2,000 of those sold in the U.S. I just figured they were all gone, all in landfills. But little by little, I began to ferret them out." 

He came across his remaining NSU Supermax in 1980 while traveling to upstate New York to buy his 1956 Adler MB250. "That was one of the happiest days of my life," he says.

The Max family 

From its fender-mounted nameplate fin to its leading-link suspension, the NSU Supermax is a 383lb package of bygone-era charm. The bike and its close relatives — the Max, the Special Max and the Sportsmax racer — make up one of NSU’s most fondly remembered families of machines.

"A lot of bikes look like they just hung a motor on a frame or put a bike around a motor, but the design of this one flows together," says Jeff Borer, an Amherst, Ohio, resident who has owned and restored several NSUs. "It all looks right, from the handlebars on back. It rides smoother than a normal single because of the design of the engine, and it’s incredibly durable. I’ve taken apart a lot of these engines where the parts weren’t even worn."

What sets apart the series is its unique — some might say oddball — overhead camshaft drive design.

Instead of pushrods, the Ultramax system features connecting rods driven by eccentrics on a reduction gear. The rods drive eccentrics on the end of the camshaft, producing a reciprocating motion that is transferred to the valve gear.

The system is somewhat akin to the drivers on a steam locomotive. Motorcycle historian Ed Youngblood, former president of the American Motorcyclist Association, says the Ultramax was efficient and compact but may have been a little too exotic for U.S. consumers.

"At that time, most people did their own mechanical work instead of taking their bikes to the shop," Youngblood says. "It probably wasn’t helpful to the reputation of the company, because people would get into those NSU engines and not understand how they worked. That’s probably why the NSU didn’t have the longevity that the Triumph and other overseas manufacturers did."

The powerplant, created by NSU chief designer Albert Roder, generates 18bhp at 6,750rpm and drives the machine to a 78mph top speed.

Gone, not forgotten

Brown’s collection has been pared to the NSU and a Puch, but he retains plenty of photos of his departed motorcycles.

Browse past a calendar containing Marilyn Monroe’s Playboy shot from the Fifties, and there’s a picture of Brown cruising on one of his Maico Taifun motorcycles. Glance elsewhere — funny how the eyes tend to go back to that calendar again, isn’t it? — and there’s an original Max sales brochure.

"Eventually, I got almost every bike I had fantasized about as a kid with the exception of the Horex Imperator," Brown says.

He still misses the Adler and the other bikes he was forced to sell, and perhaps always will. But he’s happy he held onto his NSU, and for good reason.

Sure, it’s not the quickest thing on two wheels, but the Supermax is a comfortable side-street cruiser and weekend runabout that still draws plenty of attention from other motorcyclists.
As Brown started it on the first kick on a warm spring morning, you couldn’t help but be impressed by the NSU’s reliability, durability and trustworthiness.

Then again, that’s what friends are made of, isn’t it?


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