1954 NSU Max TT: The Odd Man Out

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NSU was at the very first Isle of Man TT race in 1907, where NSU’s British manager, Martin Geiger, rode an NSU single to a fifth place finish.
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By the early 1950s NSU was ranked the world’s largest producer of motorcycles, ahead of even giant BSA.
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Mike first became aware of our feature Max TT when it showed up on eBay in Mound, Minn. It was incorrectly listed as an NSU Super Max, and it wasn’t long before the seller was notified that his machine was a rare bird.
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The 247cc single-cylinder engine hangs from a pressed steel frame.
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Mike Crane takes his 21 horsepower Max TT for a spin in the dirt.

1954 NSU Max TT
Claimed power
: 21hp @ 7,000rpm
Top speed: 80mph (est.)
Engine: 247cc air-cooled OHC single, 69mm x 66mm bore and stroke, 7.7:1 compression ratio
Weight (wet): 332lb (165kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 3.7gal (14ltr)/55-65mpg (est.)
Price then: $745

The NSU Max was not your average motorcycle. A pressed steel frame, leading-link front fork, mono-shock rear suspension and “Ultra Max” valve train were all features that set the Max apart. 

But it was exactly that technological innovation — coupled with NSU’s unique styling — that caught Minnesota motorcycle collector Mike Crane’s attention. “The first time I saw an NSU was at Mid-Ohio in 1995,” Mike recalls. “It was a Super Max, and I fell in love with the shape of the frame, the solo seat and the chrome on the gas tank. Overall, it was the styling, the Ultra Max valve drive and the build quality that drew me to the marque.”

Three years later Mike bought his first NSU, a Super Max, and he’s since added several NSUs to a burgeoning collection. Including corpses of cannibalized machines, Mike figures he has 20 NSUs, ranging from an early 1905 model to several much more pedestrian mounts, including Quickly mopeds. Mike likes them all, but there is little doubt that the prize in his fleet of NSUs is this rare 1954 Max TT — one of only 50 to have left the factory.

NSU develops

NSU is probably best known for its cars and motorcycles, but the company started in a completely different line of manufacturing. In 1873, two German engineers began producing knitting machines, and the fledgling concern soon moved into a factory based in Neckarsulm, Germany. NSU stands for Neckarsulm Strickmachen (literally, make stick, as in knitting needles) Union, and, because they turned out high-quality machines and components, NSU began producing bicycles, capitalizing on the two-wheeled pedaling craze that swept the world in the late 1800s.

Putting power in a bicycle frame was the next logical step, and NSU managed the feat in 1901 when they bolted in a Swiss-made Zedal engine. Soon NSU was making its own V-twin and single-cylinder engines, and NSU did not shy from putting its metal to the test, taking part in significant race and speed trial events. NSU was at the very first Isle of Man TT race in 1907, where NSU’s British manager, Martin Geiger, rode an NSU single to a fifth place finish. 

NSU proved to be a fiercely competitive company over the next 30 years, but in 1947 the motorcycle maker came into its own when Albert Roder joined the ranks as chief designer. Roder developed a 98cc overhead valve lightweight dubbed the Fox 4. With a pressed steel frame and Roder’s own leading-link fork, the Fox 4 hinted at the direction NSU was heading.

Introduced in 1952, the 247cc Max fairly bristled with special features, chief among them a pressed steel frame with a mono-shock rear suspension. Hidden in the steel body under the saddle is a single spring and hydraulic damper to control movement of the rear swingarm, pre-dating Yamaha’s Mono-Shock system by some 30 years. Roder’s leading-link front fork, with its twin damper assemblies, is similar in function to the early Honda front suspension on the Dream and Super Cub. Like an Earles fork, under braking the front end tends to rise rather than dive.

The Max ran from 1952 to 1954, then it became the Special Max in 1955 with a larger fuel tank and alloy drum brakes, and finally became the Super Max for 1957 to 1963. The Super Max had twin rear shocks, and many small details are different from the earlier two Max models, although the 247cc engine remained the same.

The Max engine was unique and rightly praised for its quiet running and ample pep. A lack of mechanical noise is attributable to Roder’s Ultra Max cam and valve actuation system. Unlike its more conventional contemporaries, the overhead cam Max engine had no pushrods, nor a cam chain.

Instead, Roder’s system spun the camshaft by way of a pair of reciprocating connecting rods driven by eccentrics on a reduction gear off the left side of the crankshaft, the rods turning eccentrics connected to the single overhead cam. This system, combined with clothespin-style valve springs, reduced overall cylinder head size and height, and it is quite easy to mistake Roder’s 4-stroke for a 2-stroke. Fuel is fed via a Bing carburetor, and a Bosch points and coil system delivers spark.

Enter the NSU Max TT

NSU had a hit with the Max, and the company further developed the model for offroad competition. Designed for the International Six Days Trials, the offroad version proved a popular mount, and NSU chose to build a limited production batch of 50 examples of the Max TT. These TT machines came to two U.S. distributors, Butler & Smith Trading Corporation on the East Coast, and Flanders Company on the West Coast. List price new in 1954 was $745. The TT model incorporated a few design differences, notably a bulbous rear fender incorporating the taillight. Reinforcing steel was added to critical sections of the frame, a skid plate was bolted up under the engine and the rear swingarm was lengthened a bit to aid in offroad riding stability.

The long, upswept exhaust pipe and muffler with heat shield were unique to the Max TT, as were duplicate control cables. Also added were T-handle wheel axle nuts, side and front number plates, a compressed air canister (for flats on the trail) on the right side of the rear fender and block-tread tires.

Mike first became aware of our feature Max TT when it showed up on eBay in Mound, Minn. It was incorrectly listed as an NSU Super Max, and it wasn’t long before the seller was notified that his machine was a rare bird. The seller pulled the auction, but Mike had already made contact and asked if he could at least come, camera in hand, and document the machine.

Mike was invited to visit, and he learned the TT had been purchased locally in 1971 and then used as a street bike for some five years. “He [the seller] said he was never able to kickstart the bike properly and would always bump start it,” Mike says. In the late 1970s the owner decided to restore the NSU, and he disassembled a good portion of the bike in halfheartedly pursuing his goal.

The frame and swingarm are still in their original silver paint, and the owner had the front and rear fenders, gas tank and fork assembly repainted. He’d laced up the wheels with fresh spokes and installed a new high-compression piston, but the top end of the engine was apart. “I took photos and told him if he ever did decide to sell to give me a call,” Mike says.

That call came just two months later, in the fall of 2004. With the Max TT in his shop, Mike took the loosely assembled project to pieces. His first mission was to restore the rear shock and front damper units. These were leaking fluid, but their oddball-sized seals were not readily available. To overcome this dilemma, Mike machined spacers with an inner diameter to accept modern seals and an outer diameter to fit inside the shock housing. With spacers and seals pressed into place the suspension was sorted and assembled to the frame.

The wheels were good, so Mike installed a set of NOS 1960s Nitto universal trials tires to the 19-inch rims. Hubs are half-width steel with integral cast iron 6.25-inch brake drums with aluminum brake plates. The transmission was also in good shape, as was the lower end of the engine. All Mike had to do was reassemble the Ultra Max valve train, which, for all its oddness, isn’t terribly complicated. What proved more time-consuming was constructing a high-level muffler for the TT.

The forward end of the stock muffler has a cutaway to clear the oil tank, and Mike dissected this portion of the original muffler away from the rusted and dented back segment. He then welded the front piece to a German-built reproduction of a Super Max muffler. “It’s the original heat shield, and it’s a hand-hammered piece — you can see the tool marks on the back of it,” Mike says of the exhaust system. “Those custom pieces, including the battery tray, were made by NSU artisans.” Mike is unsure if the oil tank should be red, but the previous owner said it was red when he bought the bike. Regardless, it was already refinished in red, so Mike installed it as is. Hand-rolled aluminum rear number plates came with the NSU, but the front was missing. Minnesota metal guru Don Severson used one of the rear plates as a pattern to duplicate the front. Working from photographs, Mike fabricated the front fender mount for the plate.

And it’s a runner

Mike fired up the NSU Max TT for the first time in the spring of 2005, and then rode it at Mid-Ohio, where he discovered he had a charging issue. A modern solid-state regulator solved the problem, and the original Bosch 6-volt system has been trouble-free since.

Departures from original specification are single control cables (the TT came with duplicate cables for quick repair should one break) and no engine bash plate. And that’s not a compressed air canister in the tray; it’s an antique fire extinguisher that just happened to fit snugly. One surprise Mike had when he first rode the NSU was to discover the VDO odometer, which had been rebuilt, spins backward. It’s a special subtracting unit, a unique bit of kit meant for the hardcore enduro rider.

Contemporary reports were favorable, and Motorcyclist ran a review in its May 1954 issue saying, “On the highway the Max purred along at any desired clip. Acceleration was good, and in fact the little NSU was out in front away from all stop signals. The Max TT handles very well on a scrambles-type circuit, and maneuverability is excellent, as is the front and rear springing. Jumps thru the air were taken with complete ease and control, and neither wheel bottomed on any of the jumps.”

Not surprisingly, the NSU Max TT has more than a bit of character. “First through third gears are close together, but there’s a chasm between third and fourth,” Mike says. Also, the front brake stay is bolted directly to the brake plate off the right-hand leading link. “This causes a rotational force every time the brake is applied, resulting in a noticeable rise in the front suspension,” Mike says. “On the later Special/Super Max with full-width hubs and a conventional brake stay from the fork leg to the top of the brake plate, the rise in the front end on braking is almost a non-issue.”

Roder’s designs for NSU were certainly successful. By the early 1950s NSU was ranked the world’s largest producer of motorcycles, ahead of even giant BSA. According to the Motorcyclist review, in February 1954 NSU produced 12,630 machines in just 22 working days, “one motorcycle every 55 seconds.” Yet as good as NSU motorcycles were, times were changing as the market for cars exploded, driven by rising consumer wealth. Pouring more resources into its car division, NSU quit developing its motorcycles, and quit making motorcycles altogether after 1968. NSU’s time as a motorcycle manufacturer had come and gone, yet however unconventional NSU motorcycles might have been in their time, the company very obviously did get some things right. MC

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