The Ferrari of the East is reborn

The Ferrari of the East is reborn

29th April 2008, Comments 0 comments

In Dresden, the ‘communist’ dream car is making a comeback.

Daringly designed and once referred to as the 'Ferrari of the East' the low-slung, wing-doored Melkus RS 1000 sports car was a proud and popular speedster during the communist era.

Not that there were many of them available. Only 101 of the sleek drop-nosed racers were made between 1969-79, then the Dresden family firm constructing them was forced to halt production - due to a nose- dive in the east's economy.

The brainchild of Heinz Melkus, a city driving school operator and himself a fanatic sports car enthusiast in the 1960s-70s, the original RS 100 cars were sleek in appearance, and might have been plucked out of a James Bond movie, had their performance matched their looks.

Moulded out of fibreglass, and assembled from parts of the famous put-putting East German Trabant, they were dependent on their Wartburg 353, 75 horsepower two stroke engines for a top speed of 102 miles per hour.

A passion

Notwithstanding, East German sports car enthusiasts loved the Melkus RS100, and mourned its passing. Now, 27 years after communist East Germany's only sports car went out of production, it is making a comeback.

Currently, a five-man-strong Dresden firm headed by Peter Melkus, the son of Heinz who died aged 78 last year, is involved in a 're-launch' of the brave two-stroke engine car, that was once the pride of motor-racing circuits behind the Iron Curtain.

"We plan to complete 15 of the Melkus RS 100s, costing 50,000 euros (66,238 dollars) each, by the end of 2007," explains Peter Melkus, the son of Heinz, who died last year, aged 78. "A dozen of them have already found owners."

‘Oohs and aahs’

Heinz Melkus' 23-year-old grandson, Sepp, says the first of the revamped sports cars based on the original was unveiled at the Dresden Transport Museum, to an audience of 500 recently.

Stylishly spray-painted a glistening yellow, it drew 'oohs' and 'aahs' from an audience of 500. "Owners of several of the 'original' RS 100s showed up for the occasion in their vehicles, which added to the atmosphere," said Sepp.

He explained what had led to his grandfather, a gifted mechanic, to build sports cars back in the 1960s.

"Driving to Yugoslavia in 1969 in his Wartburg he was suddenly overtaken by a sleek-looking Lotus on the highway," he said. "The car made such an impression on him, he determined from that moment on to start building sports cars himself."

Private enterprise of that kind wasn't allowed in the communist state but with East Germany then gearing up to celebrate its 20th anniversary the authorities surprisingly agreed.

"All told, 101 of the Melkus RS 100s were made from 1969 to 1979, selling at 29,000 East German marks each," said Sepp.

Little excitement

For East Germans, 29,000 marks was a lot of money then, but with the state's drab shops offering little to excite customers, many citizens simply stashed what spare money they had into savings accounts, which more than paid off in 1990 when German reunification occurred and citizens in the east were granted a generous 'one-to-one' rate of exchange against the West German mark.

Heinz Melkus, operating with a handful of assistants, in a garage near his Dresden home, spent much of his time in the 1970s constructing his RS 100 car from segments of Trabants and Wartburgs, secured from factories and breakers yards in the region.

Simultaneously, he won recognition throughout Eastern Europe as a racing driver. East Germany's equivalent of Michael Schumacher, he won 80 grand prix events and at the height of his fame was the holder of the Peace and Friendship Cup, the state's top motor-racing trophy.

Sepp Melkus, a trained car mechanic and vehicle designer, points out that the 15 Melkus RS 100s will be the last of their kind to be made by the Dresden company.

"Once we have completed our remake of the original, we have plans to embark on the next generation -- the Melkus RS 2000," he says. That is expected to cost around 70,00 euros.

Positive reaction

He claimed that design sketches for the RS 2000 were published recently. "We had a very positive resonance and already have one or two potential buyers on the strength of the design," he said. "But of course we will still need to seek investors."

During its 40-year history, the GDR (East Germany) was hardly a car owners' paradise. Citizens had to wait up to 10 years before obtaining the two-stroke, smoke-puffing Trabant -- popularly known as 'Trabi' -- and up to 15 years for the boxy Wartburg sedan, produced at the Automobilwerk Eisenach (AWE) factory.

Though much mocked, the Trabi gained something of a cult status in the east after the wall fell, despite its 'Cutie' 'Plastic Bomber' and 'Stinker' nicknames. Production of both the Trabant and Wartburg ceased in 1991.

DPA with Expatica

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