The Socialist Ferrari: Reviving East Germany's Only Sports Car
In 1969, racing car driver Heinz Melkus started building what was to be East Germany's only sports cars. Nearly two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, two of his descendants are once again making the legendary car.
It looks like something James Bond would have driven in one of the secret agent's early movies. Yet the sleek automobile is not a classic Aston Martin, Jaguar or Ferrari but a sports car built in communist East Germany -- and one that is made from virtually the same parts as a Wartburg, the decidedly unsexy East German sedan.
Now, nearly three decades after the last Melkus RS1000 was built, descendants of the car's designer Heinz Melkus have revived the brand. Peter and Sepp Melkus, son and grandson of Heinz Melkus, are building a limited edition of the unique sports car in their forebear's memory. In the last two years, the pair have constructed 15 of the classic two-seaters.
Sepp Melkus told SPIEGEL ONLINE the idea of building the cars again had always been in the back of family members' minds. "Over the years we always received enquiries from people who wanted to know where they could buy one of the cars," Sepp Melkus said. "At some point we then thought, why don't we try and build five cars, if there is all this demand." So, in May 2006 -- 26 years after the last RS1000 had been produced -- Sepp and Peter Melkus relaunched the sports car company.
Nicknamed the "Ferrari of the East," the RS1000 was the only sports car to be built in communist East Germany. Some 90 percent of its parts were the same as the ones used to build Wartburg cars, a slightly more upmarket version of the ubiquitous Trabant. When building the new run of cars -- which they have dubbed the RS1600 -- Peter and Sepp Melkus added a new engine, but otherwise stuck to the original designs.
East Germany's Only Sports Car
The RS1000 was the brainchild of Heinz Melkus, a racing car driver who won six East German championships. In the 1950s and 1960s, Melkus designed and built Formula 3 race cars and competed in races across Eruope, winning 80 out of 200 races he started in.
In 1969, he started building RS1000s, producing 101 over the next 10 years. Sepp Melkus said his grandfather's vision was to build a racing car that could be driven on the road -- not an easy task in communist East Germany.
While West Germans were driving around in Mercedes, BMWs and Audis, most of their countrymen behind the Iron Curtain had to make do with Trabants or Wartburgs. But even those were hard to get hold of: The average waiting time for a Trabi or Wartburg was 15 years.
However, this did not put off Heinz Melkus. After getting permission from the East German authorities to build a sports car to celebrate the communist state's 20th anniversary, he trawled East German factories and car breaker yards for parts that could be used to build the RS1000. Heinz Melkus had to be very "innovative," says his grandson Sepp. "There was no other way of doing it in the German Democratic Republic in those days."
Using a Wartburg 353 chassis, Melkus designed a car that looked nothing like the ones then found on East Germany's roads: a stylish, low and curvy sports car with gull-wing doors. Although the cars only have a two-stroke engine providing a mere 100 horsepower, the vehicle's incredibly lightweight design means the RS1000 can reach speeds of up to 180 kilometers per hour (112 miles per hour).
In the 1980s, Heinz Melkus, who also ran a driving school in Dresden, continued to build racing cars but did not construct any more sports cars. It was only two years ago -- after his death in 2005 -- that his son Peter and grandson Sepp decided to build the classic sports cars again.
Short of Parts
Using blueprints that still existed and hiring some of the original staff -- some of whom came out of retirement especially for the project -- they set out to build the RS1600. Although the new cars have a modern four-stroke engine, they are being built exactly the same way as the ones in the 1970s. A team of 10 people build the cars by hand in a small factory near the east German city of Dresden.
And just as in the 1970s, the company has struggled to get hold of some of the parts. In the 1970s, Heinz Melkus and his mechanics would build each RS1000 slightly differently -- using whatever components were available at the time -- because of East Germany's notorious lack of spare parts.
But a shortage in spare parts has also made life hard for the mechanics building the new cars. Although some parts, such as the Wartburg windshields, are still being built, the company had to put a lot of effort into finding some of the rarer parts, scouring vintage car markets and tracking down collectors.
Out of the 101 RS1000s that were built in the 1970s, around 80 are still around. According to Sepp Melkus, one of the old models in good condition can fetch around 55,000 ($87,000), while the custom-made new models start at 60,000 ($94,000).
As well as reviving the family's sports car, Peter and Sepp Melkus plan to fulfill one of their forefather's unrealized dreams: to build a successor to the RS1000. The RS2000, which is still being designed, will be largely based on the original model. Sepp Melkus, who likens the new car to the Lotus Elise roadster, says they will keep the lightweight design but give it a modern look.
Right now, though, Sepp and Peter Melkus are busy finishing off the 15th of the RS1600s, which will be delivered to its new owner soon.
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