Last revised: 24-7-2011

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Car of the Month - June 2011

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Melkus RS 1000 - sport coupe body - manufactured in 1969

A recent part of history which is rapidly slipping from collective memory is the division of Germany in a Western and an Eastern part. It lasted from 1949 till 1990 with the Eastern part being lead by some of the the sternest supporters of the communist political doctrine during the so-called cold war era. The differences between the two parts of the country soon became enormous, with West Germany developing into a major economic power and a pinnacle of "capitalist" democracy and personal freedom while East Germany lagged behind as a one-party state with a centrally planned economy and an oppressive social policy. To prevent unhappy East Germans defecting to the West, an increasing drain on East German resources, the notorious Iron Curtain was erected by the East German rulers and completed in 1961 with the iconic Berlin Wall, resulting in a violently enforced complete separation.
Generally the secluded German Democratic Republic (GDR), as the Eastern part was officially named, was regarded as a dreary place by the outside world, so it may come as a surprise that there actually were such frivolous activities as autosport taking place. One of the best known characters in that scene was Heinz Melkus, born in 1928 in Dresden and and a racing driver since 1950. Melkus, working as a truck driver, entered races in self constructed or modified cars like a sportscar which used components from a Volkswagen Type 166 amphibious vehicle left over from the war, or a Veritas made in Berlin using pre-war BMW engines. He was soon noted by the general public and became sort of a local hero. In 1955 he established a driving school in Dresden with racing car manufacture on the side. A series of single-seater racing cars, mostly in the Formula Junior class and powered by 2-stroke Wartburg engines, trickled out of the small factory. These cars were quite competitive in national and other Eastern bloc races, often piloted by Heinz Melkus himself, and as such Melkus was endorsed by the government as an successful example for the people in the GDR.
The Melkus driving school grew to be the second largest in Dresden and in the mid 1960s the company took its aspirations to the next level with the introduction of a state-of-the-art Formula 3 single seater racer dubbed "the cigar". Powered by the outdated 1-litre 2-stroke 3-cylinder Wartburg engine in the rear the car could top about 220 kph which was enough to become more or less the backbone of single seater racing behind the Iron Curtain, with 92 of these cars produced from 1964 till 1969. This cemented the reputation of Melkus as one of the leading racing car manufacturers within the Eastern bloc of communist countries.
It also lead to a plan by the national car racing commission to construct a sportscar completely developed and manufactured in the GDR to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the foundation of the GDR. In 1968 this plan was approved by the central government and Melkus was awarded with the task in association with Dresden's Technical University and University for Traffic, and Automobilwerk Eisenach (AWE), the factory that produced the Wartburg cars (and formerly BMW's). The design was based on the relatively modern Wartburg 353 platform but the engine was moved from the front to the middle of the car and converted to rear wheel drive. Standard power output of 45 hp @ 4250 rpm of the 2-stroke 3-cylinder engine was clearly not fitting a proper sportscar and so it was improved to 70 hp @ 4500 rpm in street trim and up to 100 hp @ 6000 rpm for racing versions by applying 3-barrel motorcycle carburettors from MZ, modified double pipe exhaust system and of course extensive tuning of the engine. A 5-speed gearbox placed behind the rear axle completed the improved powertrain.
For the body a combination of fiberglass (the front and rear segments) and alloy components (roof and doors) was chosen, which ensured a lightweight car. Ultimately the street version weighed only 750 kg and the racing version tipped the scales at a featherweight 680 kg. Downside was that the car had a low payload of 200 kg but for a proper sportscar the upside was far more important: a top speed of 165 kph in standard trim and around 200 kph for the racing version. The styling of the 2-seater body was modern and attractive, with hints of the Porsche 904 and the contemporary Opel GT and striking gull-wing doors, perhaps a reference to the Mercedes 300 SL, the awe-inspiring supercar produced in Western Germany a decade before. Oddly enough the body was manufactured by Robur, better known for its unassuming commercial vehicles. In the interior of the car only the necessary was found, with little allowance for comfort or luxury.

In 1969 this first completely East German sportscar was unveiled as the Melkus RS 1000, with "RS" (rennsport) indicating its sporting ambitions and "1000" the engine displacement. Outside the GDR it received little attention, even though it was exhibited at the 1970 Brussels Motorshow, but inside it was instantly the dreamcar of any car lover. Unfortunately its high price prevented most from acquiring one, apart from the fact that the government had to allow the prospective car buyer to order one first. This was mostly limited to those who had a racing license, at least at first. So production remained limited and most RS 1000s were used in circuit races and hillclimbs. From 1969 till 1973, during the main production run, about 75 RS 1000 left the factory. Then it was only built to order up to 1979 which brought total production to 101.
Melkus continued constructing race cars. There was a one-off competition spider version named PT73 of the RS 1000 in 1973 and from 1977 Melkus produced single seater racing cars with Lada engines for the Formula Easter. The last Melkus single seater appeared in 1990, after Germany had reunited, and was a Formula 3 car with BMW engine and unfortunately not very successful.
After the unification Melkus became the first BMW dealer in the former GDR and later added Lotus to its portfolio. A return to car manufacture came when it appeared there was actually a new market for the old RS 1000: its fame under the former citizens of the GDR was still strong and there were hardly any cars on the market even though about 80 of the RS 1000 had survived. An increasing amount of requests and the wish to honor Heinz Melkus, deceased in 2005, lead to a new production run of 15 cars according to original specifications (including 2-stroke engine) in 2006, followed by 5 cars designated Melkus RS 1600 in 2008 which were fitted with modern Volkswagen 4-cylinder engines while the exterior followed the original design.
The sons and grandsons of Heinz Melkus continue the tradition with the new Melkus RS 2000, introduced at the 2009 Frankfurt Motorshow, a completely new design based on the Lotus Elise/Exige platform, and taken into production in 2010. But the unique RS 1000 will remain the most classic Melkus; as the only production sportscar ever to emerge from the GDR, as a dream realized in a society bereft of dreams.

© André Ritzinger, Amsterdam, Holland

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