Melkus RS 1000

I don't want to sound insensitive here—and this is coming from me, I-haven't-built-a-car-Banovsky. I don't know how difficult it is to set up a production facility, source parts—including engines!—by cold-calling suppliers. I can't imagine all the hang-ups, the put downs, the feeling when investors pull out at the last second. 

I say this with the utmost of respect and awe of anyone who builds anything of substance with their hands, let alone an entire car.

Anyway, I don't want to sound insensitive here, but building only about 10 cars per year seems slow, especially since the Melkus RS 1000 had a fibreglass body. Then again, building a sports car in East Germany must have been a nightmare and a half. (It's said that Melkus had to scour local junk yards for parts!)

Thankfully, the cars were funded, at least in part, from the proceeds of Heinz Markus KG, a driving school owned by the company and adjacent to the factory.

I'd done some research on the car before completely forgetting about it. But a few days ago, reader Henning reached out, mentioned the car and I picked this back up again. Thanks!

It's time to get excited about the Melkus RS 1000.

As I'm fond of pointing out, often you've got to understand the environment from which a vehicle is born. On paper, a sports car powered by a ~75 horsepower 992cc Warburg 3-cylinder, 2-stroke engine doesn't sound all that appealing. But then again, if there are virtually no other sports cars in the country, it's probably just fine.

Founded in Dresden, East Germany by racing driver Heinz Melkus, the firm first focused on formula cars to be run in various championships within East Germany and, by extension, the Soviet Union. I'm not sure where his politics ended up, but you've got to imagine that Melkus would have been happy to be on the other side of the wall while developing his vehicles—at least as far as engines were concerned!

When the RS 1000 was first shown in 1969 in honour of the 20th anniversary of East Germany, it was clear that the car had been created by someone who knows racing cars, with an overall design based on open wheel principles. 

Light and low, with gull wing doors and a slippery shape, weight for the small mid-engined car was less than 700 kg (1,543 lbs), with a five speed manual transmission and—optional—Fiat 125 disc brakes for true enthusiasts. (I'm sure it was just like upgrading to ceramic brakes on a modern Porsche!)

Being fitted to a Melkus must have been like winning the lottery for a Wartburg engine, which was normally fitted to the 311 range of sedans. With mild tuning done to eek out every last drop of power, the RS 1000 could hit 175 km/h (108 mph). "Race" versions of the car had legs to see 210 km/h (130 mph)—about double the top speed of the Wartburg 311!

From 1959 to 1986, 101 RS 1000 models were made, with a few experimental cars sneaking out of the factory every now and then. The car ended production in 1986, four years before German reunification—surely, if they could have held out a little longer, the cars may have found favour in the West.

The company has produced vehicles since, often continuations of the original, and Heinz' sons are now trying to relaunch the brand with an all-new car. 

I have a feeling that they'll continue to keep the spirit of Melkus alive, despite already going through bankruptcy—at least they don't need to dig for parts like their dad did.