Communism's 'Ferrari of the East' is back on the road after 27 years

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The Independent Online

It was built out of bits of East German Trabant and Wartburg cars, yet its rakish drop-nosed looks and - by Communist standards - staggering top speed of 102mph won it the nickname "Ferrari of the East".

Now, 27 years after Communist East Germany's only sports car went out of production, its makers have decided to re-launch the two-stroke engined vehicle that was once the star of motor racing circuits behind the Iron Curtain. "Ferrari of the East" may have been the title bestowed on the wing-doored car that looked as if it had been lifted from an early James Bond movie, but its real name is the less glamorous Melkus RS 1000.

Last month the Dresden manufacturers, Melkus engineering, produced the first of its revamped sports cars based on the original. The latest model, stylishly painted glistening yellow, was unveiled at the city's transport museum by Peter Melkus, the company owner, who declared, with tears in his eyes: "The Melkus marque is reborn !"

Fifteen of the new cars are due to be completed by early next year and the company says that nearly all of them have already found owners. "Once we have completed our remake of the original, we plan to embark on the next generation, the Melkus RS 2000," Mr Melkus said.

Communist East Germany was hardly a car owners' paradise. Fifteen years was the average waiting time for a two-stroke, smoke-puffing and plastic-bodied Trabant or Wartburg car, which were the only domestically-made vehicles. Parents were known to put their children on car manufacturers' waiting lists shortly after they were born.

Given such dire economic circumstances, the Melkus RS 1000 had no difficulty in achieving legendary status. It was the brainchild of an East German driving instructor called Heinz Melkus, who had a passion for Ferrari and Lotus cars and a gift for mechanical engineering.

"My grandfather once took a rare trip to Yugoslavia and his Wartburg was overtaken by a sleek-looking Lotus while he was driving on the Autoput motorway. After seeing the Lotus, he wanted to build sports cars himself," his grandson Sepp said. "In 1969, when East Germany was preparing to celebrate its 20th anniversary, the authorities finally gave him permission to build a sports car to mark the event and the Melkus RS 100 was born," he added.

In 1969 and throughout the 1970s, Heinz Melkus scoured East German factories and car breakers' yards for Trabant and Wartburg parts that formed the basis of his sports car. The building took place in a garage close to his Dresden home using a Wartburg 353, 75-horse power, two-stroke engine and a body moulded out of fibreglass.

The 101 cars built were snapped up by enthusiasts. Heinz Melkus went on to become East Germany's equivalent of Michael Schumacher.The gradual economic decline of East Germany finally brought production of the Melkus RS 1000 to a halt in 1979.