behind the Iron Curtain
Believe it or not, the former East
Germany has a rich history in motorcycle racing.
The legendary German marque DKW was
located near Zschopau. Founded in 1919 by a Dane immigrant, they manufactured
two-stroke motorcycles. By the 1930s, they were the world's largest manufacturer
of motorbikes. During the 30s they grew even larger as they became involved
in the war effort. DKW, or Dampf Kraft Wagen, introduced a novel engine
design called the "split-single" in 1937 with its SS250 model. The machine
had three pistons, but only one of them handled combustion. One acted much
like a supercharger and drove the mixture into the middle cylinder which
handled combustion. The third piston acted as the exhaust port. These machines
won the coveted European championship a total of four occasions before
the outbreak of WWII.
DKW also made a machine called the
RT125 that was so successful the allies demanded the rights be conceded
as war reparations. The H-D 125, Yamaha's YA1 (often called the Red Dragon
and their very first motorcycle), and the Bantam by BSA were all RT125
After the war, the lack of raw materials
led to a decline in the marque's prestige. The company's newly communized
state did little for product quality.
Another problem was the mass defection
of the main DKW staff. Zschopau was located behind the Iron Curtain, and
many of the company's personnel escaped and reformed as DKW on the West
Germany. The remaining factory became know as MZ, or Motorradwerke Zschopau.
While DKW was experimenting with
Dustbin fairings and offset crankpin technology, the MZ group was left
in Eastern European squalor. That changed in 1956, as the brilliant engineer
Walter Kaaden took over the racing program. Utilizing two-stroke engines,
the team took on the 125 and 250 classes. Kaaden was the first to understand
how sound waves and expansion chambers effected tuning. Today he is considered
the father of the modern expansion chamber.
In 1961, the team's rider, Ernst
Degner (the namesake of the famous Suzuka curve) defected to the west via
the trunk of a car, taking with him the secrets of two-stoke race bikes
to Suzuki. A year later, Degner won Suzuki's first World Championship in
the 50cc class. MZ never recovered from his defection.
For the next three decades the factory
made cheap two-stroke machines favored by those without much cash (in the
west) or much choice (behind the Iron Curtain).
With the reunification, the marque
was denationalized and re-christened MuZ. The Hong Leong Group from Asia
took over the company after it collapsed due to soft sales. They now make
a range of bikes powered by Rotax and Yamaha powerplants. In 1998 and 1999,
MuZ also fielded a GP team with the former elf GP bike.
Also in 1998, the racing world
returned as the GP circus came to the Sachsenring. The World Endurance
series followed one year later with a round at Oschersleben.
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