Over the Wall: Ernst Degner’s Defection

“Did the dirty” to his mentor, Walter Kaaden


 

 

Degner and his son on the cover of the East German magazine NBI just before he defected. Vinny Scanno
Degner and his son on the cover of the East German magazine NBI. This pic was taken just before he defected.

(This was first published in 2006)

Sachsenring—today that name signifies the German round of the MotoGP championship and the true mid-point of the MotoGP season. But there was a time when the Sachsenring meant a rare peek behind the iron curtain, passionate fans and an almost too-real betrayal that unhinged a world championship, upset the scales of racing and ended in suicide. Or murder.

In the 1960s the Sachsenring was once one of the most highly attended spectator events in the world, dwarfing the modern Super Bowl and even the Indy 500. And before the fall of communism in Germany, the race was a rare peek for racers and enthusiasts into life in the Commie-ruled east. Additionally, there was a time when the communist-run East German GP and their race team were nearly a force in GP racing.

Copious press reports from the 1960s peg Sachsenring race attendance between 300,000 and 500,000—with one notable printed report stating crowds were “down” to 360,000 in 1966. Sachsenring was a street-based circuit nearly five a half miles long, and due to minimal developments in the hinterland of East Germany, there were numerous places to park your reeking hulk of a Red-built car or bike and enjoy the event. Add in the period no fun allowed East German government—no television back then of course, thus vodka was the main form of entertainment—it’s clear that a big motorcycle race with riders from the world over was a huge draw for the captive (in many ways) crowd.

The site of the old Sachsenring featured bike racing before the start of WWII. Even then the ‘ring—a street-based circuit—attracted huge numbers of fervent German fans; their elaborate scaffolding was amazing, many of them little more than a folding chair attached to a twenty or thirty foot tall pole. The enthusiasm of the locals did not stop there. Example: Between practice sessions crowds were allowed to cross the track but only at specific points. and because the track surface was sacred these walking lanes were covered in carpet so the spectators would not dirty the track surface. And if you walked down to the local post office you could send a letter out adorned with an East German stamp featuring Mike Hailwood (winner of three classes at the Sachsenring in 1963) or Jim Redman.

By the early 1960s the world was swept up in cold war politics. The Sachsenring was a track on the wrong side of the cold war for some—it lay within 150 miles of Berlin and within miles of Dresden, an important industrial center in the Socialist-run East Germany.

For westerners, just getting to the track was problematic. Period accounts from the riders of the era who crossed the border between east and west Germany are both colorful and at the same time disturbing. On the lighter side, riders were treated like deities by the East German crowd, who at the same time could not help themselves from attempting to steal, literally, anything from the west, including laundry drying on the line and food from the table. On the darker side, border crossings could be nasty, with many riders and crew being taken away at machine gun point when they applied in person to cross into the East.

Paul Carruthers toured Europe with his father, 1969 250 world champion, Kel Carruthers, and endured many border crossings into Communist-controlled East Germany in the sixties. “The biggest memory I have is getting out of the van and having to wash the west off your feet before they let you in,” he recalls.

Degner at the IOM in 1965. He is riidng the 50cc Suzuki. the bike was transformed with the information Degner supplied to the Japanese. Wally Carbo
Degner at the IOM in 1965. He is riidng the 50cc Suzuki. the bike was transformed with the information Degner supplied to the Japanese.

1960s greats Mike Hailwood and Jim Redman wrote of racing in the East, being awarded prize money and being instructed that none of the prize money could leave the country and their visa expired at midnight—forcing them to buy anything and everything in order to avoid the money becoming worthless. They spent their prize money in-country and would then (hopefully) later sell the lumbering East German drill press or case of itchy bloomers once they hit free ground.

Early 1970s riders report that as they left the Sachsenring event they’d throw printed race results or press kits out the window of the car as souvenirs for the fans, inadvertently causing fist-fights as the locals clamored for anything, no matter how trivial, as a memento from the race.

The East German GP was part of a larger racing effort by the Socialist German government. There wasn’t just a East German GP—there was indeed a Communist GP team during that period with East German manufacturer MZ racing several classes in the 1960s, and in doing so spearheading a massive engineering change in racing motorcycles. Believe it or not, Communist East Germany heralded a new age in racing as we know it.

Loyal Communist Walter Kaaden worked under Nazi V-series rocket engineer Werner von Braun during WWII, but elected to stay with Germany after the Allies beat the living tar out of the Fatherland. Whereas von Braun was head-hunted by the Allies and (probably) given the choice of joining America’s own burgeoning rocket program or maybe doing the gallows jig for his use of slave labor in Hitler’s rocket program. He joined the Yanks and later became the head of NASA, and is today known as a point person among those who engineered America’s successful 1960s space program.

Kaaden, one of von Braun’s many lieutenants, designed and built one the world’s first cruise missiles in the dying days of WWII, but decided to stay in Germany after the war. Whereas von Braun would go on to head NASA in the 1960s and spearhead America’s entry into the space race, post-war Kaaden actually worked as a carpenter in what would become East Germany. His love of motorcycles drew him to racing and through a complicated process, he became the head of DKW’s race team, and later, MZ.

Ernst Degner and his hair. Bertie Adams
Ernst Degner and his hair. Together they make for perhaps the most punchable face in racing.

 

The MZ race team, backed by the German government, was stretched just as thin as those standing in bread lines in Berlin; the team’s resources would seemingly be made moot by a simple modern privateer supersport effort. Case in point: pre-war DKW rider Wil Herz bought a helmet in the late 1930s and raced with it for years. It was then handed down to Kaaden, who in turn used it when he test rode his own machines. Incredibly, he then handed it down to rider Ernst Degner when Deg’ joined MZ—nearly 15 years after the helmet was first constructed. Degner was still using this helmet in the late 1950s. Moreover, riders for the MZ team were rarely paid and Kaaden was forced to become very resourceful when buying fuel and tires at the races.

Kaaden is mis-credited as the “father of the two-stroke engine” however he’s clearly not that, although his role in motorcycle race history may actually be of more importance than the person who first designed the two-stroke. Kaaden was in fact the man who tamed the pressure waves from the two-stroke, used them to make power and at the same time made the two-stroke semi-reliable and fast.

The two-stroke was—in the late 1950s—being written off as a clap-trap race powerplant, but Kaaden and his crew applied actual science to the engine whereas previously two-stroke tuning was black art at best. It wasn’t by choice that MZ used the two-stroke: like most of the struggling GP manufacturers of the era they used the two stroke engine because it was cheap to manufacture and very simple. As time passed and Kaaden’s groundbreaking work in two stroke tuning paid off the MZ made a gradual ascent up the finishing order in the smaller GP classes of the day. After years of toil by Kaaden, on a shoestring budget, MZ were on the cusp of an actual championship when the unimaginable—or from a Western standpoint—inevitable, happened.

Kaaden groomed East German rider Ernst Degner into a champion and together they sat one race finish away from the 1961 125cc world championship. A Socialist win in any world championship during this period would have created headlines and had the Communist overlords mapping out a parade route and heaping awards and respect on the man most responsible—Kaaden.

All Degner had to do in the race was finish in the points and MZ were world champions. Yet, in what history may judge as the ultimate act of racing betrayal, as the series came to a close—and East Germany had the Berlin Wall erected to keep their citizens from easily moving to the West—MZ rider Degner defected in spectacular fashion at the Swedish round after intentionally destroying the engine in his MZ125 racer, an event which left Kaaden reeling. Afterwards Degner secretly left the track and took many of Kaaden’s secrets—and even some hard parts—to Suzuki, and reportedly, later Yamaha.

With Degner’s help, Suzuki’s two-stoke GP bikes were born again and so with it the two-stroke revolution in GP. Whereas previously four-strokes dominated GP racing in all classes, within little more than a decade four-strokes would be vanquished to the edge of the GP paddock. One year after his defection and betrayal, Degner and Suzuki won the first ever world championship with a two-stroke machine in 1962—the 50cc title.

On one hand it’s hard to find fault in Degner’s defection. A world championship rider since the 1950s, he had seen much in his travels outside the constrains of life in a communist-controlled country. After getting a taste of freedom and the west it’s only natural that a man would want more than the gray and grainy East Germany for himself and his family. Leaving is one thing, but stabbing your mentor in the back another. The betrayal of Kaaden can only be judged harshly.

Degner was later fined by the FIM for breaking his MZ contract and quite justifiably feared for his life for years after he defected. He didn’t race in the East German GP at Sachsenring the next season for obvious reasons.

Degner’s defection and betrayal were of a huge cost to Kaaden, who saw his race team and stature eviscerated by his communist overlords. MZ were on the brink of winning a world championship, but post-Degner they are mere obscure footnotes in racing history, mis-credited in the rare instances Kaaden is mentioned. And any thoughts that Degner didn’t give all of his secrets to Suzuki later perished when Kaaden borrowed a set of Suzuki special tools and found them to be replicas of the ones he made to work on his MZs.

Walter Kaaden on right. This was in the era when if you disn't lean on something when standing, with crossed legs, the East German police would shoot you on sight. Fine, they didn't. Note the MZ race shop--it's a shed.Horn Tackler
Walter Kaaden on right. This was in the era when if you didn’t lean on something when standing, with crossed legs, the East German police would shoot you on sight. Fine, they didn’t. Note the MZ race shop–it’s a shed.

Rider Alan Shepard was teamed with Degner when he defected and pulled no punches when he later described what Degner’s defection had cost Kaaden. “Degner was very much in love with himself and did not hesitate to hurt other people. I feel what he did was very, very cruel.”

Kaaden and MZ continued to race in the same hardscrabble fashion until the 1970s when they drifted further from the podium and then from view. There were race triumphs after Degner’s defection and betrayal, including, of course, Alan Shepard’s amazing come from nowhere win on the MZ125 at the 1964 USGP at Daytona. Degner, in fact, won at Daytona in 1965.

While they weren’t really peers, Werner von Braun and Walter Kaaden certainly were colleagues and the way their post-WWII lives ended is interesting to note. Von Braun—an actual former officer in the Nazi SS—made a jump to the US and used his passion and force of personality to push America into the space race and an American walking on the moon. Today he is the subject of many books, is listed in every encyclopedia worth owning and was even the subject of a lecture by Arthur C. Clarke.

For Kaaden, one can only wonder if the racing genius ever found fulfillment in his loyalty to Germany. After fading from the world’s race paddocks, Walter Kaaden died of cancer in March of 1996 in near complete obscurity, shortly after telling Jan Leeks, author of MZ: Birth of the Modern Two-Stroke Racer that he was amazed anyone remembered him or his deeds at all. He lived to see the Berlin Wall and the whole of communism collapse in Germany.

Degner actually repatriated himself back into East Germany after retiring from racing (there’s a corner at Suzuka named after him). He killed himself, allegedly by slitting his own throat, in Berlin in the 1990s.

It’s been a matter of speculation for years that his death wasn’t suicide at all.

 


Return to News