Ernst Degner and industrial espionage in motorcycle racing
Ernst Degner, as rider, and Walter Kaaden, as technician, are the main protagonists of a rocambolesque history of industrial espionage that, in the beginning of the 60's, allowed SUZUKI to access the 2T technology developed by Kaaden at the service of MZ. This episode, among other particularities, proved to be of the utmost importance for the sport results that 2T engines would achieve in the following 40 years.
Kaaden (01.09.1919 – 03.03.1996) was born in Pobershau in Saxony and was the son of the driver of the commercial director of DKW, at age 8 he attended a training event on the Nurburgring circuit and, according to him, it was this episode that preponderant in his taste for engineering.
At the age of 15, thanks to his age and nationality, he joined the Hitler Youth and at the age of 21, in 1940, after completing his academic training at the Technical Academy in Chemnitz, he joined the staff of the HENSCHEL aircraft factory in Berlin-Schonefeld under the baton of Herbert A. Wagner, the designer of the HS 293 rocket-propelled missile. Within the same project, in 1943 he was transferred to the Army Research Center of Peenemunde as a flight engineer, in August of the same year, due to a bombing of the facilities, the entire operation was transferred to the network of deep tunnels under the Harz mountains, at the Mittelwerk factory in the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp. At the end of the war he was taken prisoner by American troops. Depending on the sources, he may or may not, most likely not, work on the development of the V1 and V2 flying bombs. In any case, he later came to use some of their technological concepts for the design of the 2T exhausts! After the Second World War, Kaaden returned to Zschopau (post-war Democratic, East or East Germany, beyond the Iron Curtain) where he created a wood business to produce trusses for the many roofs that had been destroyed. He left behind Werner von Braun's invitation to accompany him to the US to work on the NASA program.
It was during this period that he returned to his initial passion, built a racing motorcycle on the basis of a DKW RT125 and participated with it in various sporting events and regional scope. His technical ability, although his skills as a rider were not brilliant, was quickly recognized. In 1953, the IFA (brand that replaces, in the same company, DKW), due to the fact that it was being beaten in competitions by its competitor ZPH, hired him as Director of the brand's competition department. Both brands were based on the DKW RT125 engine. The government was not very happy with the “war” between the two brands and forced Daniel Zimmermann (the ZPH designer) to collaborate with Walter. The result was a rotary-valve intake engine in which Kaaden used an oscilloscope to study the resonance of the exhaust system in order to optimize power. The 1954 version of this engine developed 13hp and in its final stage of development 25hp at 10,800rpm, impressive figures for the time.
From 1956 onwards, the IFA brand ceased to be used and became known as MZ (Motorenwerke Zschopau). Later, between 1992 and 1999, it became known as MuZ (Motorrad und Zweiradwerk).
Ernst Degner (22.09.1931 – 10.09.1983) was born in Gleiwitz, Germany, received his engineering degree in 1950 and was apprenticed to a mechanic in Potsdam.
He became acquainted with Daniel Zimmermann at the Potsdam Moto Club and in 1952 he started racing at the controls of a ZPH. In 1955 he won the East German Championship in the 125cc class.
In 1956, impressed by his ability, Kaaden hired him as a rider/engineer for MZ. In 1957 he won 11 of the 14 races that made up the national championship, having naturally achieved the title of Champion. From 1958, MZ began to participate in the World Championship and in 1959 it won a GP for the first time, the GP of Nations at Monza, finishing the year 5th in the 125cc class and 4th in the 250cc class. In 1960, a crash in practice at the first GP, Isle of Man, conditioned the entire season, yet at the end of the year, he would finish 3rd in the 125cc class. Degner began to nurture the desire to live like his colleagues from other countries who earned more money and boasted wealth and good cars, Ernst was paid like any MZ worker. Unhappy with the limitations that his nationality and residence entailed, the Berlin Wall was built in August 1961, Ernst planned to move to the Western World. In the meantime, MZ imposed itself, despite the reduced material resources compared to the competition, as the owner of a winning technology. In the 1961 season, Degner finished 7 GP in the 125cc, won 3 times, having also won 3 second places and 1 fourth position, at the end of the year he was runner-up, despite having missed the last two races for various reasons.
In that year's Swedish GP, the penultimate one, his engine didn't cooperate and he gave up early in the race. As it was that weekend that Ernst managed to get his family to flee to West Germany, later MZ and the state of East Germany accused him of boycotting... his sports license was hunted down, however, the commitment Joe Ehrlich (owner of EMC) got him a license from West Germany and a motorcycle of his brand (EMC) to participate in the last GP of the season in Argentina. Due to the delay in transport to South America, he ended up not being able to participate, thus handing the title of World Champion to HONDA pilot Tom Phillis! That same year, in November, weapons and luggage were transferred to Japan, where during the closed season, he actively collaborated with SUZUKI technicians in order to pass on Walter Kaaden's MZ know-how. Degner participated in the CMV until 1966, after defection, always with SUZUKI and the most important result he obtained was the title of World Champion in the 50cc class in the 1962 season. Because he was the first rider to crash during the inaugural Suzuka race, turn 8 (however 1983, turned 2) was designated the Degner turn. Also in Suzuka, during the 1963 GP, in the 250cc class, he suffered a violent fall which resulted in a fire and explosion of the motorcycle tank with serious physical consequences for Ernst, the severity of the burns he suffered involved more than 50 skin grafts and a break in his career until September 1964. After this incident, he would still win 4 more GP: 1964 (Japan in 125cc), 1965 (USA and Belgium in 50cc and Ulster in 125cc). He competed in his last GP in the Isle of Man in 1966 in the 50cc class, having obtained 4th position. In 1983, he died in Tenerife, where he was running a rent-a-car business at the time, of a heart attack according to his death certificate, and there are still theories that he may have died of an overdose as a result of the medication he used after accident in Japan or that he was murdered by the Stasi (the East German secret police) in revenge for his desertion!...
This episode of the Cold War allowed the Japanese brand to take a giant step in the development of its 2T competition engines that, later, would culminate in the fantastic engine of the RG 500cc 4-cylinder with a square layout that, in the premier class, was Riders World Champion 4 times: Barry Sheene (1976 and 1977), Marco Lucchinelli (1981) and Franco Uncini (1982) and Constructors 7 times: 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981 and 1982.