Grand Prix Motorcycle Racing's Greatest Caper

Collusion and controversy in motorcycling’s greatest caper

Ernst Degner on MZ two-stroke
Ernst Degner and Suzuki’s Brain DrainMortons Archive

In 1961, Ernst Degner was leading the 125cc world championship aboard an innovative MZ two-stroke designed in the GDR under the guidance of Walter Kaaden. In spite of racing glory, Degner was discontented with eking out a meager living behind the Iron Curtain. While his competitors arrived at continental events driving fancy cars, Degner came with Stasi secret police escorts. He was at a crossroads. Fortunately, so was Suzuki.

After its two-stroke RT60 finished 15 minutes behind the four-stroke MV Agusta in the 1960 Ultra-Lightweight TT, the Hamamatsu factory looked at the MZ and saw greatness; it looked at Degner and saw opportunity. When Degner’s bike failed during the Swedish GP, Suzuki’s western fixer plied the forlorn MZ team with drinks, enabling Degner to defect from East Germany—into Suzuki’s open arms. Degner arranged for his family to be smuggled across the border in the trunk of a Lincoln limousine.

By integrating Degner’s expertise in riding two-strokes to GP victory into its own industrial-size R&D, Suzuki found the secret to victory—stolen or not. At the following year’s TT, Degner gave Suzuki its first world-championship victory aboard the RM62, and also the 1962 50cc world championship.