Ernst Degner. 1963.


8. Ernst Degner


At this moment MZ factory rider Ernst Degner only had to finish in the points to win the World Championship, in the 1961 Swedish GP at Kristianstadt.

But his plan was to defect, Jimmy Matsumiya’s interest in Jazz music had become the link to becoming Ernst’s friend, and he nurtured the possibility of Ernst leaving MZ, and moving to the west to join Suzuki.

During the race, Ernst, broke down, and during the confusion, made his move and fled, the plan also included his family, who were already on their way. He brought with him, MZ’s secrets, piston metallurgy, boost port timing, the rotary disc valve, and the expansion chamber. These technologies radically altered the map of Western motorcycle competition and production, for well over two decades.  

Jimmy Matsumiya was what his contemporaries might have called a ‘hip cat’. Cambridge-educated, urbane Anglophile, he liked to hanging out in jazz clubs but he was also Suzuki’s fixer in Europe, paid to navigate his employers through the strange ways of the Western world.

Now Matsumiya was all set to pull off the biggest industrial espionage heist in motorsport history, but he cooly placed the needle on the record and waited.

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Ernst Degner’s and his 1962 Suzuki 50cc

There was a quiet knock-knock at the door. Matsumiya got up, opened the door and Ernst Degner quickly brushed past into the room. As they shook hands the German looked slightly agitated. “Hello Mr Matsumiya. We’ve got ten minutes,” said Degner.

“So, what’s your news, Mr Degner?” he asked. “What have you and your friends decided?”

Their voices were slightly strained – they were trying to be quiet but at the same time trying to make them-selves heard above the jazz music. “In general we are quite happy with the terms, Mr Matsumiya. We think we are nearly ready to sign, but there are some important details I would like to discuss with you.” Degner talked as he watched the comings and goings in the hotel driveway, keeping well back from the window.

“That’s excellent news, Mr Degner,” replied Matsumiya. “I have some news: our company president Mr Suzuki says he is prepared to agree to your proposals.” 

“That’s very good, let’s proceed,” said Degner.

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Degner working at Suzuki 

The co-conspirators were meeting in Matsumiya’s room in the Fernleigh hotel on Douglas, where the Suzuki and MZ teams resided during Isle of Man TT fortnight. It was June 1961 and they were here to finalise exactly what they wanted from each other. Degner had had enough of life in the communist GDR and wanted to defect from East to West, so he wanted money, and lots of it. Matsumiya wanted a quick way out of Suzuki’s nightmare machine problems, so he needed the best two-stroke know-how in the world and he was prepared to pay for it.

What the pair were proposing was brazen robbery of priceless engine technology – the automotive theft of the century. After its tentative outing at the 1960 TT, the Suzuki Motor Company had invested millions of yen in building a completely new 125 to contest its first full world championship season. And the company was turning out to be the joke of the paddock, which wasn’t the idea at all. Suzuki was in Europe to build the brand name, not to drag it through the mud. 

At the first three events of the 1961 season none of their 125 riders had even finished a race, let alone got within a mile of scoring world championship points. Meanwhile, Degner and MZ were leading the world championship for the first time, after wins at Barcelona and high-speed Hockenheim (where MZ had monopolised the first four places) and a close second place to Honda’s Tom Phillis at Clermont-Ferrand. The 1961 MZ 125 was a rocket ship. Another winter of noisy, sweaty toil on the dyno had rewarded Kaaden with another two horsepower, taking the MZ to 25 horsepower, its workable power band a whole 400rpm wide: 10,000 to 10,400rpm.  

The MZ was now the fastest motorcycle in the world championship. It was also much more than that – it was the first normally aspirated engine in history to make 200 horsepower per litre, a landmark moment in the development of the internal-combustion engine. And the machine had finally been blessed with up-to-date front suspension and a stronger, more workmanlike frame, for a dramatic improvement in handling.

MZ and Degner were on their way to becoming world champions.

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Suzuka / ‘Degner’s Curve’ / 1963

Suzuki knew they didn’t have the time to learn Kaaden’s secrets, the honest way.

That might take years. Eventually, company president Shunzo Suzuki had to admit that Degner seemed the only way out of the mess they’d got themselves into. And Matsumiya was the man to put the plan into action. Degner and Matsumiya had first got to know each other during the 1960 IOM TT when Suzuki and MZ had found themselves staying together at the Fernleigh Hotel.

Kaaden couldn’t believe that a novice two-stroke manufacturer like Suzuki had booked into his usual TT hotel purely by chance, he instructing his mechanics to ensure none of the Japanese even got a peak inside the MZ garage. But during that stay Degner and Matsumiya became acquaintances when they discovered a mutual love of jazz music.  

Mastumiya had a gramophone in his room; it was the perfect cover for their 1961 Island assignations, the deal was struck and Degner would defect from behind ‘The Iron Curtain’.

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DKW RT 125cc (Reichs Type) Years of production 1939 – 1945

After his defection during the Swedish GP at Kristianstadt, the World Championship wasn’t quite over. Degner made it to the UK, where he then arranged to borrow a British-built EMC two-stroke for the season’s 125cc finale in Argentina, he could still beat Tom Phillis on Honda’s four-stroke twin, to the 1961 title.

The EMC though never made it to Buenos Aires, but Degner went on to win the 1962 50cc World Championships on a Suzuki that bore a distinct resemblance to his old MZ, the shift from four-stroke dominance to two-stroke had taken place, the motorcycle industry would never be the same again. Coincidently soon after Degner’s defection, Peter Inchley went to race for EMC, who had obvilously taken advantage of their chance for some interesting discussions with Ernst Degner. It would also seem quite a coincidence that Villiers set about a complete redesign of their race engines at the same time and the result of this was ‘The Starmaker’ a radical departure from their previous engines.

The Suzuki RM62 50cc that Ernst Degner rode to the 50cc title in October 1962 made eight horsepower and was good for 90mph, with a little help from a tailwind. It was hardly an awesome motorcycle, but its success was as much a historic
 moment for the sport as it was for Suzuki, because this was also the first world title won by a two-stroke.

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Ernst Degner / Suzuki RM62 50 cc

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