What do Suzuki’s first Grand Prix World Championship, a defecting German and Chayofa have in common? The answer is Ernst Degner.
Degner was born in Gleiwitz in 1931. His father died shortly before the end of World War II and the remaining family fled to East Germany to avoid the advancing Russian army. In 1950, Ernst was awarded a diploma in engineering and on leaving school became an apprentice motorcycle mechanic. He also joined a motorcycle club where he met Daniel Zimmermann who had built an exceptionally fast 125cc bike called the ZPH.
In 1952 Ernst started racing and by 1955 he finished as runner up on the ZPH in the East German 125cc Championship. This brought him to the attention of German motorcycle manufacturer MZ (whose two-stroke’s global dominance can be attributed to one man Walter Kaaden) who offered him a job in their factory as an engineer and rider. He raced successfully for MZ and the company entered him in the World Championship races. However Degner was jealous of his Western rivals because despite being an excellent rider and a brilliant engineer he was paid the same salary as the factory workers. He could not afford the smart clothes or the flash cars that he wanted and he also didn´t like living under the watchful eye of the Stasi secret police. It was therefore not surprising that when Degner was offered a large sum of money £10,000 (£200,000 in today’s money) by Suzuki to defect to the West with Kaaden’s secrets a deal was struck.
Degner devised a way to spirit his wife and family from East to West Berlin. Unfortunately history stepped in to scupper his plans. In 1961 the Cold War was at its height as Khrushchev threatened Kennedy with hydrogen bombs and on the morning of August 13th, the date the family planned their escape, they awoke to discover that Communist forces had begun the construction of the Berlin Wall and there was no way out.
Degner devised a new plan with his friend Paul Petry. They constructed a secret compartment inside the boot of Petry’s car. On the weekend of the Swedish GP Petry drugged Degner’s wife and children and placed them in the boot. He then drove through the border, fully aware that if they got caught they would all be killed.
In the meantime, Degner was at the racetrack in Sweden and on the verge of winning the world championship. His escape plan was to slip away during the long trip home. Instead, disaster struck during the race he had engine trouble and failed to finish but that night, he fled to Denmark with the vital MZ drawings and engine parts. After the MZ team discovered his defection, they accused him of deliberately destroying his engine and not racing.
Degner finally made it to the French border where he was reunited with his wife and family and they went on to the UK, where he arranged to borrow a British-built EMC two-stroke to finish the season in Argentina. The bike never materialised and Degner was convinced there’d been a conspiracy, between the East German authorities and Argentina’s left-wing government.
In 1961 Ernst Degner joined the Suzuki team his main task was to develop and create a new generation of 125 competitive racing bikes. If he accomplished this he would receive his money. All the while, Degner was fearful that the Stasi would assassinate him. Despite his fears he was left alone and the 1962 season was a triumph for Degner and Suzuki; however the dream soon turned into a nightmare.
In November 1963, Degner crashed and the fuel tank burst into flames leaving him with horrific burns that required numerous skin grafts. He subsequently shattered his right leg during the 1965 Italian GP and the following year he suffered serious head injuries while practicing for the Japanese GP. Despite this he won three more Grand Prix but both his career and his marriage were over and he retired in 1966.
After a spell dabbling in car racing, he worked as Technical Manager for Suzuki before he finally moved to Tenerife.
It was here in Chayofa where he ran a car hire business that his son learnt of his death. However because nobody knew the actual circumstances there followed a flurry of rumours which included a drugs overdose as Degner had become dependent on medication after his crash in Japan. It was also suggested the Stasi had finally caught up with him; murdering him and making it look like suicide to avenge his defection. In fact, Degner died of a heart attack at the age of 53 years.
Degner’s betrayal of Kaaden is a real-life James Bond story that proves that fact is nearly always more fascinating than fiction and it all ended here in Chayofa.
Key Achievements Ernst Degner
15 Grand Prix victories 1959-1965
1960 3 Place on MZ 125cc world championship
1961 Vice world champion on MZ 125cc
1962 Suzuki 50cc World Champion
1963 3 Place World championship on Suzuki 50cc