Some Grand Prix racing fans may know that Suzuki began to have success with their motorcycles in the late 1960s. What may be less well known, however, is how exactly Suzuki went from relatively unknown overnight to Grand Prix champion. Well, the success story of Suzuki is actually a story of the Cold War, or a story of capitalism and capitalism. communism.
Essentially, the Japanese automaker is known as Suzuki Stole East German technology to power their motorcycles. Looking back in history, we see that throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, the East German motorcycle manufacturer known as MZ used World War II rocket technology to win numerous Grand Prix motorcycle races. The technology was originally created by Nazi German engineer Walter Kaaden.
Although Carden was not a Nazi himself, he was a brilliant German engineer who was forced to develop technology for Hitler and the Nazis during the war. Carden’s genius laid the foundation for the modern two-stroke engine. Read on to learn more about Kaaden’s engineering and how exactly Suzuki was able to steal communist technology to make their motorcycles faster.
The overlapping history of two-stroke engines and communism
To understand Suzuki’s grand prix success, we must first take a deep dive into Walter Kaaden’s role in developing the two-stroke engine. After World War II ended in 1945, Carden wasn’t sure if he would survive because he had been working for Hitler throughout the war. However, Carden was not a Nazi. In fact, he and many other great German engineers of that era were forced to serve as engineers in the German army.
After the war, Kaaden did have the opportunity to leave Germany with Wernher von Braun, an engineer who went on to work for NASA. However, Kaaden did not want to leave Germany, preferring racing technology anyway, as he had been working on two-stroke engine technology for the German manufacturer DKW before the war. In late 1945, Carden returned to his native East Germany, now under Soviet control.
Kaaden lifts East Germany in the world of Grand Prix
In the early 1950s, Kaaden got another job at DKW. However, DKW eventually changed its brand to MZ. The Soviets actually wanted Germany to compete for automotive dominance again and put Kaaden in charge of developing technology for the new German racing team. One of Kaaden’s first tasks was to build a fleet of two-stroke 125cc race cars for the German team.
In 1955, MZ raced the Isle of Man TT with Kaaden’s new bike. While they didn’t win, they did shock the racing world with a 5th and 6th place finish. Considering the conditions in which he works, Kaaden’s ability to build top-of-the-line racing cars is impressive. The post-war country was in disarray, so Kaaden’s ability to put MZ on the map in the Grand Prix was more of a loser’s story.
East German Grand Prix star Ernst Degner brings tech secrets to Suzuki
In 1956, MZ signed a new young talent to ride their two-stroke bikes. The new rider was a young man from East Germany named Ernest Degner. While Kaaden continued to perfect the two-stroke engine on MZ bikes, Degner was able to give the MZ its first podium finish in 1958. Degner and MZ went on to claim their first Grand Prix win in the 250cc class at the Swedish Grand Prix.
Despite progress in MZ, Degner wanted to leave East Germany. No matter how well he rides or what accolades he gets, MZ doesn’t have enough money to pay for Degner’s worth. Degner wants to live like a celebrity, and he sees racers from well-funded countries doing so. Degner’s desire, combined with Suzuki’s desire to be competitive in the racing world with their two-strokes, created the perfect storm. In 1961, Degner made a deal with Suzuki and moved to Japan. In addition to his racing prowess, Degner brought Kaaden’s secrets to perfecting a two-stroke engine to Japan.
Suzuki wins 50cc class at world championship with stolen communist tech
With Degner’s arrival in Japan, Suzuki finally had something significant they could use to improve the bike’s performance without having to invest in the research that would normally take years to perfect an engine. Degner’s move to Suzuki was indeed one of the most blatant thefts of race and technical secrets ever.
While it was far from ethical for Degner to move to Japan and share Kaaden’s two-stroke engine technology, Suzuki reaps major rewards for having Degner on board. In 1962, Suzuki won the first Grand Prix in the 50cc class with Degner as driver. The victory comes less than a year after Degner’s move to Japan. Suzuki continued to be a racing powerhouse, while MZ gradually took a back seat. However, there would be no Suzuki without the great work of Walter Kaaden, which is the story of how Suzuki stole communist technology to make their cars faster.
Read more about Suzuki’s rise to the top of the racing world in Mat Oxley’s book Stealing Speed: The Biggest Spy Scandal in Motorsport History.