Degner's fast stroke

This year Suzuki becomes the third Japanese factory (after Honda and Yamaha) to celebrate half a century in Grand Prix racing. The smallest of the Japanese marques hasn't had a happy time of late, having scored just one victory since the advent of the four-stroke MotoGP class in 2002, and that was in a downpour at Le Mans three years ago. The factory's V4 GSV-R is a good-looking motorcycle but is out-gunned on horsepower and has an irritating tendency to understeer, so it rarely troubles the dominant Ducatis, Hondas and Yamahas.

Suzuki is doing its best to celebrate 50 years on the world stage, mostly by looking back at better days. Its golden years were the late '70s and early '80s when its highly effective RG500 two-stroke won four world titles with Barry Sheene, Marco Lucchinelli and Franco Uncini. But through all the celebrations you won't find any mention of the fact that the RG500 had its genesis in technology stolen from an East German motorcycle factory in a thrilling episode of Cold War skulduggery. What happened in the summer of 1961 makes the McLaren/Ferrari spy scandal look pedestrian.

When Suzuki first ventured into GP racing in 1960 its 125 was a paddock joke - a smoky little two-stroke that was horribly slow and prone to melting pistons. The consensus was that the two-stroke had had its day in GP racing, killed off by an earlier ban on supercharging. Only one company was having any joy with the 'stink wheel' (a nickname bestowed by four-stroke snobs) MZ.

Motorradwerk Zschopau was a communist-run motorcycle factory with a tiny, underfunded race shop headed by Walter Kaaden, a genius engineer who had worked on Hitler's top-secret 'terror weapons' programme during WWII. Kaaden had been based at Peenemunde where the V-1 and V-2 were developed and built. In 1945 he only narrowly avoided getting exiled to either the USA or the USSR to work on a superpower space programme.

In Zschopau Kaaden dedicated himself to putting the two-stroke back on top. Using what he had learned about the engine while working as an apprentice at the DKW motorcycle factory during the pre-war years and about gas dynamics at Peenemunde, Kaaden made the two-stroke sing like a musical instrument. He used resonance and harmonics instead of mechanical valves to build the world's first normally aspirated engine to produce 200 horsepower per litre: the deceptively simple 1961 MZ 125.

That summer MZ's best rider Ernst Degner (a Polish war orphan raised in East Germany) was on his way to winning the 125 world title aboard Kaaden's wonder machine. What Kaaden and the team's Stasi minders didn't know was that Degner was planning to defect and sell MZ's technology to Suzuki.

Degner slipped away from his team after the Swedish GP at Kristianstad and made his way to West Germany via Denmark. The defection was timed to coincide with a plan to smuggle his family through the Berlin Wall, which had just gone up. Degner's wife and two children were drugged and hidden in the false boot of a car driven by Degner's partner in crime, a West German two-stroke tuner who'd been the go-between in the Suzuki plot.

Degner took with him various key MZ engine parts and then flew to Japan to help design Suzuki's 1962 125 and 50cc racers. No one was surprised when the factory's new bikes turned out to be remarkably similar to the MZ. In June '62 Degner took Suzuki's first TT win and four months later the company's first world title.

It took a while longer before Suzuki conquered the premier 500cc class, but the RG500 that took Sheene to the 1976 and '77 500 world titles was a square-four two-stroke with rotary-valve induction; in other words, four MZ 125s in a square format.

Thanks to Kaaden's breakthrough technology, two-strokes ruled GP racing for 35 years. It took a fundamental rule change (in 2002 990cc four-strokes were introduced to take on the 500 two-strokes) to sound the death knell for the much-maligned engine.