The Adventurous Life of Ernst Degner

For the commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we would like to tell you a special story.

Ernst Degner wasn’t just a successful racing rider. He was also an engineer who gave the two stroke engine the expansion chamber and Suzuki the first world championship. He also had an adventurous life escaping East Germany during the building of the Wall. His life looks a movie, a thriller.

After the death of his father, almost at the end of WWII. Degner and the rest of his family fled from Gleiwitz, Poland to Luckau, Germany escaping the Red Army. Ernst was 13 years old. He attended the technical High school in Potsdam got his diploma in 1950. Soon, he started as an apprentice in a motorcycle workshop.

Racing for MZ

In the mid 50ies, everybody switched to the 4 stroke engine. When Degner and his team manager Kaaden arrived at the Nürburgring with a rather old looking 2 stroke, it seemed pretty laughable. What they didn’t know was that their 125cc MZ was fully packed with new technology. The main new features were the expansion chamber, the boost port, and the disc valve. This made the MZ 125 the first aspirated engine to reach the 200 HP to liter ratio. When in 1957 he won 11 races out of 14 becoming the new German Champion, his rivals stopped making jokes pretty soon. In 1958 he entered the world championship and in 1959 he scored the first victory in Monza.

A dangerous time in history

Politically speaking, it was a very complicated time in Germany and in 1961 the cold war reached its peak. Degner planned to escape on August the 13th after he came back from the Ulster GP in Ireland. But the worst nightmare became reality when he discovered that the border was closed and both troops and tanks were positioning to prepare for an imminent invasion. At midnight the soviets started to build the wall and with it every hope of escaping was crumbling.

Fortunately, Degner had a friend on the west side, someone who could trust his family. Paul Petry. While Degner was racing the Swedish GP Petry drugged his wife and children, put them in the trunk of a Lincoln Mercury and drove on the other side. Meanwhile, Degner was fighting for the 125cc world title he could have won that day but instead he broke his engine.

A hard decision

Some say that he did it on purpose to retire early and flee during the race when no one would have noticed it. I can’t blame him. Try to imagine his position. On one side he’s in the lead of the race and he is about to achieve the dream of a lifetime. On the other side, he probably doesn’t even know if his family made it safely over the border, and rather they made it or not he will be in big trouble with the Stasi.

He reunited with his family in France which was a good news, obviously. But there was another one, his rival and title contender Phillis arrived just 6th in the Swedish GP and let the door open for the World Championship. The next and final race was in Argentina, so there was time to prepare. Meanwhile, the East German authority revoked Degner’s racing license but he soon got a new one from West Germany with the help of Joe Ehrlich. Now he needed a bike to compete. Fortunately, Ehrlich was also the founder of EMC motorcycles and gave him an EMC 125. It was a great opportunity for both of them but something went wrong. For strange circumstances, the machine was delayed on its way to Argentina. With no motorcycle for Degner, Phillis and his Honda won the championship.

Suzuki RM62

The Suzuki years

At this point, you might think that he had to start from zero. But remember, Degner is a top rider and a brilliant engineer. Plus when he fled, he took with him the MZ’s projects. Suzuki, which never won a title till then, saw in him a great opportunity to make the grade. They invited him to Japan to spend six months in the race department and offered him a £10,000 contract, which was an insane amount of money compared to his socialist salary.

The specter of the Stasi followed him everywhere, he became so paranoid that he hired a bodyguard.

Degner won the 50cc world championship and thanks to technology evolution that he brought, his team-mate Anderson won the 125cc title. Suzuki was now a top team.

In 1963 there was a spike in performance regarding the 250cc category. In order to match Yamaha’s V4, Suzuki made a revolutionary Square 4 later developed in the famous RG500. The power jumped up to 52 HP (top speed 225 kph), though the reliability was a great issue. To give you a hint, remember that Degner was riding this beast with an open face helmet, goggles, a thin leather suit without protectors and the race tracks were full of trees and walls by the side of the road. The risk of seizing an engine under such conditions gave this machine a quite scary name. The “Whispering Death”.

The crash

The horror became real in Suzuka, Japan, the same year. The 250cc hurled him off, he violently hit the ground and remained unconscious while the bike crashed next to him and burst into flames. When the rescue dragged him out of the fire his face was already severely burned which required more than 50 skin grafts. Everybody would understand the shock of such a horror crash. But Degner came back racing a year later, overcoming injuries and fear, winning the race on the same racetrack. 

He won other three races in 1965 but during in Monza he shattered his leg during the race. A year later in Japan, after a bad head injury, he decided it was time to stop.

Due to his injuries, he was constantly dealing with pain and he became addicted to his prescription drug: morphine.

In 1981, Degner was found dead in his apartment in Tenerife at the age of 53. A shade of mystery separate the opinions although the official cause is heart attack. Some say it was the revenge of the Stasi while others say that after years of taking morphine, he became resistant and he couldn’t deal with his pain anymore.

In Suzuka, Japan, after the first corner, you swing the bike through the esses then you take a long, wide left. You brake and you enter the double-apex right-hand turn. This is the Degner Curve.

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Photo by Rainmaker47Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Gasolist in chief, test-rider, and content writer. He began in the two-stroke era which makes him feel pretty old but gave him the chance to race everything from 125cc to 1000cc. All useless experiences when he got lost in the Sahara desert with nothing but a can of beans.

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