The book: Stealing Speed: The Biggest Spy Scandal in Motorsport History Author: Mat Oxley Pages: 224 Purchase:
Real stories about spies and espionage are almost never as thrilling as the ones conjured up in books or movies. That’s because they are works of fiction, the product of someone’s fertile imagination unencumbered by reality. However, sometimes truth can come close to, or even surpass fiction, as does the tale spun by Mat Oxley.
Stealing Speed: The Biggest Spy Scandal in Motorsport History is the result of countless hours of research and interviews by the author, a noted motorcycle racer, commentator, and writer, and within its pages is the almost fantastical story of how a young Japanese motorcycle company, Suzuki, was able to steal a former Nazi rocket scientist engine secrets from behind the then-Iron Curtain and used them to dominate sports bike racing.
The story starts a little something like this…
Walter Kaaden was 21 years old in 1940 when he graduated technical school. Soon after the young engineer would work in the area of missile development to aid the German war effort. Kaaden would be repatriated to East Germany after the war where he would start a timber business, but his childhood fascination with racing spurred by a childhood trip to the opening of the Nürburgring never left.
He would build his own motorcycle, and race it, the success of which propelled Kaaden into a third career in motorcycle racing. Kaaden would make a breakthrough in engine design by developing the expansion chambers in an engine and better utilize the resonance in the exhaust—theories learned in his first career of missile development!
The result would be a 125cc racer for MZ Motorrad that would be the first to achieve 200 horsepower per liter. The East German company would have considerable success thanks to Kaaden’s engineering, but also courtesy of a young rider by the name of Ernst Degner. Degner, who had an engineering background, would have considerable success riding with MZ, but after the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, he grew more disillusioned with his country and decided to escape.
After a thrilling escape to West Germany with his family, the fledgling manufacturer Suzuki would hire him and he moved to Japan to work in the company’s race-shop. Using what he learned because of his engineering background—and lessons from Kaaden—Degner would design Suzuki’s new 50cc and 125cc racers. The following year, Degner would win Suzuki’s first World Championship in the 50 cc class, an event that paved the way for the Japanese domination of the sport bike segment.
The synopsis above does not do justice to this engrossing story. There is much more to Stealing Speed (including 16 pages of photographs), but for that you’ll just have to read this book.
Although the author goes slightly off-message once in a while with extraneous detail, it’s very easy to read. If you like period motorcycle racing, you’ll get the sense of what Grand Prix racing was like and how dangerous it was during this time period—infused with a perception of the social and political unrest that was happening behind the Iron Curtain. Recommended.