Book Review - Stealing Speed By Mat Oxley

Technology is a curious thing. Like a wildly spinning top, it veers in a thousand directions, knocking everything it comes across out of its path and sending them flying off at a million tangents. It is as contagious as the common cold, and just as variable; as easy to control as a herd of eels; and as predictable as a ping-pong ball in a hurricane. Take any given technology and chart its progress, and twenty years later, it is doing something unimaginably different from the aims of the people who conceived.

This is the underlying lesson to be drawn from Mat Oxley's latest book, Stealing Speed. The book tells the story of how the two-stroke engine came to dominate motorcycle racing, and of the two men who brought about that immense change. They both changed the course of history and were swept up in events even more momentous, bringing about the ruin of one motorcycle manufacturer, the rise of another, while driving a third almost to the brink of madness in its stubborn resistance to the tide of history. The tale revolves around two men, Walter Kaaden and Ernst Degner, one the man who turned two-stroke engines from discarded relics into high-powered racing machines, the other the brave recruit who raced them, then turned traitor and sold the technology to the Japanese.

Kaaden took three ideas and combined them into a magic formula for the two-stroke engine. The first, he took from one of the grimmest weapons of the Second World War, the V1 rocket or doodlebug. The rocket used a pulse jet engine, basically a series of controlled explosions in a specially-shaped chamber producing thrust, and Kaaden's time spent at the German rocket base of Peenemunde at the end of World War II as a test engineer laid the germ of an idea which he used when he returned to producing motorcycles with IFA (formerly the DKW factory, before it was taken over by the communists after German partition). Here, Kaaden discarded the old megaphone exhausts previously used on two strokes, and set about designing and building the expansion chamber, using the same physics of resonant harmonics he had learnt while working on the V1's rocket propulsion.

Later, Kaaden picked up two other ideas from older sources - the rotary valve, which allowed for controllable intake timing, and the boost port, which sent cool and oily pre-mix onto the underside of the piston and the little end - and combined them to create what was to become the ultimate racing engine, the racing two stroke. At its first international outing, the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, the IFA 125cc machines were viewed with a mixture of pity and bemusement, and not thought to have a chance up against some of the most remarkable racing four strokes ever produced, such as MV Agusta's 125cc twin. And yet the buzzy little bikes took 5th and 6th at that first race, scoring their first Grand Prix points and the first points for East Germany.

The miracle was that these machines were produced under the most basic conditions, Kaaden having to ride the bikes flat out at first, not having access to an engine dyno. But Kaaden compensated for a lack of resources by an excess of resourcefulness, scrounging high quality aluminium from the West, and using anything and everything he came across to help with his objective of squeezing more and more power out of his little two-stroke engines.

He was assisted by his racer and engineering assistant Ernst Degner. If Kaaden was the archetype engineer - quiet, thoughtful and intellectual - Degner was the opposite. Though intellectually very smart, the young racer was flamboyant, debonair, and had far too great a fondness for fine clothes and comfortable living to fit in well in the spartan atmosphere of communist East Germany. Eventually, Degner's love of the good life caused him to betray his friend and mentor Kaaden and take his secrets across the iron curtain and off to Suzuki, who rewarded Degner handsomely and offered him the chance to become a world champion.

But Degner's betrayal went anything but smoothly. On August 12th, 1961, the day that Degner had planned for his wife and children to cross into West Germany from Berlin, the East German authorities announced the end of the relatively free transit that had existed between East and West Berlin, the one route which still existed to the West, and the erection of the Berlin Wall. Escape using the original plan, traveling by S-Bahn - the Berlin subway system - was now impossible.

Five weeks later, Degner's wife and children escaped hidden in the trunk of a huge American Lincoln car, owned by Degner's friend and business partner Paul Petry. Degner, meanwhile, had given his minders the slip at the Swedish hotel he was staying in, while he raced in the Grand Prix of Sweden, and was driven to the port of Malmo, where he announced to the border guards his intention to defect.

Degner brought with him drawings and plans of the MZ's design, the work that Kaaden had spent all those years perfecting. This was the knowledge Degner had sold to Suzuki, the price he had paid for freedom. It was not a price that Degner paid himself, instead, it was Walter Kaaden who suffered the consequences. Kaaden was held and interrogated by the Stasi, the feared East German secret police, and never got over the betrayal.

But the work Kaaden had done was not in vain. With the information that Degner had taken to Suzuki, the Japanese factory went on to build two-stroke engines that would soon conquer the world, and the four stroke started its long and slow demise. Honda were the last of the holdouts, clinging to four-stroke technology all the way until the NR 500, an incredibly innovative machine that is still revered today, completely failed to be competitive against the two-stroke 500 fours of Suzuki and Yamaha, dropping the four stroke in 1982 in favor of their NS500 two-stroke V3.

The two strokes finally lost out to pressure from the Japanese manufacturers, not least from Honda, who wanted to race four-stroke engines again that bore some resemblance to the bikes that they produced for the street. The two stroke had been losing favor since the mid-1970's over concerns about pollution and fuel consumption, and at the start of the 21st century, the two stroke was finally defeated as a racing engine. But it took a rule change which allowed four strokes a displacement advantage of almost double the capacity to do it, and when the 990cc MotoGP bikes took the stage, they quickly and brutally consigned the 500cc two strokes to the history books.

Degner's pursuit of wealth and freedom did not bring him happiness, though. Despite realizing his dream of becoming world champion in 1962, Degner was badly burned in a race accident at Suzuka. He eventually died of heart failure at the age of 52, after a lifelong struggle with morphine addiction, acquired in the aftermath of that accident..

Oxley's book is a thrilling history of one of the most important moments in motorcycle racing. Lucidly written, the book recounts the events that shaped Kaaden, the two-stroke engine, and Degner, and went on to change the world. Oxley explains both the function and the developments which Kaaden brought to bear on the two-stroke engine in a clear and easy to understand way, and explains just why this was such a big deal.

He then traces the breathless adventure of Degner's defection, recreating the paranoid atmosphere of Cold War East Germany and the difficulty of escaping from it. From that defection, the centerpiece of the book and masterfully told, Oxley lays out the story of how the two stroke went on to conquer the world once freed from the financial constraints of the Communist Bloc. Thankfully, he also goes on to recount what happened afterwards, Degner's fall from grace and his troubled post-racing career, Kaaden's quiet career behind the Iron Curtain, continuing to work on his beloved MZs.

But Oxley's book is no hymn to nostalgia. He does not ignore the darker side of racing in the 1950s and 1960s, when most racing took place on public roads with no protection for the rider except for sturdy boots, a thin leather suit and a pudding basin helmet with leather ear protection, and on bikes with skinny tires and engines likely to seize at any moment. Deaths were depressingly common, as were serious, career-ending injuries. The racing took place in a state of denial, despite the weekly reminders, death a constant presence in the paddock, and Oxley strikes a fine balance between clinical detail and prurience on the subject.

The book finishes with an epilogue, which is both a factual account of the further history of the two stroke and the current state of developments, and an emotional appeal for a return of the engine. The once noisy, smelly engines have changed over the past 20 years to become cleaner and more efficient than the four-stroke engine. Much of that development has been driven by the leisure boating industry, which has had to comply with incredibly stringent emissions regulations, and with the advent of direct injection two strokes, the engine looks set to make a return. Coincidentally, KTM recently announced that they believed that the future could be two stroke, as its simplicity and power-to-weight ratio made it vastly more attractive than the four strokes.

Stealing Speed is essential reading for anyone fascinated by the history of motorcycle racing, and why the two-stroke engine came to dominate it. But it is also a dark tale of intrigue, betrayal and human failure which lies behind the engineering. The two-stroke engine has a dark and disturbing history, from the slave mines of Peenemunde to the Vergeltungswaffen V1 rockets which killed thousands in London, via the Communist oppression in East Germany to betrayal, theft and defection by a star racer and engineer. Mat Oxley has done an excellent job of weaving these disparate strands into a single, highly readable account of how technology spreads and grows almost organically to change the world.

Buy Stealing Speed by Mat Oxley at Amazon in the UK

Buy Stealing Speed by Mat Oxley at Amazon in the US

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Whether you are a gear head, a racing fan or just like a good, suspenseful story, Stealing Speed has a lot to offer.

Roadracing world had an extract from the book in two recent issues. Not only an interesting subject but entertaining to read.

If you are still in doubt, check out the RRW extracts.