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Common Tread

Motorcycling's Cold War spy story, "Stealing Speed," is now a quality graphic novel

Nov 01, 2019

I’m convinced that Mat Oxley is the best English-language journalist in the MotoGP paddock.

Stealing Speed graphic novel
The new edition of Stealing Speed can be ordered directly from the author. Photo by Mark Gardiner.
His column in Motor Sport Magazine consistently adds useful context and nuance to the run-of-the-mill race coverage I read elsewhere. That’s especially useful in this era; racers and mechanics are guarded, and most outlets are happy to regurgitate manufacturers’ press releases. One reason Mat’s better than his peers is, he understands the racer mindset. He raced in the 250GP class at a time when fields were large and qualifying was brutal.

About a decade ago, Oxley published "Stealing Speed." That book was a minutely researched account of Grand Prix racing’s own Cold War spy story: the defection of East German racing star Ernst Degner, and Degner’s theft of the industrial secrets that allowed Suzuki to finally field a really competitive two-stroke racing motorcycle.

Recently, Mat republished his work as a graphic novel, illustrated by Christian Papazoglakis. Despite the artist’s Greek surname, he’s actually Belgian. So, he grew up in the land of Tintin; a country where graphic novels are treated as a serious form of literature and art.

Stealing Speed graphic novel page
I love the way Papazoglakis hid the sound of the two-stroke motor in the cloud of oil smoke trailing from the bike. Photo provided by Mat Oxley.

Here in the United States, we sometimes assign the term "graphic novel" to any high-concept comic book. Oxley and Papazoglakis’ new "Stealing Speed" is much more than a comic book with a hard cover. Oxley neatly summarizes all the key points of the factual, historical account as the excellent journalist he is. He impressed me even more with the imaginative writing needed to put the "novel" in "graphic novel."

At the same time, Papazoglakis’ illustration is way more sophisticated than I’m used to seeing. This version of "Stealing Speed" is the real deal; it kept me fully occupied for about five hours of air travel.

The story

In the 1950s and ’60s, communism and capitalism struggled for supremacy everywhere — even on Grand Prix race tracks.

After WWII, Western Europe set about rebuilding shattered industries. In the 1950s, the metallurgical, engineering, and manufacturing breakthroughs that had been developed on a war footing were adopted by civilian industry. One side effect of that tech transfer was that racing motorcycles improved rapidly.

Behind the Iron Curtain, however, Soviet-style centralized planned economies put almost all their engineering talent to work on military projects. The result was that civilian vehicle production lagged, and development was almost non-existent. Look up the East German Trabant car for an example of just how ghastly their vehicles were. And as bad as they were, ordinary workers still had to wait years to get one.

Oxley’s text and Papazoglakis’ dark, brooding illustrations convey the difficulty of life in the East Bloc. But, perhaps because communist fans needed the diversion, motorcycle racing remained fantastically popular behind the Iron Curtain.

In the post-war period, the East German Grand Prix drew hundreds of thousands of fans. They had local heroes to root for, because there was an exception to the general technological backwardness of the Communist Bloc: the East German MZ Grand Prix team.

page from Stealing Speed graphic novel
Walter Kaaden was a loyal Communist his entire life, and really wanted to prove that Communist engineers were the equals of any in the decadent capitalist countries. But Degner’s defection pretty much killed MZ’s participation in Grands Prix. For a time, the famously paranoid Stasi secret police suspected that Kaaden had known of Degner’s plan. Eventually, however, Kaaden’s reputation was restored. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

MZ stood for Motorradwerk Zschopau, which translates as "Zschopau motorcycle factory." (The factory in the town of Zschopau was the original home of the DKW brand.) The MZ race shop was under the command of Walter Kaaden. He was literally a rocket scientist, who worked on the Nazi V-2 rocket program. As Oxley portrays him, Kaaden was never much of a Nazi — just happy that as a scientist, the Nazis put him to work in a relatively safe research center, instead of sending him to the front.

Many of the German rocket scientists were spirited away to U.S. missile programs at the end of the war, and in a slightly different world, Kaaden may have ended up here alongside Werner Von Braun. But he wanted to return to his wife and family home, so he stayed in East Germany.

Unlike many of that country’s citizens who were held in check by the Stasi — one of the world’s most feared secret police services — Kaaden was an enthusiastic supporter of the communist regime. Oxley and Papazoglakis vividly portray the famous engineer’s home life, parroting communist propaganda to his long-suffering wife.

Kaaden developed MZ two-strokes that combined disc-valve induction with expansion-chamber exhausts. The modern expansion chamber was Kaaden’s invention. (There were some pre-Kaaden exhausts that took the general bulbous shape, but only he understood the principles of resonance, pressure waves and all the stuff that made them work.)

It is impossible to overstate the engineering impact of Kaaden’s work. In 1954, MZ engines produced about 100 bhp per liter. By 1961, they produced 200 bhp per liter.

Ernst Degner
Ernst Degner in the workshop. Photo provided by Mat Oxley.

The success of MZ in Grand Prix racing was played up by the official East German propaganda machine. While the marque was justifiably proud that the very best riders of the day (Mike Hailwood included) lined up to ride their 125 and 250 cc racers, they also groomed a home-grown communist star in the form of Ernst Degner.

Then, in 1961, with Degner on the brink of a world championship, the East German defected while competing at the Swedish Grand Prix.

Oxley minutely researched the way that Degner was groomed, over a period of years, by a Suzuki employee. They first met on the Isle of Man, and bonded over a shared love of American jazz music — records that were forbidden back home in East Germany!

In the new graphic novel, the risks taken by Degner’s wife and children — who were smuggled out of East Germany in the trunk of a car at a precisely coordinated moment — are even more harrowing than Degner’s escape; all he had to do was slip the rest of the MZ team, which surely included a few Stasi "minders," and drive his car onto a ferry from Sweden to West Germany.

At the time, there were rumors that he’d gotten out with a complete set of drawings or even a disassembled motor in his luggage. That needn’t have been the case; Degner was not just a wrist, he was a trained engineer who had played an important development role at MZ. The contents of his helmet were damaging enough to the communist cause.

Ernst Degner at the Sachsenring
Ernst Degner awaiting the start of the 250 race at the 1958 East German Grand Prix. Look at the size of the crowd at Sachsenring. Photo provided by Mat Oxley.

Degner won the 1962 50 cc championship on a Suzuki that bore a distinct resemblance to an MZ. The following year, Hugh Anderson won on a Suzuki 125, and another Japanese brand was away to the races.

Soon afterwards, Degner crashed and was severely burned. Although he recovered enough to race again, that was the beginning of the end for him as a racer. “Degner Curve” at Suzuka is named after him.

Long after he hung up his leathers, Degner ran a rental car business in Tenerife, on the Canary Islands. That’s where he died, probably of an accidental prescription drug overdose, though it could just as easily have been a suicide. Inevitably, there were also rumors that he was murdered by the Stasi.

Degner did not live to see the fall of the Berlin Wall, which would have allowed him to return freely to his home in the former East Bloc. Kaaden, however, was a good communist all his life, even after German reunification. He died in 1996.

After 90 years as a motorcycle factory, the original DKW/MZ works in Zschopau finally closed in 2008. I heard that it became a night club.

Mat Oxley racing in the Isle of Man TT
One reason Mat Oxley is good about writing about racing is he knows what he's talking about. Here he is launching a Honda 250 off Ballaugh Bridge in the 1985 Production TT. He went on to win that race. Photo provided by Mat Oxley.

A graphic novel and, maybe, a movie

Oxley recently told me that he wrote the original "Stealing Speed" book because he’d been fascinated by the Kaaden/Degner defection story since he first heard about it, decades ago.

“I thought, ‘There should be a film about this’,” he told me. “And if there’s going to be a film, then first there has to be a book. It has everything going for it. I tell people, ‘It’s James Bond, on bikes!’”

Oxley is quite a history buff. “As a journalist you ask, who, what, when, where?” he says. “But the most interesting question is always, why? And if you want to know why anything is the way it is, you need to look back and understand how it came to be that way.”

Although both Walter Kaaden and Ernst Degner died before Mat began researching the first, all-text version of "Stealing Speed," he still dug into that history. He interviewed other ex-MZ riders and mechanics who knew those guys, he interviewed Degner’s teammate, Frank Perris, and even traveled to the Canary Islands to interview Degner’s son and widow.

The idea of turning Oxley’s historical work into a graphic novel originated with the artist, Christian Papazoglakis, who suggested it to Mat. The graphic novel first appeared in French.

“[Christian] has such a feel, not just for the bikes but everything; the history, the architecture, the fashion,” Oxley told me. “Every detail’s correct. That amazed me. So I thought, It’s got to be published in English, too.”

Mat’s had the same experience with publishers in England that I’ve had here in the United States, and come to the same conclusion: At this point, niche authors are better off self-publishing. So he took a deep breath and ordered an initial print run of 1,500 copies.

One cool thing about the graphic novel is that it’s basically also a ready-made storyboard for a feature film. Mat’s done a deal with a production company, and that group’s now trying to package the project and secure funding.

“You know what that’s like,” he told me. “It bumbles along; you don’t hear anything for a year, then there’s two weeks of frantic activity. Then it goes silent for another year. And every time you meet the producers and directors, it’s all about money.”

So, it’s probably not a good idea to wait for the movie. Instead, you can buy the really excellent "Stealing Speed" graphic novel right now from Oxley’s commercial web site.

At £31.50, it’s admittedly not cheap. A lot of the cost covers postage, as it’s mailed from the U.K. (As I write this, that means your credit card transaction will come in at around $38.) Mine arrived within a week or two, so there’s plenty of time to get a copy or two to give as unique holiday gifts. Since you’re buying direct from the author, every book also comes signed by Mat, making it even cooler.