“Ernst Degner, the racing car that came in from the cold”, on Histoire TV: portrait of a motorcycle champion with an extraordinary destiny

Image taken from the documentary “Ernst Degner, the car that came from the cold”, on Histoire TV.


Beautiful face, piercing gaze, dazzling smile: Ernst Degner has the physique of a champion. In fact, the man, born in 1931 in Gleiwitz (now Gliwice, Poland), was a motorcycle champion and, in the 1950s, a real idol in his country, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), before becoming a demigod in Japan.

This British documentary rich in filmed archives from the 1950s and 1960s, alternating reconstructed scenes and testimonies from relatives, looks in detail at the eventful life of Ernst Degner, extraordinary pilot and genius mechanic who enabled the late MZ brand, pride of the regime East German communist, then to the giant Suzuki to shine on the international scene.

His life is a novel, and this documentary, which sometimes resembles a film noir, pays homage to him. His father died a few days before the end of the war, in 1945. His mother disappeared when he was only 14 years old. In a country in ruins, Ernst Degner’s childhood was difficult. But his flying skills will change his life.

In 1958, the Communist Party, in power, decided to create a “competition” division for the Motorradwerk Zschopau (MZ) brand, resulting from the dismantling of the DKW manufacturer in 1945. Objective: to make the GDR shine on the international scene.

Watched by the Stasi

The strong man is called Walter Kaaden (1919-1996), brilliant engineer, specialist in two-stroke engine technology. He brings the young Degner to Zschopau, where the factory is located, and the two men will establish an intense professional relationship. Because Ernst Degner is not only an outstanding driver; it is also an ace when it comes to improving engines.

Obviously, this young pilot is closely watched by the Stasi, which will devote a file of 355 pages to him! We learn there that, Degner having the right to run abroad, he is not insensitive to the charms of capitalism. What has the gift to irritate the Stasi.

But difficult to touch the local champion, who benefits from a preferential regime: a nice car and a wedding paid for by MZ, who provides employment for his young wife. In 1959, at the Monza Grand Prix in Italy, Ernst Degner became a star by winning the race against prestigious Italian teams (including Gilera) who were much wealthier.

While traveling, the pilot realizes that his standard of living has nothing to do with that of his Western competitors. His choice is made: he wants to leave the GDR. His meeting with Jimmy Matsumiya, a senior Suzuki official fascinated by the technology of MZ motorcycles, will prove to be decisive.

Online courses, evening courses, workshops: develop your skills


But, before becoming world champion under the colors of Suzuki, in 1962, Ernst Degner will succeed in getting his wife and children out of the GDR in an incredible way. The following ? A serious accident on the Suzuka circuit in Japan in 1966, depression, drugs and a sad, isolated end in the Canary Islands in 1983.

Ernst Degner, the car that came from the cold, documentary by Justin Stokes (RU, 2021, 91 min).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *