Sunday, April 10, 2016

Hugh Anderson and Ernst Degner

I recently read Hugh Anderson's autobiography 'Being There'.  Hugh is a New Zealander who rose to top of motorcycle competition in N.Z., then went to Europe to make his mark on the British short circuits and the Continental Circus as a privateer racing British singles.  He did well enough to attract the attention of the fledgling Suzuki road race team and was one of the early contracted 'Western' riders. He ended up winning four World Championships in the 50 and 125cc classes.  He then retired from roadracing and pursued Motocross or, as it was then more commonly known, scrambles.  After a few years of this, he retired from competition and returned to N.Z., with his Dutch wife, who he had met in the Hospital in Assen, and their daughter.  After some years, he got involved in establishing Classic racing in N.Z.  After dominating the Classic racing scene in N.Z., he started making regular forays back to Britain and Europe to road race the classics there.  He continued to race into this century and his description of a life of racing at the highest level is fascinating.
I got to know Hugh when we had several encounters first at Circuit Paul Ricard at a Classic support race at the '86 French GP, then at Donnington Park at the CRMC Classic Race of the Year, and two years at John Surtees SuperPrix at Brands Hatch in '89 and '90.  I also visited him at his home in Hamilton, N.Z. In '89 while on holiday with mt parents.  I recognized him then as the consummate racer, intense and serious while also being friendly and outgoing.  Reading his autobiography only increased my respect for him and the other survivors of this rapidly changing and extremely dangerous period in the sport.
I was struck with the parallels between Hugh and another 'colonial': Michelle (then Mike) Duff.  Both became proficient in their home country, then left for Europe in 1960 with British singles.  Both raced for Arter Bros.  Both got coveted contracts with fledgling Japanese manufacturers of two strokes.
At the end of 1965, only 5 people had won more GPs than him: Redman, 43; Hailwood, 40; Ubbiali, 39; Surtees, 38; and Duke, 33.  Hugh had won 25, but in only 4 years, therefore averaging 6.25 wins per year, only behind Surtees at 6.33/yr., Hailwood at 6.66/yr, and Redman at a remarkable 8.6/yr.
Hugh's decision to quit roadracing at the end of '66 seems to be based in part on feeling that he had nothing else to prove and a changing atmosphere in the Suzuki team.  He was having less control over the set up of his bikes as decisions were being made more in Japan than at the races by the riders, and therefore they were having less reliability.  Plus, he had always really enjoyed riding in the dirt and was looking for a new challenge.  In '67, '68, and '69 Hugh raced motocross on the National and International level with the occasional MX GP and the odd grass track event.  Though he wasn't the GP star that he had been in roadracing, he had a good deal of success considering that he was in his 30's and his left knee was deteriorating.
One thing that struck me in Hugh's book was his depiction of Ernst Degner.  Some years back, I read an excerpt from Max Oxley's book 'Stealing Speed', about Ernst Degner defecting from East Germany and the MZ roadracing team, and taking the secrets (and some hardware) of his mentor, the genius Walter  Kaaden, to Suzuki.  I got the impression that Mat painted Degner as the Bad Guy.  Some time afterwards I saw Mat at the Isle of Man (Mat is a TT winner) and I suggested that he was being a bit hard on Degner.  After all, Degner was escaping the despotic, corrupt, grey life for him and his family for freedom in the West.  Yes, Mat said, but from his interviews with Degner's widow, son, colleagues and friends, he got the impression that Ernst wasn't a nice man.
So, I was struck when I read in Hugh's book "Over time Ernst became my mentor, and we often worked into the night together on our bikes when the other team members were out on the town.  Even the fact that his help meant I was able to beat him on the track did not change his willingness to keep giving me advice."
"Very few sportsmen are capable of such a selfless attitude.  It was a sad day when injuries forced Ernst to retire and then he lost his life, far too soon, from a heart attack.  To me he was a special person and a man who always seemed in good spirits."
Reading this cause me to get a copy of 'Stealing Speed' to get Oxley's full picture of the man.  This is another fascinating book which illuminates the relationship between Degner and Kaaden, but also the changing technology and Coldwar politics of the era.  As I read it, Oxley portrays Kaaden as a genius who was an innocent victim of the politics of his homeland, first the Nazis, then the Commies.  Degner he portrays as a capable racer and technician, but someone who was self centered, greedy, and perhaps shallow.
Oxley captions a photo "Fifteen-year-old Walter Kaaden in his Hitler-Jugend (Hitler Youth) uniform in 1934.  Kaaden was no Nazi, but six years later he was working on Hitler's top-secret rocket programme.  It's not like he had any choice."
During WWII, Kaaden worked on rocket technology at Peenemunde where the V-1 Buzz Bomb and V-2 rockets were developed, until the Brits flattened it in August of '43.  Rocket development was then moved to the Harz mountains in central Germany, underground in an old gypsum mine.  Kaaden worked on a air-to-surface guided missile launched from bombers, then on the Me 262 jet fighter, and along side the group working on the V-1, arguably the first cruise missile.  the V-1 was powered by a pulse jet engine, and that's where Kaaden first learned about pressure waves, which he later applied to two stroke exhaust and induction.
While Oxley is painting Degner as the rat who stabbed his mentor in the back for his own personal gain, he paints Kaaden as an innocent victim was was apolitical who was just interested in knowledge and who had no choice.  I'm sure there's some truth to this, but I suspect the reality was less black and white and that both men lived with contradictions.
Oxley contends that Degner was vain and filled with avarice.  "It seem like Degner was getting greedy.....Other friends also noticed that a fat factory contract had changed Degner.  'He was a vain man, but when he was at Suzuki he became a bit of a prima donna,' says Gitti Stoepel.  'He had a nice contract, maybe that brought it out more.'"  Gitti Stoepel was the sister of Degner's and Anderson's teammate, Frank Perris' German wife.
But, on the next page Oxley quotes Perris: "Ernst was a super friend, a wonderful person", recalls Perris, who holds a higher opinion of the man than most" (but not apparently than Hugh Anderson who evidently Oxley never interviewed).  "I like to feel I'm a gentleman and Ernst was the same.  I can't imagine anyone disliking him, quite honestly.  He was a pal and then he was a team-mate.  He was a fabulous team-mate until he had that accident."  Perris is referring to the final GP of '63 at Suzuka where, after finishing 3rd in the 125 race, he crashed on the first lap of the 250 race, was knocked unconscious, and engulfed in burning fuel, and suffered severe burns that required many skin graft operations, and kept him out of racing for almost a year.  And, terribly disfigured a handsome and vain man's face.  And, caused great pain, which may well have gotten him addicted to painkillers.


  1. funny you should post this now as I had just been doing some research into some suzuki history and stumbled across this post from 2010 which questions a few assertations in stealing speed. see post #6

  2. Thanks for that Seth. I find it interesting that while Oxley and Battersby both interviewed Degner's widow and sons, and Frank Perris, neither seemed to have talked to Hugh Anderson.

  3. Hello Dave. Just want to say that I found your blog after screening you in practice at the Island on your G-50. Nice video, great blog.

    I was actually at Suzuka, interpreting for the Circuit management, during the 1963 event. Suzuki seemed more paranoid about their technical approach than others (which is saying a lot, as all the Japanese companies were ultra-secretive). They draped plastic tarps over the motorcycles in the pits so that event the most enterprising photographer could not poke a lens behind a fairing. (Guilty conscience? ,Tee hee>)

    The fiberglass work on tanks, seats and fairings looked really really rough and slobbery, with poor finishing on the edges as well. Amateur night. So when Degner made his spectacular crash, with a full tank of premix detonating on the pavement, it was no real surprise. Sent up a huge cloud of smoke; my recollection is that he came off at Turn 2, the second right-hander at the bottom of the main straight, tightening up before the esses, but that's not the one which got nicknamed 'Degner Corner'.

    It was only the second time the Japanese had hosted a GP at Suzuka so there was a big panic at this crash.

    The race was also notable as Tarquinio Provini had been invited, and he brought along his 250 Morini single, which shocked Honda by running a lap at Suzuka (admittedly, a 'handling course', not like the current generation of Hermann Tilke slot-car circuits) nearly as fast as the fours.

  4. Yes. Just seen your post and I couldn't agree more with what Dave, Rosko and Byron Allen Black have said. Mat Oxley's book was certainly not deeply researched and relied greatly on the views of Kaaden acolytes which helps to account for the strong pro-Kaaden slant. That book is so full of glaring flaws (especially the defection logic) where Mat's poor research has forced him to literally make it up...wrongly. I could write a lot about this but this forum isn't the place.
    My new book is closer to completion now but collating all the research facts and data into a readable text without repetition is no easy task! The story that we have been fed for over 50 years about Kaaden and Degner is a complete distortion of the truth. I have spent years undertaking primary research on this business. Interviewing 'I was there' witnesses to these events and locating reliable, independent, contemporary reports and accounts takes time but I am determined to set this matter straight, once and for all.
    As for Byron Allen Black's account of his time at Suzuka in November 1963. He is 100% correct. Degner had his fiery crash exiting Turn 2 (which is really an extension of Turn 1) whereas Degner curve relates to Turns 8 and 9 (Degner 1 and Degner 2). Why is that?
    On the weekend of 3 Nov 1962, Suzuka held its inaugural races (cars and motorcycles on different days). Degner rode his Suzukis there along with the rest of the factory team. In those days Turns 8 and 9 were one continuous curve (today, the top of the curve has been lopped off creating a short straight between the two Degner curves). As Degner rounded this curve on his ultra-light Suzuki 50, a gust of wind (yes!) got beneath the fairing and lifted the front wheel off the ground. He crashed and Honda decided to name the curve in Degner's name as a mark of respect because it was the first crash on the brand new circuit.
    So all that you read about Degner's fiery crash occurring at 'Degner's Curve is completely wrong. I have a photo of Degner crashing at Turn 8 too.
    I'd be interested in having direct contact with Byron Allen Black. Google my name and 'Team Suzuki' which will find my website and its Contact facility.
    I'd love to say a lot more about Degner-Kaaden but I cannot pre-launch my book here. That would be crazy!

    I interviewed Hugh Anderson in 1982 when I was researching TEAM SUZUKI and have spoken with him for hours on end in very recent years too. Hugh also told me how Ernst Degner would help him get the most out of his mixture and ignition set-ups and also explained his tactics for using the mixture lever and the kill-button (which Degner had been using on the factory MZs for seven years previously). As High said, he was greatly surprised that a 'rival' would be so helpful. Yes, Degner's personality was flawed in other ways but that applies to everybody.