THE MAKING OF MZ
Last time, MZ enthusiast Nigel Shuttleworth traced the marque’s origins back to DKW. This month we enter the post-war period when the Iron Curtain descended and East German ingenuity converted a two-stroke commuter into an international winner…
Danish engineer Jørgen Skafte Rasmussen’s car company DKW went from strength to strength in the 1930s, eventually becoming the largest manufacturer of motorcycles in the world. That company moved to Ingoldstadt in West Germany after WW2, eventually becoming part of the Volkswagen empire which continues to thrive today.
Behind the Iron Curtain things were not so jolly. Allied bombing had severely damaged three of the four Auto Union factories. The Soviet military administration completed the job by expropriating all useable machine tooling that was left, and took the blueprints and even the skilled engineers back to the Soviet Union as war reparations. On 1st July 1946 the communist government of the DDR ( Deutsche Demokratische Republik) nationalised all privately owned companies and formed the Industrieverband Fahrzeugbau (Industrial Association for Vehicle Construction), more commonly known as IFA. This brought together no less than eighteen vehicle manufacturers, including truck, bus, tractor, car and motorcycle companies.
Among these were EMW (Eisenacher Motorenwerk), the pre-1945 BMW factory at Eisenach which went on to produce the Wartburg car with a three cylinder DKW engine that had only seven major moving parts: three pistons, three conrods and the crank! Barkas vans also used the three cylinder DKW two-stroke engine. Multicar was originally ADE-Werk and, as part of the Hako GmbH Group today, is the only surviving vehicle maker from the former East Germany. Trabant vehicles were made in the old Audi Zwickau plant until 1991.
The motorcycle manufacturers which formed part of the IFA group were Simson, based in Suhl, which had come through the war relatively unscathed, and the old DKW factory at Zschopau, which was only lightly damaged by bombing but lost most of its machinery to the Soviet Union.
By the time production was restarted in the east in 1950, Auto Union had already registered the DKW brand in Ingoldstadt. So although the first motorcycles which came off the production line at Zschopau were in effect the pre-war DKW RT125, they were marketed as the IFA RT125. That branding continued until 1956 when the company was renamed VEB Motorradwerk Zschopau, or MZ for short. The same 125 model continued in production as the MZ RT125 until 1962, fulfilling an essential role as cheap-to-make, cheap-to-run transport for the working man.
In 1952 MZ launched the revolutionary BK350, an air-cooled transverse two-stroke twin with a four-speed gearbox and shaft drive. The engine was a development of a 250cc DKW wartime design which is reported to have been intended as a starter motor for jet engines in aircraft.
Despite the straitened times in which the new company found itself, with little machine tooling, a limited number of skilled engineers who had survived the war and pitifully small financial resources, IFA went racing, with Walter Kaaden as head of the competition department. In 1950 the factory entered a modified RT125 with a reversed exhaust in the German championship but without success. Private entrant Daniel Zimmermann modified his RT125 to rotary disc valve induction and IFA saw the potential in this set-up. It immediately patented his design as its own, although it did give gave Daniel a job in compensation.
The initial idea may have been Zimmermann’s, but the real brains behind the racing success which soon followed was that of Walter Kaaden. He had been a leading member of the design team at Peenemünde working on the pulse jet engine for the Vergeltungswaffen Ein (your granny would have called it a ‘doodlebug’ and hidden under the kitchen table when she heard the engine stop). Kaaden applied the same science to the development of the two-stroke exhaust expansion chamber to control the fresh charge coming into the cylinder at the end of the downward stroke, thereby increasing fuel economy and power at the same time.
With this technology by 1961 MZ were achieving 25bhp from a 125 single – that’s 200bhp/litre, an unheard of power output 50 years ago and only exceeded by about 10% by today’s MotoGP machines. In 1961 works rider and development engineer Ernst Degner scored the first international win for MZ in the 125 class at the Sachsenring Grand Prix, and followed that with a second place in the Ulster GP and another win in the Italian GP at Monza. By the Swedish GP at the end of the season he was within a few points of clinching MZ’s first world championship as he rode off into the lead… and then steered into the welcoming arms of Suzuki who gratefully received his knowledge of two-stroke technology, plus most of an engine and exhaust system in his suitcase back at the hotel.
The Japanese also arranged for Degner’s family to be smuggled out of East Germany in the boot of a car, gave him a house, a huge dollop of lolly and a nice nine-speed Suzuki to win the 50cc world championship in 1962. Some commentators say that without Degner’s technical information Suzuki would not have won the 1962 championship, Japanese motorcycle supremacy would have been delayed for several decades and we would see far fewer UJMs on the road today. You can read about this fascinating story in Matt Oxley’s great book ‘Stealing Speed’.
The other unfortunate result of Degner’s betrayal was that the Zschopau factory team was forbidden by the communist authorities to leave the country, and the only way MZ could race abroad was to lend the machines to western privateers. Several top class Brits rode MZs and achieved success on this semiworks basis, including Derek Woodman, Mike Hailwood and Alan Shepherd, who won the 250cc class on the MZ water-cooled twin at the US grand prix in 1964. Indeed, Alan Shepherd on the MZ went on to finish third overall in the 1964 250 world championship and Derek Woodman finished third in the 125 world championship the following year, beating Ernst Degner on the Suzuki into fourth place – bet Walter was pleased with that win!
The privateers didn’t get paid as MZ was chronically short of foreign exchange, so the agreement was that the riders kept all their winnings and were given their racing machines at the end of each season, together with a choice of road bikes if they wanted one. Just think, Mike Hailwood might’ve been seen buzzing around the lanes on an ES125 (or maybe not…). MZ continued competing in grand prix until 1975 but by then, with their huge resources, Japanese two-stroke development had leap-frogged the tiny East German factory and Zschopau withdrew from racing.
Back to civvy street. 1955 saw the launch of the seminal ES175 and 250, followed in short order by 125 and 150 versions. The ES was based around the DKW pressed steel frame design with a rear cast aluminium subframe which located the shocks, a single cylinder two-stroke (again a development of the DKW engine) and 6V lighting. The front end suspension was provided by Earles leading link forks, developed by English engineer Ernie Earles and used by BMW, MV and others in the 1950s.
An aside: I cannot for the life of me think why BMW reverted to Earles forks when they were one of the very first manufacturers, along with Danish Nimbus, to use teles in the mid-1930s. Earles forks work well on outfits but give a terrible ride on a solo; instead of diving when the front brake is applied, the forks lift as the bike tries to ride ‘over’ the front wheel, giving absolutely no feel whatsoever to what the tyre is doing. I know, I had a BMW R60 for a while back in the day which was comfortable but the steering was horrid. The styling of the ES was rather ‘unusual’ too; the tank / seat unit was carried forward to enclose the square headlight, giving rise to the nickname ‘ TV lamp’. And some unkind people said that ‘ES’ stood for Eisen Schwein, or Iron Pig. In 1960 MZ went into trials competition with an off-road version of the Iron Pig, the ES175/G and 250/G, still with Earles forks but with a larger front wheel and high level exhaust. By 1963 the ETS250/G appeared with teles instead of Earles forks and an improved engine. The East German trials team were equipped with the new model and (when allowed out of the country) started to win the prestigious International Six Day Trial Trophy. They made winning a bit of a habit, year after year. Individual gold medals all round and the Trophy went to the MZ-mounted team in 1963 in Czechoslovakia, 1964 in the DDR, 1965 Isle of Man, 1967 Poland and 1969 West Germany.
The MZ ETS/G was produced in 175, 250 and 350cc versions – light weight, torquey engines, utterly reliable. In 1969 the factory launched a road version, the ETS250 Trophy Sport with a very particular tank cap engraved with each year that MZ had won the ISDT Trophy.
By the end of the decade the ES Iron Pig was coming to the end of its run and the TS series was launched in 125, 150 and 250 engine sizes. The millionth MZ came off the line in 1970, an ETS250 Trophy Sport. By then the company was exporting to over 100 countries and making 100,000 units per annum.
On the fififirst first ve version of the TS250 with four- speed gearbox and teledraulic forks, the barrel fins were rounded off, the fins on the head were vertical and quite deep. The large petrol tank (still requiring premix) was set off with chrome sidepanels and black rubber kneepad inserts. It was quite a pretty little bike, very light and with sufficient power to hit 75mph. An innovative design, the engine was suspended on rubber mounts at the back of the gearbox and there was no front downtube on the frame. As on the ES models before, the chain was fully enclosed and ran in rubber gaiters – a little bit of lube and periodic adjustment and the chain on any twostroke MZ will last over 30,000 miles. The TS125 / 150 model was less radical with a normal downtube (again pressed steel frame) and fourspeed box, also with the fully enclosed chain.
In 1972 MZ acquired Stoye Sidecars and began attaching them to the ES250 (which continued in production for three years alongside the new TS series) making a very successful outfit which is quite rare today but much sought after. In 1974 the TS250/1 Supa5 appeared with a five-speed gearbox. In 1978 the barrel and head were redesigned with a squared-off shape, which was maintained with the new ETZ line-up in 1982, now with a separate oil pump and 12V electrics. Unfortunately the square cylinder and camel-back shape petrol tank make this a really rather bizarre looking beast which is less popular than the older TS models. The ETZ 125, 150, 251 and 301 models lasted until 1993 when MZ went into receivership and the ETZ design and tooling was sold to Kanuni motorcycles in Turkey, where the 301 is still produced today. Long live the smell of twostroke in the morning, I say!
Meanwhile back in 1969 in Sheffield a Royal Enfield Dealer called Wilf Green was left with nothing to sell when RE folded. Wilf negotiated with Zschopau to import MZs into the UK. He started with the ES150 and quickly
added the ES250. At first they were viewed with a great deal of scepticism and not a little amusement, but with the ISDT success, in particular in the 1965 IoM event, the name soon became well known among UK buyers.
The cheap and reliable get-to-work twostrokes proved popular and within five years Wilf had over 170 dealers and was established as the fifth largest importer of foreign bikes in the UK. He had moved out of his Royal Enfield shop to a large industrial unit, and remained the MZ importer for 22 years. I bought my first MZ in 1974 for commuting, a yellow TS250, and a jolly good little bike it was.
In 1983 the two millionth MZ motorcycle rolled off the line, an ETZ250 and everything looked rosy for MZ and the DDR. Except… along came Gorby and perestroika and the fall of the Berlin Wall and… the end of MZ as we knew it. Within a few months of the wall coming down MZ’s market had completely disappeared. Those East Germans who still had work would rather travel to the office in a battered Polo from the other side than sit in the rain on a smelly two-stroke. In 1990 MZ was privatised and Wilf Green’s services were dispensed with. (He went back to Royal Enfields; this time assembling the CKD 350 Madras-made Bullets which were being imported into the UK by Bavanar.)
Back in the east, MZ went through a rollercoaster ride. In 1993 the company went into receivership but was bought in turn by a succession of rather dubious (ie. penniless) owners. For a time in the noughties under the new title Motorrad und Zweiradwerk GmbH (aka MuZ), it seemed as though Zschopau might succeed. Two-stroke production was sold off to Kanuni and a range of four-stroke models was launched, such as the Skorpion with a 660cc Ténéré engine, the now very rare Saxon Country adventure bike with a 500 air-cooled Rotax motor and some models with MuZ’s own engines. The RT125 (not the old DKW one of course!) was a jewel of a bike with a water-cooled four-stroke single which appeared as both trail and road models, and the 1000cc parallel twin in touring and sport form was an absolute cracker.
Unfortunately the company continued to suffer from a lack of resources as it had done since IFA days, and German engineering with high quality manufacture could not make up for the lack of capital. The doors finally closed for good on December 12th 2008. The Zschopau factory building is still there and is now a night club called MZWerk – well it would be called that, wouldn’t it?
NEXT TIME: why it’s a good idea to buy an MZ which you find lying on its back in the gutter…
Before he did a moonlight flit in a westward direction, Ernst Degner proved that MZ could win in the world grand prix arena. This shot sees him on the Isle of Man in the late 1950s aboard a 125 Photos by Nigel Shuttleworth, Mortons archive, Bonhams...
MZ ruled the ISDT roost in the mid-1960s. Here Peter Uhlig on his 175 dukes it out with Manxman Roger Kelly aboard an Enfield in the 1965 ISDT
MZ were part of the GDR’s nationalised motor industry which included Wartburg among 17 other marques Below: Under the bonnet of the Trabbie: another engine developed from DKW’s 600cc motor
Another famous two-stroke four-wheeler manufactured by IFA: the Trabant, seen here in its military livery
Above: The Wartburg Knight two-stroke three-cylinder engine owed an awful lot to DKW’s pre-war design
Smooth and simple: the IFA/MZ BK350, an air-cooled two-stroke horizontally opposed twin Left: Once the postwar European order was established, MZ carried on pretty much where DKW had left off. This is the 1956 incarnation of the stalwart RT125 commuter
The ES250 Trophy, aka the Iron Pig, with its unmistakeable headlamp fairing, the TV Lamp
MZ acquired Stoye sidecars in the early 1970s; here’s one attached to an ETS250 Trophy
By the 1980s the MZ two-stroke had evolved into the ETZ with 12V electrics, separate oil pump, square cylinder and hump-back petrol tank
Above: By now beginning to look almost conventional,. The TS250 was still basically the same 4-speed stroker single
Team MZ at the 1959 TT. Ernst Degner is hunkered down by the front wheel and inspired designer Walter Kaaden stands behind him in the nattily checked jacket
Left: More recently, MZs were fitted with Rotax four-stroke motors. The handsomely orange machine is a Saxon Tour Country 500, aimed at the town and country set, while the more conventionally styled model is a Silver Star. Both excellent riding machines
Below: The RT125 returned in 2002 as a lightweight low-cost commuter, this time fitted with a 4-stroke engine
Above: But whoever thought it was a good idea to unite the MZ brand with a 1000cc four-stroke parallel twin? The earlier ‘working bike’ ethos was long gone