Stealing Speed is the fascinating true story of East German motorbike racer Ernst Degner, who defected to Japan at the height of the Cold War and took the secrets of his team’s two-stroke engine to Suzuki. The engines, developed after the Second World War by a chronically underfunded communist racing team, had the advantage of genius engineer Walter Kaaden, who had helped the Nazis develop missiles. The interaction between these two characters is the backbone of this book, and a fascinating insight into the cold war from the other side of the Iron Curtain.
The book is clearly built around author Mat Oxley’s love of motorbike racing. This was an era of rapid technological development, and a laissez-faire attitude to the health and safety of the riders. These daredevil thrill-seekers routinely lost their lives in world-class events, making experience a rare commodity. The Eastern German racing team, however, had only communist glory to offer Degner, leaving little surprise that he was easily courted by Japanese capitalism.
Christian Papazoglakis’s race scenes are bristling with speed and danger. The sepia-toned illustration is perfectly in keeping with the era, helping everything slot into place.
The only thing that occasionally jars with the book is the dialogue, which sometimes gets bogged down in technical detail, as the engineers go into detail about the engines and the way they’re being developed. To a motorbike-racing enthusiast, this is likely to bring much joy, but for an outsider it can get in the way of the human element of the story. It’s only a small problem, though, in an otherwise delightful graphic novel.