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Soviet Surprise

(from our Travels with Guido series #351, Sept 2019)

by Guy 'Guido' Allen

We trip over an old Soviet-era motorcycling flame

Have you ever had the experience of a motorcycle getting right under your skin, even while others are telling you it’s a loose bucket of bolts and the logical part of your brain is screaming “step away from the motorcycle”? It happens to me more often than I care to admit.

However it’s not every day that one of those moments comes back to haunt you. There I was minding my own business, sitting on the couch watching some sort of murder mystery on the talking box, when a message popped up on my messenger feed, from young Gray H.

No explanation attached, but there was a link for a Faceplant classified for an MZ ETZ250, priced at a touch over $1600. Right. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? MZ as a motorcycle maker can trace its roots back to the early 20th century and the DKW marque, which was involved in the manufacture of cars and motorcycles. It in turn was to become part of the Auto Union group, which included Audi.

MZ (aka Motorradwerk Zschopau) is a post-World War II phenomenon, established in East Germany (behind the Iron Curtain) with technology taken by the Russians as part of the post-war reparations.

Over time, MZ produced a phenomenal number of machines. In 1983, an ETZ250 like the one you see here was recognised as the two-millionth machine produced by the firm. With the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, and the rapid break-up of the eastern European bloc and Soviet Union, MZ saw its tame domestic market disappear pretty much overnight.

After the failure of MZ, the name was partially revived by a small group of diehards through MuZ, which produced a four-stroke Rotax-powered 500cc single prototype before opting for Yamaha -powered machines through the 1990s. Right, so there’s your potted history.

MZ was exporting to the west through the 1980s, with modest success and you could buy them in Australia, along with bikes from eastern bloc rival Jawa. They were straight-forward air-cooled two-strokes and seemed desperately old-fashioned compared to rocketships like Suzuki’s then-emerging RGV liquid-cooled rocketships.

While I got to ride MZs a few times, my one proper encounter was a big eight-bike 250-class comparison for Australian Motorcycle News, back around 1987. It was a fairly ambitious trip over a few days and exposed the machines to a big variety of conditions. While I would never have given the MZ the overall gong, it left a very strong impression – against my expectations, I loved riding it.

Sure it was anything but the best-handling or quickest machine in that company – more often than not it was at the bottom of the pecking order. But there was something about the whole cheap and very cheerful vibe that really got under my skin.

There is an odd collage of vivid memories rattling about in the skull. Such as it sounding like a bucket of bolts when you first started it cold – it improved as it got up to operating temp. Or how good it was on dirt roads. Its flexible and willing powerplant, even if it only produced 17 horses. Or the appalling headlight, which came to the fore during a night-time strop in the rain on a twisty mountain road.

I seem to recall that, despite all its foibles and shortcomings, there was a lot to like about the little MZ. It wasn’t hard to picture how a new owner in East Germany, or Poland or wherever would have been pretty pleased to get their hands on it, back when and where they were a hot item.

Some of my colleagues at the time thought I was nuts to see the MZ in a soft focus, and in many respects they were right. The bike was very old tech in a lot of areas, suffered from patchy build quality and there was a giant question mark over their longevity. Though with only about three moving parts, the latter was perhaps less of an issue than you might first imagine.

No matter – it was a classic case where one person sees character and another sees character-building shortcomings that they could live without.

So should I buy it? There’s no room in the shed, I’m already stretched with the purchase of another bike, and we really, really, don’t need it. Watch this space…


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