1969 MZ ES250/2
Claimed power: 19hp @ 5,350rpm
Top speed: 62mph
Engine: 243cc air-cooled 2-stroke vertical single
Weight (dry): 520lb w/sidecar
MPG: 28-42mpg w/sidecar
Price then: $2,000 (est.)
Price now: $2,000 - $4,000
In the late 1950s the role of motorcycles was changing. Not just utilitarian transport anymore, bikes were being ridden more and more just for the pleasure of riding. One of the few brands that kept making motorcycles that were about function first and foremost was East German Motorradwerk Zschopau, commonly known as MZ motorcycles.
In the former East Germany, there were few options if you wanted your own transportation: Trabant or Wartburg cars, or MZ motorcycles, all of them based on pre-war DKW two-stroke technology. Adding insult to injury, there was a 10-year waiting list for the cars, even if you had the money to buy one. Motorcycles, on the other hand, were somewhat easier to get, as long as you wanted one built in Zschopau, East Germany.
A fine working tool
Evolved from the previous ES250/1 model, the MZ ES250/2 was introduced in 1967. But where its predecessor was round, the ES250/2 was an angular beast, which may be one reason East German motorcyclists claimed the “ES” stood for Eisen-Schwein, or “Iron Pig.” Indeed, only a Communist Politbureau could have loved its looks. Yet MZ motorcycles were snapped up as fast as they were built, both behind the Iron Curtain, where few other vehicles were available, and in the West, where they could be bought at prices significantly lower than any other 250cc motorcycle.
There was more to it than low price, though. First and foremost, MZ motorcycles were a fine working tool and one of the few motorcycles designed primarily to ride with a sidecar attached. Practical details abound. The rear chain runs in separate rubber tubes, ensuring long chain life. The brake arm is placed on the inside of the front brake plate, and the ignition key has a position to the far right that lets you bypass a dead battery and draw juice for the spark plug directly from the generator. The bike also features a large tool kit, much like that of a contemporary BMW motorcycle.
While the Teutonic style was a major change, the ES250/2’s engine was only slightly improved from the earlier version, and could in fact trace its DNA back to the DKW 250 from the late 1930s. The clutch was still on the left side of the crankshaft, rotating with it instead of being geared down like on most other motorcycles. The spec sheet claimed 19 horsepower at 5,350rpm, and the promised mileage was 36mpg with the sidecar. Presumably this was at normal speeds, because personal experience shows that ridden hard this will drop to 28mpg.
Untypically for two-strokes at the time, the two large ball bearings on the clutch side and the single one on the other are lubricated by oil from the gearbox, so the premixed fuel only uses about 2 percent oil instead of the usual 4 to 5 percent. The oversized bearings and the cylinder’s large cooling fins also ensure the Iron Pig can be run at full throttle for prolonged periods of time without overheating and seizing. Top speed for the combination is 62mph.
The swingarm front end and the odd looking tank/headlamp unit aside, the ES has a conventional single-loop frame. The rear engine mounts pivot where the rear swingarm axle runs through, and vibrations are kept at a reasonable level courtesy of a rubber block beneath the engine. The large side covers shield an equally large circular air filter to the right, and the 6-volt electrics to the left. An aluminum tool tray is under the hinged saddle.
The Stoye sidecar frame is built with a mix of tubes and box section steel, has a suspended wheel, and a torsion bar that reaches over to the motorcycle’s rear swingarm. The sidecar body is made partly of aluminum, with a front that flips forward, making it very easy to enter. It is attached to the MZ at three points, and can be loosened without tools — only remounting the torsion bar requires a wrench. The hydraulic rear brake is activated by a brake arm placed right beneath the motorcycle’s rear brake lever. The whole vehicle tips the scales at 520 pounds, and maximum weight is 1,100 pounds. East Germans were big, don’t you know.
On the road
So what is it like to actually ride MZ motorcycles? Open the fuel petcock, insert the BMW-style universal ignition key in the slot ahead of the speedometer and turn the choke lever on the handlebar shield. Next, give it two primer kicks. Then, turn the ignition on and kick it again. It starts right up, even after standing unused outdoors through more than six months of winter (ask me how I know). After a few seconds, the choke lever goes back to normal position and the engine makes its usual uneven two-stroke cough, the metal leg shields resonating a bit as the bike idles. Step up on the footrest, swing a leg over the saddle and you’re ready to go.
First gear engages with a clunk, and you almost have to lift your foot to hit second, third and fourth. At least the engine pulls smoothly from low revs. Vibrations all but disappear in the midrange. At 45mph in top gear, vibration gets through to the handlebar and footrests, but disappears again past 55mph. Downshifting through the gears can be done smoothly once you’ve learned to match the engine revs, and it is easy to find neutral. There’s a green light in the speedometer for that, too, and the ignition light doubles as a turn signal indicator.
Without a sidecar passenger the steering is light and neutral, but better watch your speed in right hand turns — fly into a corner too fast and there will be air between the sidecar wheel and the asphalt. This is no heavy WWII-style Ural. Add a passenger, and the large steering damper on the handlebar cover is best tightened some, otherwise you’ll find yourself fighting the unit as it tries to pull to the right. Acceleration suffers a bit, so the engine has to work for its living, and the whole combination feels a bit flimsy when ridden hard. Once on its way, however, the ES goes where it is pointed, and if the passenger is, say, a very large Hausfrau, you can even slide it on the brakes without fear of tipping over.
The plush suspension soaks up all but the worst potholes, but then again it was intended for East German roads, most of which hadn’t been maintained since late 1944. Thanks to built-in levers, you don’t need to use any tools to jack up the rear shocks when carrying a passenger. The long saddle is comfortable for at least three hours, the longest non-stop stretch we tried.
There’s the odd sensation of the front rising slightly when you apply the front brake. Of course this is useful after dark, as the light beam doesn’t dip, either, as it would on a bike with telescopic forks. Properly set up the brakes work OK — just — but fade noticeably with hard use.
Ridden solo, the ES easily keeps up with modern traffic. And while the two rubber tubes surrounding the chain keep it from wearing quickly, they also make it a pain to change gearing; though once this is accomplished, the reward is a 75mph top cruising speed, and 60mpg or better. Shod with modern tires it is easy to flick through curves and bends, in large part because it now only weighs about 350 pounds. The small 16-inch wheel makes the front end feel lighter than its swingarm and oversized fender would suggest, at least if you remember to place it in the rear position (there are two mounting options) on the swingarm. You will notice if you forgot.
The ES today
So what is there not to like? Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the saying goes. So is, presumably, ugliness — although in defense of whoever designed the Iron Pig the various parts actually fit together visually. The quality of materials never was up to the standards of Western manufacturers, much less the Japanese ones. The OEM tires were horrible in the wet, and the chrome peeled or rusted much too soon. Facing a strong headwind, with the easily detachable windshield up and the aforementioned lady placed in the sidecar seat, one might be stuck in third gear at 45mph all the way home. And if the optional hood isn’t used‚ turbulence behind the windshield ensures that her hair is well messed by the oil-rich exhaust. But that’s about it.
A total of 128,989 ES250/2s ran off the assembly line until the model was discontinued in 1973. Thirty-eight years later, spares are still cheap and easy to get, as are complete bikes — at least in Europe. There are enough MZ ES250/2s around (mainly in Germany) to keep prices at a reasonable level and to keep several shops busy selling parts, including aftermarket electronic ignition systems and go-fast bits. Really. If eBay sales are any indication, expect to pay about $2,000 for an outfit that works, but looks and feels used. $3,000 will buy a nice example, and yet another grand will get you a recently restored one. Achtchung baby! MC