1923 Rickenbacker
1923 Rickenbacker. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Eddie Rickenbacker is best remembered as a First World War United States fighter pilot who shot down some 26 German planes. He became known as the “American Ace of Aces,” a genuine home grown hero.

But being a fighter pilot was just one of “Captain Eddie’s” accomplishments. Before the war he was an outstanding auto racing driver, and after it he became the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and president of Eastern Airlines. He also founded his own automobile company.

Edward V. Rickenbacker was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1890. His father died when Eddie was 12 and he left school to help support the family. He was soon apprenticing as a mechanic in a garage owned by Ray Frayer, an auto racer, who took Eddie as his riding mechanic in the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup Race at Garden City, Long Island, New York.

Young Eddie was smitten. He was soon racing cars as well as selling and fixing them. His racing exploits ranged far afield, and he was Frayer’s riding mechanic in the first Indianapolis 500 mile race in 1911 where they finished 13th.

Rickenbacker drove in the 1912 Indy, retiring after only 43 laps due to mechanical problems, but determined to become a full time professional racer. He became skilled enough to join the famed Duesenberg team in 1914, then moved to the renowned Maxwell team which raced all over America. He became one of the top money winners with a reputation for being fast but prudent.

When the U.S. entered the war in 1917 Rickenbacker joined the Army, became a sergeant, and soon manoeuvreed his way into the Air Corps. He joined the 94th Squadron where he became a brave, cool and highly skilled fighter pilot.

His first “kill” was in April, 1918, and it wasn’t long before he was Captain Rickenbacker, commander of the 94th, whose insignia was a hat in a ring. Rickenbacker proceeded to amass his outstanding kill record, and by war’s end in 1918 was a highly decorated war hero and a hugely popular figure.

Finding little interest in aviation following the war, Rickenbacker pursued a dream of building a car incorporating ideas he had learned as a mechanic and racer. With his magic name he attracted investors, and established the Rickenbacker Motor Company in Detroit, Michigan, in 1922. His partners were experienced auto manufacturers Barney Everitt and Walter Flanders, formerly the “E” and “F” of the E.M.F. company that had been bought out by Studebaker. Former E.M.F. agent Harry Cunningham also joined.

Rickenbacker chose the hat in the ring as its badge. Since Eddie’s greatest contribution was his publicity value, he became vice-president and director of sales, a job he pursued vigorously. Everitt was named president.

Rickenbacker design began in 1919, and Cunningham began building a prototype in 1920, prior to incorporation. Eddie insisted on arduous testing so the Rickenbacker would be a “Car Worthy of its Name.” It was introduced in several models at the 1922 New York Auto Show in the mid-priced $1,500 to $2,000 range.

Power came from a Rickenbacker side-valve, six cylinder engine with the unusual feature of two flywheels, the normal one at the rear of the crankshaft and a smaller one on the front. Eddie insisted on this to reduce engine vibration. Also unusual was keeping the camshaft immersed in oil. The six developed 58 horsepower from 3.6 litres (218 cu in.), and had a guaranteed top speed of 96 km/h (60 mph). Orders soon began coming in.

Eddie flew all over America setting up distributors and dealers, which according to his 1967 biography would reach its peak at 1,200. His celebrity as an air ace assured publicity wherever he went.

Sales were encouraging, reaching some 2,500 in the first six months. The 1923 models were largely carryover, although there were improvements such as a dry plate clutch replacing the wet cone type, and the addition of an intake air cleaner.

It was also announced that they would be fitting four-wheel mechanical brakes, a first in the mid-priced class. Four-wheel hydraulic brakes had been pioneered by Duesenberg, and Packard had just announced four-wheel mechanical brakes, but Rickenbacker led its price field with four-wheel brakes.

Competitors, notably Studebaker, that didn’t have four-wheel brakes, quickly attacked them in the media as being unsafe. This was nonsense. The only unsafe feature was that drivers following with two-wheel brakes often crashed into Rickenbackers because they couldn’t stop fast enough. This led to a “Four Wheel Brakes” warning sign on the rear of the car. Other companies soon adopted them.

Although initial sales were encouraging, and the Rickenbacker was a quality product, it never really got off the ground. The addition of a nine-main-bearing, 4.4-litre (268 cu in.) eight cylinder, 80 horsepower engine in 1925, and some long distance speed records set by the inimitable Cannon Ball Baker, were not enough.

Eddie could see the end coming, and in September, 1926 he resigned saying “Here’s where I get off.” The company closed its doors in 1927. The hat in the ring was no more, and Eddie went on to other accomplishments.

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