Bill Vance: Rickenbacker’s fame helped build sales

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

But piloting a fighter plane was just one of “Captain Eddie’s” accomplishments. Before military service he was an outstanding auto racing driver, and following the war he became the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and president of Eastern Airlines. He was also a principal in an automobile company bearing his name.

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Edward Vernon Rickenbacker was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1890. His father died when Eddie was 12 and he left school to help support the family by apprenticing as a mechanic in auto racer Ray Frayer’s garage. He became so skilled he became Frayer’s riding mechanic in the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup Race in Garden City, New York.

Young Eddie was smitten with racing. In addition to repairing and selling cars, he was soon successfully racing them. Frayer had him as riding mechanic again in the first Indianapolis 500-mile race in 1911 where they finished 13th.

Rickenbacker was able to find a car to drive in the 1912 Indy, and although retiring after only 43 laps with mechanical problems he was determined to become a full- time professional racer.

He demonstrated enough skill to join the famed Duesenberg team in 1914, followed by the renowned Maxwell team that raced all over America. He became a top money winner and built a reputation as a fast and prudent driver.

When the U.S. entered the war in 1917 Rickenbacker joined the Army, became a sergeant, and soon manoeuvred his way into the Air Corps.

As a member of the 94th Squadron, he became a brave, cool and highly skilled fighter pilot.

His first “kill” was in April 1918, and before long he was Captain Rickenbacker, Commanding Officer of the 94th, whose insignia was the famous “Hat-in-the-Ring.” Rickenbacker proceeded to amass his outstanding kill record and by war’s end in 1918 was a highly decorated and hugely popular war hero.

Finding little potential in the aviation field following the war, Rickenbacker pursued a dream of building a car that incorporated ideas learned as mechanic and race driver. His magic name attracted investors and the establishment of the Rickenbacker Motor Co. incorporated in Michigan in 1921 with operations in Detroit, Michigan, beginning in 1922.

His principal financial backers were experienced automobile men Byron “Barney” Everitt, William Metzger and Walter Flanders of the former EMF car company that was taken over by Studebaker.

Rickenbacker chose the hat-in-the-ring as his car’s badge, and capitalizing on his fame he became vice-president and director of sales, a job he pursued vigorously.

Design of the Rickenbacker prototype began in 1919 and was competed in 1920. Eddie insisted on arduous testing to be sure it was a car “Worthy if its Name.” It was introduced at the 1922 New York Auto Show in the mid-priced $1,500 to $2,000 range.

Its Rickenbacker-designed 3.6 litre (218 cu in.), side-valve, six- cylinder engine produced 58 horsepower and had two flywheels, the normal one on the rear of the crankshaft and smaller one on the front. Eddie insisted on this to reduce vibration. Also unusual was immersing the camshaft in oil. A top speed of 97 km/h (60 mph) was guaranteed.

Eddie flew all over America setting up a dealer system that his 1967 biography said peaked at 1,200. His air ace celebrity assured publicity wherever he went.

Sales were encouraging, reaching about 2,500 in the first six months. The 1923 models were largely carryover, although the dry plate clutch was replaced by a wet cone type and an intake air cleaner was added.

Rickenbacker also announced four-wheel mechanical brakes, a first in the mid-priced class. Competitors, notably Studebaker, lacking four-wheel brakes, quickly advertised them as unsafe. This was nonsense; the only unsafe feature was that following drivers with two-wheel brakes often crashed into Rickenbackers. This led to a triangular Four Wheel Brakes warning sign on the rear of the car, which other companies would adopt.

Although the Rickenbacker was a quality product and initial sales were encouraging, the bogus brake rumours hurt sales. 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 Erwin George “Cannonball” 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 and the hat-in-the-ring was no more.

Eddie went on to his other endeavours but refused to declare bankruptcy. A man of strong principles, Captain Eddie eventually paid off all company debts of $250,000.

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