Here’s a riddle for you; what do the Indianapolis 500, First World War and selling automobiles all have in common? Give up yet? The answer is that World War I fighter pilot Eddie Rickenbacker involved himself in all three. Ultimately, his experience on the racetrack and self-reflection following the War would coalesce into what became the car that bore his name. Just as incredible as the car itself and the man behind it is the story of the how the Rickenbacker Motor Co. came into being, industry standards it had set and its unfortunate collapse into bankruptcy.
Without a doubt, the best place to begin the story is with the cars namesake, Eddie Rickenbacker. Enamored with automobiles since first laying eyes on one, he set out to learn everything he could about them, enrolling in a mechanical engineering course through the International Correspondence School in 1905. That same year, Rickenbacker kicked off his automotive career by working for the Oscar Lear Automobile Company. In 1907, he moved on to the Columbus Buggy Company, where he worked his way up to regional sales manager for the Midwest.
Gradually, Rickenbacker shifted gears from selling cars to racing them, going on to race for his company in the very first Indianapolis 500 in 1911 and again in 1912. Because he found himself at home on the track, Rickenbacker eventually left his job to race professionally, going on to drive for Maxwell Motor Co. in 1915. Later, in 1917 he had a brief stint as a driver for British auto manufacturer, Sunbeam.
Upon America’s 1917 entry into World War I, Rickenbacker exchanged the life of a driver for that of a pilot, becoming an ace in aerial combat. He flew for the famed 94th Aero Pursuit squadron, aptly nicknamed “Hat-in-the-Ring” after their insignia. In fact, this iconic emblem would eventually serve as the badge for Rickenbacker cars.
Following the war, Rickenbacker was a national celebrity with product endorsement opportunities thrown at him left and right. However, he preferred to stray away from such offers, going so far as to turn down a $100,000 movie deal with Universal Studios. Instead, he elected to follow his dreams, and his heart was set on creating an automobile.
By the end of 1919, Rickenbacker’s dream was one step closer to reality with the formation of the Rickenbacker Motor Co. Standing by as the company’s president, he served primarily as an advisor, while the founders of the then defunct E-M-F Company played a pivotal role in the car’s design. Still, it was Rickenbacker who set high standards for what would be according to the company’s slogan, “a car worthy of its name.”
Before announcing the car, it underwent months of rigorous testing, which eventually became a hallmark of their advertising campaign. According to a 1922 advertisement, “the original chassis and body traveled over 80,000 miles! Was ever a car so exhaustively and so expensively tested? No-but Captain Rickenbacker laid down the rules and his rules ruled!”
With the Rickenbacker having proven itself on the road, it was finally unveiled at the 1922 New York Auto Show. Three models were available; a touring car ($1,485), coupe ($1,885), and sedan ($1,995). By comparison, Ford Model T’s ranged in price from $269 to $725. Clearly, the car’s target audience was America’s emerging middle class.
Rickenbacker designed and built the engine themselves, the first of which was a 58 hp six cylinder model of 218 CID. While this point was raised in their advertising, greater emphasis had been placed on the car’s tandem flywheels, which were two wheels attached to both ends of the crankshaft. This in turn created a harmonic balancer, allowing the engine to run much smoother than most of the competition. A brochure mentioned the engine’s lack of vibration at 60 mph, “of no other car can this statement be made – regardless of price!”
One year later, the company made the head-turning announcement that four wheel brakes would become standard equipment in all of their cars. While four wheel brakes appeared in Europe as early as 1909, they had yet to really take off in the U.S. Therefore, Rickenbacker’s decision proved all the more revolutionary.
Regarding four wheel brakes, one Rickenbacker brochure claimed they were, “the greatest improvement in automobile engineering since the inception of the self-starter.” Not wanting to be left in the dust, Studebaker poured over $250,000 into an advertising campaign warning of the dangers of four wheel brakes. Such efforts did little to sway public opinion because, by 1924, half of all American automobile manufacturers offered four wheel brakes as an option.
Having built a strong reputation for credibility and quality cars, Rickenbacker saw its sales soar between 1923 and 1925. In 1925 production was at its highest, and the Rickenbacker had even been chosen as the official pace car for the Indianapolis 500. At the time, it seemed like there was nowhere else to go but up.
However, a recession that same year marked the beginning of the decline of the Rickenbacker Motor Co. With sales reduced to a trickle, the company lowered its retail prices to sell off its surplus. Wholesale pricing remained the same, cutting into dealers’ profits and leaving several of them less inclined to sell Rickenbackers. By 1926, stock sales were suspended and Eddie Rickenbacker resigned. Even without the company’s namesake at the helm, the company remained in operation until finally succumbing to bankruptcy in February 1927.
Although the Rickenbacker Motor Co. ultimately fizzled out, it left an indelible mark on the American automobile industry by setting high standards and popularizing four wheel brakes. In fact, the Library has a wealth of information on this unique marque, including sales literature, factory photographs and Rickenbacker’s autobiography. We even have reference books with information on “Fast Eddie’s” illustrious racing career. Visit AACA Library