Ace of Aces
After shooting down twenty-two enemy aircraft and four barrage balloons in less than a year, Captain Edward “Eddie” Rickenbacker became the most celebrated Allied airman of World War I, earning him the title “Ace of Aces.” He received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the French Legion of Honor, the Croix de Guerre, the Distinguished Service Cross and seven other medals.
At the close of the war, Rickenbacker returned home to a hero’s welcome of ticker-tape parades and other events in his honor. He retreated to the seclusion of the New Mexican desert to contemplate his future. He had been a race car driver before the war, and automobiles again filled his mind. He decided to build a car bearing his name.
Building a Car
Rickenbacker teamed up with some of the best and brightest automobile entrepreneurs of the time. Harry Cunningham was a former race driver turned engineer, and Walter Flanders and Barney Everitt were two-thirds of the EMF Company of Detroit. Rickenbacker contributed engineering ideas learned from his pre-war days building, selling and driving race cars.
Rickenbacker set out to design and build a mid-priced car with many advanced features. The stylish six-cylinder model he dreamed of would have a low center of gravity, a vibration-free tandem flywheel, cabin heater, air cleaner and a locking steering wheel. A 94th Squadron “Hat in the Ring” insignia graced the radiator housing. When it came to decide where such a car would be built, there was only one choice: Detroit, the Automobile Capital of the World.
The Rickenbacker Motor Company
Rickenbacker built factory prototypes in 1920 and logged eighty thousand miles test driving the cars himself. In 1922, the Rickenbacker Motor Company (RMC) went into full production, with Rickenbacker as vice-president in charge of sales. He barnstormed across the country flying in his airplane, selling cars and dealer franchises. Eventually, the company boasted a network of twelve hundred dealers in the U.S and three hundred worldwide. Between 1922 and 1924, RMC sold fifty thousand cars with price tags ranging from $1,485.00 for the touring model to $1,995.00 for a sedan.
Sales were brisk and in 1924, the company introduced the Vertical 8 Super Fine model. A promotional brochure bragged that “almost without exception, Rickenbacker factory officials and their wives drive this coupe model…it is a type much coveted and appreciated by young ladies and dowagers. It is quite as suitable for a man as a woman driver.” Other ads claimed that the motor “improves with use. Take a look at the frame. Comparatively, the Brooklyn Bridge does not provide such a factor of rigidity and strength.”
Four Wheel Brakes
Advertising rhetoric aside, the company seemed to be doing everything right and they announced a new automotive innovation. Four-wheel brakes have been standard equipment since Rickenbacker introduced them more than eighty years ago. The announcement that the braking system would be standard on their 1924 models caused a commotion in the automobile business. Several auto companies—notably Studebaker—mounted a slander campaign, claiming that four-wheel brakes were dangerous and unpredictable.
Believing in himself and his product, Eddie Rickenbacker dismissed the adverse publicity. Rather than play down the accusations, he touted the merits of the braking system by stenciling “4-WHEEL BRAKES” on the spare tire covers. Detractors claimed that this was necessary to avoid rear-end collisions caused by Rickenbacker cars stopping too fast.
End of a Dream
Despite the company’s efforts, sales began to lag. In 1926, Rickenbacker resigned from his position, and the company struggled on until 1927, when it declared bankruptcy and halted production. Ironically, the German company Audi bought the design, tooling and spare parts and installed Rickenbacker engines in some models.
At the age of thirty-five and $250,000 in debt, Rickenbacker had to abandon his dream of building a “Car Worthy of its Name.” He vowed to pay off his creditors and changed his career course. He bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and later became Chairman of the Board of Eastern Airlines. A survivor in life as well as business, Eddie Rickenbacker survived two airplane crashes before passing away in 1973 at the age of eighty-two.