With the recent series on Indy pace cars, it got me thinking about a man who today is virtually unknown to the younger generation, yet his views and impact on the early auto industry was unmistakably huge.
Edward Vernon Rickenbacker did many things in his life. Auto mechanic. Auto salesman. Race car driver (even appearing in the Indy 500, but never winning). American Flying Ace of Aces in World War I. Built a car that had advanced technology for its day. Owned the Indianapolis Speedway. Was lost on a small raft in the Pacific Ocean for 21 days with 8 others. President of Eastern Airlines. So much more that only a reading of his 1967 autobiography will reveal. Before you say it, yes, certain things in the autobiography are blown out of proportion or remembered through rose colored glasses. But the accomplishments of the man cannot be discounted. I’ll concentrate on his life with automobiles in this article.
Edward Rickenbacher was born in 1890. His father died in an altercation with another man when Eddie was 12. He left school and went out to find a job to support the family. Eddie had always been fascinated with machines, and seeing an early automobile on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, he cajoled the driver into giving him a ride. It was a life-changing experience for the young Eddie, who was working 6 days a week at a glass blowing company, carrying the heated glass from the ovens to the glass blowers.
One day, he impulsively stopped in an automobile garage owned by a man named Evans. Eddie got up his courage and asked to speak with Evans, who told the young man there was no jobs available for kids without experience. This did not faze Eddie. He noticed that the “shop was an absolute pigpen”, told Evans that there was a job for him, that he would be back in the morning, and left.
The next morning he arrived at the Evans Garage at 3AM. He found an old push broom and a dustpan in the corner and went to work. When Evans arrived at 7:30, he found Eddie working diligently. One half the shop was unchanged from its pigpen appearance. The other half was spotless. Evans smiled at the young man. “Go ahead and finish, Eddie. You’ve got a job.”
From being the custodian, Eddie quickly learned about automobiles, and was introduced to Lee Frayer. Frayer was half of the Frayer-Miller car company, and he eagerly hired the young Eddie away from Evans. Eddie soon became a respected member of the team. He invested in a correspondence course in mechanics, and learned all he could about the automobile. He learned to drive and was soon chauffeuring his mother around town. The sight became common. Eddie’s mom holding tightly to her hat, imploring her son to slow down, driving at the breakneck speed of 15 MPH.
In 1906, Lee Frayer decided he would enter racing. He built a unique car for the times, a massive 990 cubic inch, air cooled monster. Entering the Vanderbilt Cup race, Frayer decided at the last minute to take Eddie as his riding mechanic.
The car only lasted about two laps of the qualifying run, as the air cooling failed to keep the engine cool enough. But it was enough to hook Eddie on racing.
Frayer went to work at the Columbus Buggy Company in 1907, taking the young Eddie with him. At age 17, Eddie was in charge of the testing department supervising 12-15 men. It was in 1910 that he entered racing as a driver.
On a dirt track in Red Oak, Iowa, Eddie was running fine when his car crashed into a fence while rounding a turn. Bruised, battered, and exhilarated, Eddie was set. He was going to be a famous race car driver.
Through 1916, Eddie competed in 42 races, including 5 Indy 500s. His record was 7 wins, 2 second place finishes, and 5 third place finishes. His one regret about his racing career was that he never won the Indy 500. His best finish was 1914, where he finished 10th, averaging over 70 MPH, and winning $1400.
He went on to great acclaim as a World War I pilot, becoming American Ace of Aces with 26 confirmed kills. He came home with the Medal of Honor, 7 Distinguished Service Crosses, the World War I Victory Medal, the Legion of Honor medal, and the Croix de Guerre. He also changed the spelling of his name. In writing to a friend he signed his name “Ric[k]enbacker.” The friend took the story to the press, who ran headlines stating “Eddie Rickenbacker has taken the Hun out of his name!” He also gave himself a middle name, choosing “Vernon.”
After the war, Eddie was inundated with offers to appear in movies and to endorse products. He turned them all down, believing that his name was the most important thing he had and he didn’t want to cheapen it.
In 1921 he founded the Rickenbacker Motor Company. The company manufactured stylish, mid price cars. Early cars were powered by a six cylinder engine, but eight-cylinder models were added later on.
One of them, the Rickenbacker Eight, was chosen as the official pace car of the Indy 500 in 1925. Eddie drove the car.
Unfortunately, the Rickenbacker was not successful and the company closed its doors in 1927. One of the things which brought about the downfall was the introduction of four-wheel brakes. Eddie decided to spring it on everyone as a surprise. The other manufacturers were caught unaware, and, sitting on a large inventory of two-wheel brake autos, began an advertising campaign against Rickenbacker stating that four-wheel brakes were unsafe, all the time feverishly tooling up to produce their own four-wheel brake systems. Nice, huh? In 1927 Eddie was broke and bankrupt when an opportunity presented itself, too good to pass up.
Eddie was offered a chance to purchase the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for $750,000. Calling on friends and old business contacts, Eddie raised the money in just one week and became the owner of the Speedway. His accomplishments included guiding it through the Depression and arranging for the first live radio broadcast of the Memorial Day 500 race. He also drove the pace car several years. During this time Rickenbacker was also sales manager for Cadillac and vice-president of General Aviation Corporation.
In 1933 he joined North American Aviation as VP/GM of Eastern Air Transport, which was eventually reorganized as Eastern Air Lines. Later on, he became president of Eastern Airlines.
In 1941, Rickenbacker decided to close the Speedway for the duration of World War II to conserve on needed fuel and hard to obtain rubber tires. After the war, Eddie felt he didn’t have the time to properly oversee the restoration and operation of the Speedway, so he sold it to Anton “Tony” Hulman, whose family still owns the Speedway today.
The accomplishments and adventures of Eddie Rickenbacker are awe-inspiring. I highly recommend his autobiography. There are numerous books available online about his life as well, including a book written by Rickenbacker about his adventures in World War I.
One thing that surprised me about Eddie, who died in 1973 at age 82, was the following fact: He never obtained a drivers license. In his words, “When asked by a peace officer to produce my driver’s license, I always would show them my solid gold life membership card from the Los Angeles Elks Lodge #99. It always did the trick.”
I’m an Elk. I ought to try this. On second thought……..
Always been one of my heroes. Good story. Too bad some of his other exploits don’t fit a website like CC. It’s been a long time since he has gotten his share of ink.
A great read, and a great public service – re introducing us to one of the early greats of racing, flying, and a lot of other things.
It is a shame when some of these people of great deserved fame become forgotten as the older generations pass away. Guys like Rickenbacker deserve to be remembered and discovered by younger generations.
One of the great pleasures of my life was spending a little time with a very old neighbor who had been a WWI fighter pilot. Col. Clarence Cornish was in his 90s when we moved to our current house. His memories of that era were simply amazing. At age 96 or 97 he set a Guinness record as the oldest man to fly an airplane, but I am not sure if the record still stands, as it was around 1995 or so.
I have a copy of his biography, and it’s one I recommend to inspire any young man to work hard and have good character.
Rickenbacker’s “Fighting the Flying Circus” is another great book which I’ve about worn out from multiple readings over the years.
Pilots in his squadron would always pick a ‘used’ Rickenbacker SPAD over a brand new one from the depot.
Thanks for taking time to write this up!
Next time I’m pulled over, I’m gonna give the officer my American Legion membership card…
Thanks for refreshing the Rickenbacker memory files. A classic from another era indeed.
I own a Rickenbacker headlamp!
Rickenbacker, as President of Eastern Airlines was involved in a bad airliner crack up in the late 30’s. He was one of a handful of survivors and spent a few months in the hospital. He was flying as a passenger on a DC-3.
You’re right, Billy. He cheated death on numerous occasions.
As a kid, I had a model of the Hat In the Ring squadron Spad XIII… my dad spoke often about Rickenbacker, as one of his personal heroes (dad was in the Army Air Corps in WW2)… great article, Richard!
As a young lad, I had an interest in aircraft and aviation prior to my interest in automobiles. This possibly from the fact my father served in WWII in the Army Air Corps. Having learned that Eddie Rickenbacker was originally from Columbus and a celebrated WWI flying ace, upon learning of his address I requested and received an autographed photo of him while he was still with us. I, too, consider him a most amazing guy and one of my heroes. He’s someone who showed that with solid determination and a will to achieve, that nothing is beyond the realm of possibility.
Thanks for a good article on a man well worth remembering. Does anyone here remember the Twilight Zone episode in which Orson Bean drove a Rickenbacker car? TV shows such as that one really fueled my childhood interest in cars.
Let’s see if this works. The Rickenbacker appears about :47 into the video.
Nope. Here’s the YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mLZKdFa-iAg
Thanks for the tip! Forgot about this one!
Eddie Rickenbacker’s boyhood home is about 2 miles from where I sit. I took some photos of it, and posted them to CC Cohort. If you want to know more about Eddie, check them out.
Please don’t try the Elks card trick. Only Eddie could pull this off.
You didn’t mention another of his remarkable feats. In October 1942 he was stranded in the Pacific Ocean after his plane, a B17, crashed. He and the survivors struggled heroically for three weeks before rescue. Their survival and rescue were a culmination of Eddie’s ceaseless determination and a series of true miracles.
He had no speck of racism or real sexism (although he REALLY liked women) and would promote only on merit, regardless of race, sex, religion or creed. When he joined and took over Eastern, his annual income was $50,000 a year. He forbade himself any raises and when he left Eastern, his income was still $50,000 a year. If character lives, he never died.
Rickenbacker, like James Doolittle, was one of those amazing figures back then who in the best American tradition, could be anything & do anything within their range of talents.
Was the Rickenbacker 4-wheel system mechanical? I thought it was the Duesenbergs who introduced 4-wheel *hydraulic* brakes in their Model A about the same time Rickenbacker incorporated his firm. I suppose there was not enough of a customer base for the very expensive, hand-built Model A (an 80hp SOHC straight-8) for the others to worry about. Sadly, the Duesenbergs never patented their system or else they could’ve made a mint on royalties & continued making the best cars money could buy w/o having to sell out to E. L. Cord.
The competitors’ FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, & Doubt) campaign against 4-wheel brakes reminds me of Thomas Edison’s similar attempt to discredit Nicola Tesla’s alternating current system as dangerous. Tesla also neglected to cash in on patent royalties as he gave them up while Westinghouse was in dire straits. Good thing Edison failed, or there’d be a DC power plant every couple of miles!
Rickenbacker cars debuted in 1922 with four-wheel mechanical brakes.
One way the company touted this innovation was to have the front brake drums painted red as to stand out behind the wheels on cars not equipped with disc wheels.
He was an amazing man and undoubtedly left a tremendous mark in history.
Younger generations, do indeed, need to be reminded of significant historical figures like Capt. Eddie.
Those are just a few of the reasons that I so enjoy driving my ’26 Rickenbacker around town.
The car handles well and drives fantastic for its age.