Rickenbacker Automobiles

Essay by
Wilfred R. Franson
October 1999

"A Car Worthy of Its Name"

Most of us have to be satisfied with one career and a few sidelines, but Edward V. Rickenbacker (1890-1973) had several spectacular careers. He was a world-famous racing car driver; he won the Congressional Medal of Honor as a flying ace in World War I; he placed thousands of sporty cars on the roads with his name on them; he became chief executive of a major airline; and while serving his country in World War II, he had to spend three weeks in a life raft when the airplane he was in had to be ditched in the Pacific Ocean.

Rickenbacker gave a lot more than his name to the car; he was not just a hero whose name was for sale to decorate a product. You can learn a lot about gasoline engines when your life depends on the performance of that spinning engine in front of you in a racing car or combat aircraft. Competent professional engineers with many years of Detroit automobile experience worked on the design of the Rickenbacker car, which was not a copy of any other car or an assembly of standardized parts. The Rickenbacker should have succeeded, but only about 30,000 cars were built from 1922 to 1927.

Eddie Rickenbacker's Cars

The first cars built had a 58 horsepower, six cylinder, side-valve engine with two flywheels, one at each end of the crankshaft.

The two flywheels were supposed to minimize vibration and smooth out the power impulses. In 1924 an eight was added to the line. The wheelbase was 117 inches for the six and 121 inches for the eight. The frame was very strong and the car was well built.

Rickenbacker featured four-wheel brakes, obviously the way to go as speeds kept going up. Other good cars were converting to four-wheel brakes as fast as the engineering could be worked our and the front suspension redesigned to handle the brake torque. But some people opposed brakes in the front wheels. The Studebaker company bought magazine ads to say that brakes on the front wheels would lock on curves, would affect the steering, and were dangerous. Of course a few years later every Studebaker had four-wheel brakes.

The Rickenbacker was aggressively promoted as a fast and sporty car. The slogan, "A Car Worthy of Its Name", was used in advertising, and its nameplate on the handsome radiator was a miniature of the "hat in the ring" insignia that Rickenbacker had used on his squadron of airplanes in World War I. The company hired the famous Cannon Ball Baker as a speed test driver, which may not have meant anything but which provided some interesting new photos. Eddie Rickenbacker was a national hero and a pioneer in aviation and automobiles.


© 1999 Wilfred R. Franson

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