When America’s greatest ﬂying ace of World War I lent his name to a car brand, the result was short-lived, but ended with a model that was individual, intriguing and inspired.
How do you honour an All-American Hero? A statue or public park? Perhaps a highway? Nowadays, there’d be a dramatized movie adaptation, mobile app or collectable action figure. But if the time was the 1920s, the place was the USA and the hero in question was Eddie Rickenbacker, the honour took the form of a car. Born in 1890, Rickenbacker was involved in the nascent American auto industry while still a teenager, before becoming a noted racing driver in his early twenties. As a racer, he drove for the Duesenberg marque, set a US National speed record and even competed in the most famous American car race, the Indianapolis 500. Beyond being a more than capable driver, Rickenbacker was also a talented engineer and deep thinker about the future of the automobile in terms of performance, appearance, functionality and safety. Making a tidy sum as a driver for hire, Rickenbacker gave it all away to volunteer for the US Army when America entered World War I in 1917.
Bypassing the normal channels and restrictions to become a pilot, Rickenbacker became America’s top-scoring flying ace, with 24.33 official kills. Awarded France’s top bravery award, the Croix de Guerre, Rickenbacker would also receive America’s highest military award, the Congressional Medal of Honor, some years after the war. Returning to the US a national hero, Rickenbacker hoped to pursue a career in commercial aviation, but that industry barely existed in the immediate post-war years, so he instead turned to his pre-war love - cars. Rickenbacker’s vision of a car that combined the best race-bred engineering with smart appearance and safety led him to be introduced to a trio of industry veterans who propelled his ideas to reality.
Separately and together, Barney Everitt, William Metzger and Walter Flanders all had extensive auto manufacturing experience. Everitt made his initial fortune manufacturing bodies for a number of car companies. Metzger’s abilities were proven in the early years of the Cadillac marque, while Flanders had formerly served as Henry Ford’s production manager. The three had previously joined forces to build their own car – the EMF – in 1908, but this petered out after a few years. By 1921, the three were keen to get into manufacturing on a large scale again, and thought they’d found the perfect ‘vehicle’ in Rickenbacker. Lending his name to the new project, Eddie Rickenbacker also added his design ideas and engineering know-how, but refused the role of company president, preferring instead a vice presidential role in sales. This enabled him to indulge his passion for aircraft, flying all over the country to promote the upcoming car and sign up dealers.
At the start of 1922, the Rickenbacker automobile was launched to the public. The debut model range consisted of a Tourer, Coupe and Sedan, all identified by a low slung body and powered by a 218 cubic inch six cylinder engine that incorporated aircraft engine technology for smoother and quieter running. Rickenbacker’s fame ensured the car was such a huge publicity hit, if not a sales one, that Everitt, Metzger and Flanders commissioned the building of a new factory in Detroit, capable of producing up to 50,000 cars a year. Aside from Ford, few existing companies were producing anywhere near that number of cars in 1922, let alone any new manufacturers.
A few years later, against established names like Ford and the new, but growing Chrysler marque, as well as the cars from the General Motors stable, it became clear that Rickenbacker couldn’t compete, despite the fame of its founder and the innovations his cars offered. One of these was four wheel disc brakes. An experimental four wheel-braked chassis was shown on launch, followed by the addition of four wheel braking to all Rickenbacker models from mid-1923. An obvious safety feature now, back then four wheel brakes were considered unsafe! A negative publicity campaign, led largely by Ford and Studebaker, created doubt in owners’ minds about the benefits of a feature that very few American cars of the period had. Bad PR like this, combined with the death of Flanders in 1923 and a string of poor management decisions, saw Rickenbacker (the company) founder. In 1925, an expansion of the model range and introduction of a new 80hp 268 cubic inch 8-cylinder engine saw sales reached their high point of 8,049 units. By comparison, Chrysler turned out 76,600 cars in the same year, Chevrolet built over 500,000 vehicles and Ford Model T production was over 1.5 million.
Even Cadillac, a much higher-priced car, out-produced and outsold the Rickenbacker in this period. Two years later, the Rickenbacker marque was gone. Sale of stock in the company had been suspended early in 1926, Rickenbacker resigned due to disagreements over the company’s financial decisions the same year, while Metzger, along with a number of other key personnel, had also departed before the year was out. But before the company died, it produced its crowning achievement - the ‘Super Sport’ model. Introduced at the New York Auto Show in 1926, the Super Sport was powered by a 107hp version of the 268ci ‘Vertical 8 Super-fine’ engine, and was claimed to be the fastest ‘stock car’ in America, with a 90mph (145kph approx.) top speed.
Other American cars were faster, but they were generally stripped-down two-seat roadsters, whereas the Super Sport offered a fixed roof and comfortable seating for four on leather seats. Transmission was a three-speed, floor-shift manual, with stopping done by four wheel mechanical brakes. Suspension was typical of the period, consisting of semi-elliptic parallel leaf springs front and rear. Differentiated from other Rickenbacker models by its ‘boat tail’ rear styling (a 1920s hallmark of speed and performance), the Super Sport also abandoned full-length running boards, replacing them with close-fitting, cycle-type guards, the front pair of which turned with the steering. Bumper bars, rudimentary as they were, were actually made of polished mahogany timber, capped with a metal strip.
For the Super Sport presented in New York, these strips, along with virtually all other external other metal components, including the wire-spoke wheels, were copper-plated to give the ‘show car’ extra visual appeal. Less than 20 Super Sport chassis were built, and it’s believed the New York car was the only example to be completely bodied and finished. Allegedly, the show car survived thanks to an audacious offer of $10,000 by a Michigan Rickenbacker dealer. This was significantly more than a Duesenberg of the same era and more than double the price of the most expensive Cadillac for 1926. The car survived in the hands of the same family until 1973, when it was purchased for the famous Harrah Collection in the US.
The Super Sport was restored by a subsequent owner in 1985, then sold again in 2011, being displayed in an air museum, of all places. This past August, it was consigned for auction with RM Auctions for their Monterey sale. In a three-day auction event that saw the top-ten sellers all reach multi-million dollar amounts, the 1926 Rickenbacker Super Sport went for US$946,000 (AU$1,012,948 approx.). This may seem meagre by comparison, but was a good price for a rare, almost unknown example of a model from an equally unknown marque. Rickenbacker cars are rare enough as it is, but in the case of the Super Sport, there’s only one – they don’t get any rarer than that! The new owner can be assured of one thing – he’ll never meet another one on the road.