Edward Rickenbacker, a widely acclaimed American
hero, used his fame and knowledge of racing cars to create an innovative
Detroit vehicle firm but, alas, one
that survived for only a few years. Rickenbacher was born in Columbus, Ohio
in 1890 to German- speaking Swiss immigrants. His family was impoverished
and the family’s status took a terrible turn for the worse when his
father, a construction worker, was killed at work in 1904. Rickenbacher dropped
out of school at age 14 to support his large family. While in his teens,
he was employed by the Federal Glass Company, Buckeye Steel Casting and then
in the machine shops of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Columbus. Fortunately
for him, he got a job with the Frayer-Miller Automobile Company located in
Columbus and there he began to show his remarkable abilities. This firm produced
at least a few cars in 1908.
Rickenbacher’s boss, Lee Frayer, raced cars in the Vanderbilt Cup Race on Long Island—one of the most prestigious auto races in the United States at that time. Even though he was only 16, Rickenbacher accompanied Frayer to the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup as a mechanic. By 1910, Rickenbacher held a job as the branch manager for Firestone Tire in Columbus. He also began racing Frayer’s cars. Rickenbacher set a national speed record of 134 miles per hour at Daytona, Florida and then drove one of Freyer’s cars in the 1911 Indianapolis 500. In 1912, began racing cars for famed auto designer, Fred Duesenberg. He quickly became recognized as one of the most accomplished race car drivers in the nation.
In 1916, Rickenbacher was apparently recruited by Britain’s Sunbeam auto firm to race their cars in Europe. Other stories suggest that he was sent to England to purchase excellent cars from Sunbeam to bring back to the United States for racing. Once he got to England, he realized that the British were fighting the Germans and saw that as an opportunity. At this time, military strategists presumed that aircraft would revolutionize warfare so the Germans, the British and the United States invested heavily in the development of planes, although the technology was primitive. The huge plant that stood at West Warren and Livernois until it was razed in 2003—a National Historic Landmark—was built by Henry Leland to manufacture Liberty engines for this nation’s World War I aircraft. Rickenbacher approached British authorities and volunteered to organize a team of auto racers who would fly planes for what later became the Royal Air Force. The British government rejected his offer, perhaps assuming that he was acting as a German agent. Eddie Rickenbacher returned to the States but, as soon as this country entered World War I, he enlisted for service. Simultaneously, he anglicanized his name by changing it from Rickenbacher to Rickenbacker. He was assigned to serve as chauffer driving Hudsons for General Pershing but his interest in flying persisted. He contacted, General Billy Mitchell—the father of the United States air force—and volunteered to fly the fragile planes then in use. By the end of World War I, Eddie Rickenbacker was acclaimed as an ace and credited with shooting down a record 26 Luftwaffe craft. The French awarded him the Croix de Guerre and the United States conferred the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Returning from the war, Rickenbacker retired from auto racing, but maintained a strong interest in the vehicle industry. In 1919, he decided the nation needed a new car with three distinguishing features: high horsepower, a low center of gravity to increase passengers comfort and four wheel brakes for safety. He proposed this idea to his friend, Harry Cunningham, who was closely linked to Detroit’s auto barons. Barney Everitt had been successful in Detroit’s auto industry since the turn of the century but was, at that time, “between” auto companies although he had a management role in several Detroit firms linked to the auto industry. Cunningham put Barney Everitt in contact with Rickenbacker. Everitt, who had founded a half a dozen or so auto firms, was interested in the concept for a new and different car. He talked his former partner, Walt Flanders, out of retirement to join a new firm that would produce Rickenbackers. Apparently they proposed making Eddie Rickenbacker president of the firm, but Rickenbacker preferred to serve as Vice-President for sales, perhaps because he had a variety of other interests. Thanks to Rickenbacker’s fame and the previous accomplishments of Barney Everitt and Walter Flanders, they quickly raised five million dollars in 1921.
Three prototype models were assembled in Detroit
that year and shipped to New York for the January, 1922 Auto Show. Apparently,
car, a sedan and
a coupe were shown, powered by six-cylinder, 58-horsepower engines. Many
potential customers signed up to purchase the extremely attractive,
low slung, high horsepower
Rickenbackers. Everitt, who was also in the auto body business with Walter
O. Briggs, had plants available in Detroit, but the Rickenbacker vehicle
seemed destined for such great success that the owners decided to build
a large plant
that could turn out 200 cars every day, or at least 50,000 annually. This
is the plant that you see pictured. This was a seriously flawed decision
the firm could not fill the many early orders they had. By the time, the
plant was ready to produce for the mass market; the appeal of the innovative
The original Rickenbackers did not have four wheel brakes since his collaborators assumed that customers were not ready for that development. It did incorporate Rickenbacker’s idea of using flywheels at both ends of the crankshaft to provide smoother power—an idea not copied by other firms. Eddie Rickenbacker eventually convinced his collaborators that the public would buy cars with four wheel breaks and, starting in 1924, his cars were equipped with them. Competitors who sold mid priced and low priced cars argued that four wheel brakes were dangerous since they might put the car into a skid or, if they worked as designed, would throw passengers into the dashboard. Studebaker even published anti-four wheel drive advertisements. Duesenbergs used four-wheel brakes prior to Rickenbackers, and Packard introduced them at about the same time. Eventually, all wheel brakes were adopted by every producer but strong criticisms of this innovation may have slowed Rickenbacker sales in the mid-1920s.
Rickenbacker flew around the country signing up dealers and successfully promoting sales, but financial and managerial difficulties would quickly take the life of this promising firm. Walter Flanders had moved to an estate on the James River in Virginia after his successful automobile career in Detroit. Everitt convinced Flanders to come out of retirement to serve as president of Rickenbacker but, he was killed in an automobile accident on June 16, 1923. That was one problem for Rickenbacker. The firm depended heavily upon suppliers for component parts and this may have also limited their ability to produce and deliver cars. Then—as now—auto firms sometimes financed their own operations by greatly delaying payments to suppliers.
For 1924 Rickenbacker introduced a Vertical 8 Super fine model with an L-hear 268 cubic inch engine. Apparently, this was an exceptionally well designed and attractive car, but it was not a financial success, so its production was terminated. A recession in 1925 cut Rickenbacker sales and led to an overstock. To sell those excess cars, Barney Everitt, decided to reduce the retail price of the Rickenbacker while holding the wholesale price fixed. The price cut came out of the dealer’s profits angering dealers and making them lukewarm about selling Rickenbackers.
An attractive new “boat-tail” model with a variety of new safety features was introduced for 1926 with the substantial price tag of $5,000. This car could approach 100 miles per hour and, unlike other sports cars of its era, could seat four. However, it was not a financial success and, perhaps, fewer than 20 of these “boat-tail” Rickenbackers emerged from the Cabot Avenue factory.
Everitt owned many different firms producing auto components and decided to make changes in the capitalization and financial organization of the Rickenbacker Motor Company. Eddie Rickenbacker, in September 1926, strongly objected to the financial and organizational changes made by Barney Everitt and quit the firm, but was personally indebted for $250,000. Barney Everitt presumed that the company could continue without the founder’s involvement, but sales declined. New models were introduced for 1927, but financial problems troubled the company, problems that were not solved with the introduction of the new models. Production ended in 1927 with a total production of 34,500 Rickenbackers. Auto historians, I infer, think the Rickenbacker presented customers with attractive engineering innovations that were later adopted by most manufacturers but, due to a variety of managerial errors, the firm survived just one-half dozen years.
Eddie Rickenbacker purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway shortly after he left the auto firm in 1927 He eventually paid his share of the auto firm’s debts. In 1925, Congress passed a law allowing the Postal Service to charge more for the rapid delivery of mail by air. As early as 1925, Rickenbacker was involved with airlines that sought to capitalize upon this opportunity. However, planes were so unreliable that few, if any, airlines earned profits by flying mail. By the early 1930s, Rickenbacker became president of Eastern Air Lines and by late 1934 that firm’s financial success was assured. They proved they could reliably deliver mail from New York or Chicago to Miami on an over night schedule with flights taking no longer than nine hours. Rickenbacker also set at least two speed records for cross-county flight, going from coast-to-coast in 13 hours in a DC-2 in 1933, and then an hour faster in the DC-3 the following year.
Similar to Detroit native and aviation enthusiast, Charles Lindberg, Eddie Rickenbacker strongly opposed the entry of the United States into World War II. But after Pearl Harbor, Rickenbacker returned to service, although not as a fighter pilot. Secretary of War Stimson recognized his diplomatic skills and used Rickenbacker to convey messages and intelligence from the United States governments to foreign leaders. He also visited Army Air Forces bases throughout the world to build morale. Flying across the Pacific in that conflict, Rickenbacker’s party had to ditch their plane. They survived in a raft for 21 days.
After V-J Day, Rickenbacker returned to run Eastern Air Lines. During World War II, major engineering efforts were made to develop jet planes. It was widely recognized that jet planes would eventually have a tremendous advantage over piston craft in safety, cost of operation, speed, passenger comfort and distance traveled. At Eastern, Rickenbacker made a mistake you would not expect of a person interested in engineering innovations. He decided to use Eastern Air Lines capital to purchase piston planes. So as competitive airlines introduced jet planes in the late 1950s, Eastern was stuck with a fleet of new but obsolete planes. He lost his job as chief operating officer at Eastern in 1959.
Rickenbacker had always been an outspoken conservative on political matters. We think of the 1960s as the Civil Right decade, but there was also a vocal conservative movement with a thriving John Birch Society. Indeed, conservatives in the Republican Party succeeded in nominating Barry Goldwater for the presidency in 1964, a senator who voted against the Civil Rights Act that is now seen as among the most significant laws enacted last century. Eddie Rickenbacker was a very popular speaker on the conservative circuit. This was an era in which political conservatives were not aligned with evangelical Christians. Rickenbacker died at age 83 in 1973.
After the Rickenbacker Motor Company tanked, Everitt sold the impressive plant that you see above to Walter O. Briggs of the Briggs Body. Apparently Barney Everitt joined Walter Briggs to establish a Verville Aircraft Company that was housed in the Cabot Avenue plant. Everitt served as president of Verville. They produced a few planes but than became a casualty of the Depression, ceasing business in 1932.
There are many comprehensive biographies of the interesting and accomplished Edward Rickenbacker, but most of them devote only a few pages to the Rickenbacker Motor Company. Indeed, at the time he was sales manager of his own auto company, Rickenbacker was involved in numerous other businesses. So far as I know, no book is devoted to a description of the Rickenbacker Motor Company. There is a very active club of people who now own or are strongly interested in Rickenbackers. Their website is listed below. You will find an extensive amount of interesting information at that website including a marvelous array of pictures showing the actual manufacturing of Rickenbackers in the 1920s.
Architect: Unknown to me
Architectural style: Post World War I Industrial
Date of Construction: 1922
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Places: Not listed
National Register of Historic Sites: Not listed
Website for the contemporary Rickenbacker Owners club: www.rickenbackermotors.com
Use in 2007: Factory building
Photograph: Ren Farley
Description Prepared: October, 2007
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