As the centenary year of the outbreak of World War 1 comes to an end, the S&G embarks on a bit of an odyssey to reveal one of its most celebrated participants. Let’s remember a pilot and racing driver whose name – or, perhaps, names – resonates on both sides of the Atlantic: Edward Vernon Rickenbacker.
This story really begins on 18 July 1904, when William Rickenbacher, a Swiss-born employee of the Beasley Company, took his lunch break while laying the new concrete sidewalks in his adopted hometown of Columbus, Ohio. Another man, William Gaines, asked him to spare some of his food – and was told in no uncertain terms that any spare food would go home to feed his wife and six children.
An argument ensued, during which William Gaines picked up a cement leveller and smashed it down on the other man’s skull. After several weeks of drifting in and out of a coma, William Rickenbacher died. The third eldest of his children, 14-year-old Eddie, would later write: ‘The day after my father died, I did not go to school, I went to work.’
Until that point, Eddie Rickenbacher’s story had been entirely different. Responsibility did not come naturally to him: he had been a leading light of the Horse Head Club – a gang of rapscallions who regularly fell foul of the law. Upon his father’s death, however, Eddie threw himself into filling the financial void.
First he took on manual labouring jobs, at a glass factory, a brewery, a metal casting company and finally a stonemason’s – during which time he diligently carved the word ‘Father’ on William Rickenbacher’s grave.
Yet these were jobs redolent of the past. Columbus, meanwhile, was a city in flux: a vibrant industrial centre that had been known as the ‘buggy capital of the world’ but was now escaping the horse-drawn past for a future of man-made technology. Columbus embodied in the dozens of wooden arches that spanned the city’s High Street, each bearing electric light bulbs to illuminate the road.
Eddie Rickenbacher grew to be a tall and rangy youth with hawkish features and a passion for new technology – principally the automobile. By the age of 15, Eddie was determined to find an outlet for his talents within the city’s burgeoning motor industry – and took himself to the Frayer-Miller automobile works.
Lee Frayer and William Miller were, at the time, among the most exciting engineers at work in American automotive design. They had completed the world’s first six cylinder automobile, an air-cooled car boasting a prodigious 36 horsepower in which Frayer himself had driven single-handed in the world’s first 24 hour motor race.
Soon afterwards, Eddie Rickenbacher presented himself to Lee Frayer and stated his intention to work for the company. Frayer sent him away and headed out of town on business the following day. Yet, when he returned, Frayer found that the workshop was immaculately clean and the tools and working areas were spotlessly arranged. He also found out that some kid called Eddie, calling himself Frayer’s apprentice, had done all the work.
Frayer relented and gave the kid the job he so clearly craved.
While working hard to learn his trade, Eddie had also signed up for a correspondence course in automotive engineering. His commitment was absolute and, as a reward, Frayer invited this industrious youngster to be his riding mechanic at the 1906 American Elimination Trial.
A new air-cooled four cylinder car was readied for the event, and together the Freyer team travelled to Nassau County, Long Island, New York, to compete with 15 other entrants for a competition over 10 laps of a 29-mile course.
There were two days of practice and then the cars set off at 30-second intervals. While Frayer wrestled with the wheel, Eddie’s jobs were to keep an eye on the oil pressure, keep pumping the fuel pressure to a peak and to watch out for tyre wear and other competitors. They blew a tyre very soon into their first lap and, once it was fixed, Frayer drove flat-out – too fast, as it turned out.
The car had broken a radius rod, and although Frayer pressed on grimly, before long the engine cried enough of such maltreatment and gave out. As Frayer coasted to a halt, without completing a single lap, he turned to young Eddie and sighed: “We’re through.”
Eddie would recall that moment vividly later in his life. ‘A year of seven-day weeks, an outlay of $50,000 or more, and he hadn’t even finished the elimination run,’ he wrote.
‘Yet [Frayer’s] only remark was that quiet, “We’re through.” I never forgot it. Gradually, over the years, the significance of that remark sank in, and I drew inspiration from it. To spell it out: Try like hell to win, but don’t cry if you lose.’
Frayer-Miller formed a partnership with the Seagrave company in 1907 to produce commercial vehicles. Yet competition was fierce and, by 1909, the Frayer-Miller firm was heading for the scrapheap. Climbing out of the financial wreckage, Frayer went to work for the rival Firestone Columbus company – along with his protégé, Eddie Rickenbacher.
Despite the new opportunity, Frayer’s disappointment got the better of him and he turned increasingly to the bottle for solace. Eddie, meanwhile, applied his now-customary diligence and eagerness to the role of Sales Manager – and eventually this led, in 1910, to entering his first race as a driver, when he took the wheel of a Firestone Columbus on a dirt track in Red Oak, Iowa. He crashed out, but the intoxicating thrill of racing truly blossomed within 20-year-old Eddie.
Yet once again the company that young Rickenbacher worked for was coming unglued around him. Yet it held together long enough to piece together an entry in the inaugural 500-mile race at the new Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Memorial Day, 1911 – and this proved to be the moment when a significant baton was passed.
Lee Frayer was listed as the team’s driver, but the lion’s share of the driving fell to his uncredited 21-year old reserve, who took over the car after 12 laps and drove with aplomb until he handed it back to Freyer with only 100 miles remaining. Frayer would end the race classified 13th, three laps down on the winner, Ray Harroun, in the celebrated Marmon Wasp.
Soon afterwards Firestone Columbus passed into history and Eddie found himself out of work and alone. He decided to turn his back on the customer automobile trade and become a professional racing driver instead; a hired gun living on his appearance and prize money. ‘Fast Eddie’ Rickenbacher was about to go barnstorming on four wheels.