By late 1916, ambitious young Eddie Rickenbacher had risen from a teenage manual labourer to become a celebrated racing driver going by the name of Edward Vernon Rickenbacker. What he needed more than anything was to win a race of international standing – ideally the Indianapolis 500 – but to do so he needed European technology.
The Great War had enveloped continental Europe, but even in these dark days the desire of European manufacturers to go racing burned brightly. In America the great French marque Peugeot was cleaning up in the hands of its British-Italian driver Dario Resta, while the mighty German Mercedes was also a feature at Indianapolis.
Britain’s leading team was Sunbeam – a major threat to the established marques before the war. Under the guidance of its French leader, Louis Coatalen, Sunbeam had developed a car that offered Eddie Rickenbacker the hope of beating Peugeot at Indianapolis – a car that the ambitious driver craved.
Through the autumn of 1916, Coatalen and Rickenbacker worked to piece together a deal for the following season. To seal the deal, Rickenbacker would have to travel to England.
Before boarding in New York for his passage across the Atlantic, Rickenbacker closed out the 1916 racing season. While preparing for an event at Riverside, he chanced across an airfield, where he was greeted by the celebrated pioneering designer, Glenn Martin.
Martin was pleased to give a celebrity racing driver a ride in his latest creation – which took all Eddie’s courage to accept – and before long it would prove to be a pivotal moment.
In the meantime, Eddie’s next priority was reaching England. The documentation was organised but, unwittingly, he encountered two gentlemen on the voyage who took an interest in his Germanic surname. It turned out that they were British police, who arrested Rickenbacker as soon as they landed in Liverpool, a few days before Christmas 1916.
During his detention, Rickenbacker was stripped and his skin was rubbed with lemon juice and acid to check for invisible ink before he was presented with a thick dossier of ‘evidence’ to prove that he was in fact an agent of the Kaiser.
‘The whole thing was so ludicrous that, instead of getting mad, I treated it as a joke,‘ he later recalled.
In fact, part of the joke was that the ‘dossier’ was based upon press information from Mack Sennett’s race team dating back to 1914 which claimed that Eddie was, in fact, Baron Reichenbacher – a wayward young Prussian aristocrat. The farce went on for several days until Rickenbacker talked his captors into speaking to Louis Coatalen, and almost immediately he was allowed to continue on his way to London.
Coatalen had arranged for Rickenbacker to stay at the celebrated Savoy Hotel, where he was initially barred entry and fingerprinted at the local police station. Even after he was admitted to the building, this former gang member from Columbus, Ohio had no grounding in British manners, etiquette or vocabulary and thus found himself ostracised by staff and guests alike – during which time he developed a profound and lifelong Anglophobia.
He felt much more at home on his weekly visits to the Sunbeam factory in Wolverhampton – although it was frankly preposterous that he, as an alien national, was allowed access to such an important military facility, distracting one of the foremost engineers in Britain’s war effort.
The Ministry of Munitions had ordered all available resources to be dedicated towards war work – and Sunbeam’s factory was expanding rapidly in order to build ever-greater numbers of staff cars ambulances, motorcycles, trucks, aircraft engines and airframes.
As a result, Louis Coatalen, was working round-the-clock on a range of powerplants such as the V8 Arab and V12 Cossack aero engines, the air-cooled Spartan and diesel-fuelled Pathan. Yet he was also entertaining this brash American interloper and dedicating vital resources towards winning at Indianapolis.
It was small wonder, perhaps, that Rickenbacker was not universally admired in Wolverhampton. Sunbeam may have been the great racing name in Britain before the war – but all that belonged to a different world of peace and prosperity.
In the course of nearly two months of living and working in England, Rickenbacker grew accustomed to the war. Virtually all his peers were wearing khaki and the skies – particularly over London – were alive with the movement of aircraft. He was even permitted to visit Brooklands, the world’s first permanent race track but currently the major centre of design and production of prototype aircraft.
The winter of 1916-17 was a time of relative quiet on the battlefield. The two great offensives on the Western Front in 1916, at Verdun and the Somme, had killed, maimed or simply lost almost two million men. It would take time to replenish losses like that, thus the air war provided the main talking points during Rickenbacker’s stay.
Foremost in Rickenbacker’s line of sight was the story of the Lafayette Escadrille – a French fighter unit formed of American volunteers. They had been in action since the previous spring and was beginning to take a serious toll on the enemy, reaching 57 ‘kills’ by February 1917.
Britain had a new hero in the cherubic-looking Albert Ball, who was fêted at every turn throughout Rickenbacker’s stay. Newspapers were also full of the exploits of French hero Georges Guynemer as well as stories of the emergence of an astounding enemy pilot flying a scarlet-painted fighter – the mysterious ‘Red Baron’.
In a war where lives were lost and shattered in anonymous millions, the allure of these gloriously individual ‘aces’ was clear to see. They certainly left their mark on the American interloper, who spoke openly of a growing desire to join the battle in the sky.
Rickenbacker’s curious English existence came to an end in February 1917. To start with, Germany announced its intention to attack all shipping in the Atlantic irrespective of nationality. Second, a plot was revealed whereby the German government had promised support to Mexico if it went to war with the USA over its disputed border territories.
When this was discovered, diplomatic relations between America and Germany were severed forthwith while US nationals were recalled from Europe. That included racing drivers.
After doing his best to finalise his plans with Coatalen and ensure that the Sunbeams could and would follow him to Indianapolis that May, Eddie Rickenbacker caught the last ship leaving Liverpool for the USA.
However, all the plans and notes that he had made with Sunbeam over the previous two months were confiscated by the British secret service – and he would never get to the Indianapolis 500 in one of the British cars.
Upon his return to the USA, Rickenbacker began pursuing another goal: to lead a group of American racing drivers into battle – and to do so in the sky. If Eddie Rickenbacker couldn’t win glory on the racetrack, then he was going to go all-out to be an ‘ace’ and a star of the greatest competition of all.
His aim was to gather 50 drivers and turn them into pilots for a new Lafayette Escadrille – but by the time that America finally declared war, in April 1917, he was still nowhere close to getting his plan approved.
The war would soon come to Eddie Rickenbacker, but even for one as driven him, that war was too big a beast to come to him on his terms.