A word about history…

It’s all getting rather fast and furious in the run-up to the referendum on whether Britain should remain in the European Union. Furious being the operative word for both sides in the debate. Fast being the operative word for how each side is playing with history.

Fast and loose.

It is not the place of the S&G to report or comment upon current political issues. It is, however, a place where history is cherished in the hope that it might continue to sparkle and inspire.

Not, it must be admitted, big History with a capital ‘haitch’ that discusses kings and queens, Spinning Jennies or the Cold War. The S&G commemorates sport, transport and adventure in the first half of the Twentieth Century (and only as much of that as time permits). But it is history nonetheless.

And right now history, great and small, is being trampled into the mud.

Belgium EU Britain

History is taking a beating from both sides in Britain’s debate on Europe

As an example of where all this is taking us, one imagines that Boris Johnson rather startled himself with the vehement response to his suggestion that the modern European superstate envisaged by the grey men of Brussels was essentially what Hitler had in mind. But that was an idiotic thing to have said.

If Boris had a clue about these things, he would in fact have suggested that in fact the way that the EU is heading mirrors the German justification for World War 1. It may deliver fewer headlines than a spectral swastika but infinitely greater resonance.

In 1913, Germany was the powerhouse of the European economy. She generated double the electricity of any other European nation; she produced two thirds of all European steel and was the centre of excellence as far as scientific advances went – from pharmaceutical and chemical research to automotive and aeronautical design.

All these wonders of the modern age were well and good but they needed to drive income and fuel the economy. Thus it was that, when Germany launched all-out war between the nation states of Europe in the summer of 1914, she very quickly followed up with the September Programme.

This was a draft treaty prepared by the German chancellor, Theobald von Bethman Hollweg, in anticipation of a swift military victory to the west.


Architect of ‘Mitteleuropa’: Chancellor Bethman Hollweg

Hollweg’s vision was of ‘Mitteleuropa’ – a free trade zone stretching between the Russian border and the English Channel and from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean. This ‘superstate’ would allow German products and technologies to be sold across national borders with no tariffs. Sounds familiar?

In effect, the September Programme stands as the only justification offered by Germany to explain the First World War: free trade for her products across Europe.

By taking control of Poland and Holland, Scandinavia would be brought into line by the sound of sabres rattling across the Baltic. Taking Belgium, Luxembourg and the disputed territories to the west would force the French government to acquiesce. It was brutal but elegant and would have avoided all the red tape for which Brussels is so renowned.

In this way, Hollweg believed that Mitteleuropa would be delivered and Germany would command all of Europe through her economic power backed up by her military achievements. Not only that but the dominions of the other European nations across Africa and the Far East would fall under German influence and thus bring her a wealth of resources like oil from the Dutch East Indies.

Having thus added an empire of her own to the free trade wonderland of Mitteleuropa, there could be little doubt that ultimately Germany would have had to go toe-to-toe with her island cousin, Great Britain. That is why she was building ships and u-boats as fast and as well as she could: to challenge the mighty Royal Navy of which Kaiser Wilhelm was so enamoured.


The battlecruisers let fly at Jutland

As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland, there is a very clear measure of how advanced German industry was by contrast with that of Britain.

The three prime British ships lost in the engagement – Indefatigable, Queen Mary and Black Prince – were struck once, at the most twice, before blowing up. By contrast the Germans lost only one great ship – the Lǜtzow – which survived 24 direct hits before she was scuttled by her own crew, lest she be captured.

Wise cracks about German engineering are well-founded.


The triumphs of German engineering are legion

If Boris Johnson had invoked Hollweg instead of Hitler it would have won him fewer headlines but done him more credit – although it is not only the ‘Leavers’ who are using bad history to discuss the EU.

For one thing, David Cameron did what he presumably thought was a good impression of Aragorn at the battle of Pelennor Fields by suggesting that those lost in the wars of the last century would choose to be bound within Europe. He summoned up the dead of D-Day and the Somme – a fairly unforgivable presumption.

In 2010 the S&G was in Malta and staying in a hotel full of veterans of the great siege of 1940-42. The general election was coming up and politics dominated the conversation at breakfast time – a subject upon which most of the veterans felt completely alienated from all except the British National Party.

Then we are repeatedly told by the ‘Remainers’ that the single greatest Toby Jug on the mantelpiece of the British psyche, none other than Sir Winston Churchill, was one of the architects of the modern European Union.

Churchill, they cry, would therefore be campaigning to remain within the legal and political union.


It is true that Churchill campaigned for a ‘United States of Europe’ in the years after World War 2 – but not for one second did he include the ‘Island race’ within such parameters.


“What I meant was…”

Speaking in Switzerland on 19 September 1946, Churchill sought to use the devastation wrought over the previous six years to galvanise the continent to action. His greatest desire was for the European nations to act swiftly to ensure that Germany was never allowed to repeat the aggression of 1914 or 1939 – by disassembling Bismark’s handiwork if needs be.

“The ancient states and principalities of Germany, freely joined together for mutual convenience in a federal system, might each take their individual place among the United States of Europe,” he said. Imagine that: an EU including Bavaria, Prussia, Swabia and 13 other states as sovereign nations.

‘Divide and conquer’ is another way of putting it. That was Churchill’s reasoning behind the proposal of a United States of Europe. Allowing German brilliance to enrich the continent for the common good, rather than mustering all her strength to bully and intimidate.

“I believe that the larger synthesis will only survive if it is founded upon coherent natural groupings,” he insisted.

“There is already a natural grouping in the Western Hemisphere. We British have our own Commonwealth of Nations. These do not weaken, on the contrary they strengthen, the world organisation. They are in fact its main support.”

And there you have it. Churchill was a supporter of a federal Europe: yes. A friend to a federal Europe: undoubtedly. But handing British sovereignty over to a federal Europe? Not on your nelly. Indeed, the old warhorse concluded:

“Great Britain, the British Commonwealth of Nations, mighty America, and I trust Soviet Russia – for then indeed all would be well – must be the friends and sponsors of the new Europe and must champion its right to live and shine.”


Eurovision: best left to the politicians

Let the arguments over British membership of the European Union continue but let them do so while being mindful of history. History either is or it is not. Sadly for politicians the world over, what it can never be is convenient.

Hispano-Suiza: kings of engineering

As the 19th Century drew to a close, the automobile was a thing of wonder that preoccupied many brilliant minds in Europe and North America. Among those who saw an opportunity was a Spanish artillery captain named Emilio de la Cuadra. He began to work primarily on electric-powered machinery using batteries from a Swiss engineer based in Barcelona, Carlos Vellino. It was very soon clear, however, that electric cars had issues in terms of range and practicality that did not afflict their internal combustion-powered rivals.

As a result of this, de la Cuadra began looking into a gasoline-electric hybrid solution. The problem was that the batteries were unwieldy and the engines were poor, leading Vellino to engage a fellow countryman – a watchmaker who had turned his attentions towards internal combustion, by the name of Marc Birkigt.


La Cuadra developed a hybrid operating like a 21st Century car

The first engine that Birkigt produced for the La Cuadra motor company was a hybrid, with an electric motor whose charge was maintained by a single-cylinder internal combustion unit. At its unveiling the car broke down, however, which was a mortal blow to the company. With de la Cuadra and Vellino’s coffers empty, their creditors moved in for the kill during 1901.

The company ended up in the ownership of one J. Castro – of whom little is known, barring his good sense in retaining Birkigt, despite the failure of his hybrid. With de la Cuadra out of the picture a new name was required for the business, and to reflect its Spanish-Swiss heritage the name Hispano-Suiza was settled upon.

Birkigt built a four-cylinder internal combustion-powered car that worked very well but, in J. Castro’s efforts to make money, the company priced its products out of reach. By 1904, the business had run aground once again.


J. Castro tried and failed – but gave Hispano-Suiza its name

Birkigt then reached into his own pocket to save Hispano-Suiza, while attracting investment from a successful industrialist called Don Damian Mateu. Two new Hispano-Suiza cars were revealed at the 1906 Paris Motor Salon – both effectively the Castro-era four-cylinder models of 3.8 and 7.4 litres respectively. The young King Alfonso XIII ordered the first of many Hispano-Suiza models that he would come to own and additional funds were raised by selling off shares in 500 peseta chunks.

Suddenly Hispano-Suiza was moving fast. Patents on the four-cylinder cars were sold to companies in Switzerland and Italy, while opulent six-cylinder models were readied in 1907. The company grew as fast as its reputation and range of products, with a talented young Italian engineer by the name of Paolo Zuccarelli joining Birkigt’s technical team from the minor marque of Florentia.

Zuccarelli pushed on with the development of small capacity ‘voiturette’ cars and with nudging Hispano-Suiza into the greatest shop window of them all: motor sport.


Paolo Zuccarelli became the leading light for Hispano-Suiza in motor sport

The factory built cars, called the 45CR, featured 2.4-litre engines developing 45 horsepower from what was then the standard configuration of a ‘T-head’ sidevalve with intake valves are on one side of the engine block and the exhaust valves on the other. The cars made their debut at the 1909 Copa Catalunya, with Zuccarelli driving the lead entry and an Italian mechanic named Ravelli alongside him. Two more cars were entered for Louis Pilleverdier / Castanera and Louis Derny / Reus.

The race was over 13 laps of a course of closed roads measuring 28 km and the Hispano-Suiza entry was impeccably turned out under Birkigt’s watchful eye and with Isidoro de Salazar, the company marketing manager, in tow. Pilleverdier finished fourth but the other two cars both retired with broken crankshafts – not before Zuccarelli had led a significant portion of the race, however.


The Hispano-Suiza 45CR – a racing car par excellence

A few weeks later the Hispanos returned to action in the Coupe des Voiturettes in Boulogne, in which the trio finished fifth, sixth and seventh. The team grew in experience and confidence through successive races into 1910, with the main competition coming from the French entries of Libor, designed by a brilliant young engineer called Ernest Henry, and the Lion-Peugeot of the Frères Peugeot company.

The latter team relied heavily on a brilliant Italian driver by the name of Giosue Giuppone. At the 1910 Coupe de l’Auto, all three of the major teams – Libor, Peugeot and Hispano-Suiza – used 3.0-litre four-cylinder T-head engines and were very evenly matched. Giuppone’s story ended when he encountered two cyclists making their way around the course during the race, one of whom darted across to seek cover on the left hand side of the road.

Despite throttling back the engine and braking hard, Giuppone clipped the bicycle, which was thrown into the ditch, while the Peugeot went into a lurid spin and threw Giuppone and his mechanic Péan out into the road. The mechanic was uninjured but Giuppone landed on his head, suffering a fractured skull that was to prove fatal.

The race was won by Paolo Zuccarelli’s Hispano-Suiza, marking the team’s first international victory. The second Peugeot followed him home, driven by Georges Boillot, while Pilleverdier’s Hispano-Suiza finished third. The event was filmed for posterity, with Zuccarelli’s drive attracting significant renown for the Hispano-Suiza marque.

Much was to change as a result of the 1910 Coupe de l’Auto. Boillot established himself as Peugeot’s new team leader and Zuccarelli was recruited to join him, with another fine driver/engineer called Jules Goux completing the line-up. The ‘superteam’ was completed when Ernest Henry became Peugeot’s technical mastermind.

Hispano-Suiza retired from competition – but the success of the 45CR led to demand for production versions of the car. The result has become regarded as the first purpose-built sports car: the Hispano-Suiza Alphonso XIII, named after the Spanish king (who added one to his ever-increasing fleet). This dapper little car with its race-winning pedigree caused a sensation, and Birkigt’s expansion of the Hispano-Suiza marque continued apace.

New factories were built in the Parisian suburbs of Levallois-Perret and, later, Bois-Colombes. Hispano-Suiza assumed dual nationality – French and Spanish. The range of cars also made their way across the English Channel, with a service depot opening in Fulham and a showroom in Shaftesbury Avenue.


The world’s first sports car: Hispano-Suiza Alphonso XIII

In motor sport circles there was considerable ill-feeling directed towards Peugeot, which had begun to dominate the greatest races on both sides of the Atlantic using engine designs that many believed were ‘stolen’ from Hispano-Suiza by Zuccarelli. Yet such concerns were soon to be trampled into the dirt by the headlong rush into World War 1.

Hispano-Suiza became a prized asset for France, building trucks and aircraft engines. Traditionally, aircraft engines were manufactured by machining separate steel cylinders and then bolting these assemblies directly to the crankcase. Birkigt believed that it would be much more effective to make the block from a single piece of cast aluminium, into which thin steel liners were secured.

Manufacturing an engine in this way simplified construction and resulted in a lighter, yet stronger more durable engine that was capable of significantly more power than its predecessors. Thus was born his V8 ‘monobloc’ engine, one of the most significant advances in achieving air superiority over the Western Front and beyond.


Marc Birkigt (left) and colleagues with a ‘monobloc’ V8 engine

The enormous potential of the single overhead camshaft ‘monobloc’ V8 was finally revealed when if was fitted to the SPAD S.VII fighter, which reached front-line squadrons in the late summer of 1916. It was faster and more rugged than any other type on the front line, and was to seal the legend of France’s leading ‘ace’ Georges Guynemer.

The SPAD series was developed right through to the end of the war, by which time the Hispano-Suiza was pumping out 220 hp in the last of the S.XIII fighters to see service, piloted by men such as Eddie Rickenbacker. The versatility of the engine also allowed for the construction of a small number of S.XII models that featured a Hotchkiss cannon mounded between the two cylinder heads and firing through the propeller boss. When it worked, the effect on the wood-and-canvas aircraft of the time was astonishing.

In Britain the best-known recipient of Birkigt’s engine was the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5, which in many of the later S.E.5a models featured a modified version of the ‘Hisso’ engine built under licence in the UK: the Wolseley Viper. The S.E.5s were used as high-performance, high-altitude interceptors working in tandem with vast fleets of Sopwith Camel fighters flying below – the equivalent of the Spitfire and Hurricane during World War 2. Operating together in vast fleets, they did much to sweep the German Air Service out of the skies.


Georges Guynemer’s SPAD S.VII on public display, 1918

Hispano-Suiza returned to car production in peacetime, with a new series of cars powered by a smaller V6 design based upon Birkigt’s wartime ‘monobloc’. Hispano-Suiza became the byword for performance and innovation, and licences for Birkigt’s engineering were much in demand from prestige car manufacturers world-wide. Even Rolls-Royce used a number of Hispano-Suiza patents through the 1920s and 1930s, such as servo-assisted brakes for all four wheels.

The sleek, elegant lines of the Hispano-Suiza coupés by stylists such as Hibbard & Darrin and D’Ieteren between the wars were groundbreaking, and directly influenced the competition from Mercedes-Benz, Delahaye and other prestige marques. Most often they would be crowned by the radiator emblem of a stork in flight with its wings dipped, the emblem of Escadrille 3 of the 12th Combat Group: Georges Guynemer’s squadron.


Style et luxe: the Hispano-Suiza stork adorned some amazing engineering

This high summer was not to last, however. Birkigt was among the Hispano-Suiza holders to receive lawsuits from the French authorities in the early 1930s, who decided that the money paid for the tens of thousands of ‘monobloc’ engines in the war was effectively profiteering.

Lawyers settled that argument, but with the rise of a Spanish republic Hispano-Suiza’s longest-serving patron, King Alfonso XIII, fled into exile. The firm’s celebrated factories became a state holding for the construction of military trucks and aircraft engines. No more of its sumptuous cars would ever be seen.


Hispano-Suiza went out on a high: 1938 Dubonnet Xenia coupé

In 1938 the story of Hispano-Suiza, the builder and innovator of automotive excellence, came to an end. Never again would it take leadership in aviation technology either. Marc Birkigt lived on until 1953 and his legacy remains that hint of Hispano-Suiza that resides in the best automotive engineering of today – both in luxury cars and utilitarian hybrids.

Once or twice attempts have been made to revive Hispano-Suiza as a modern brand. Thank God none have yet succeeded. It was a truly unique chapter in engineering history.


A modified Audi R8 is the latest attempt to relaunch Hispano-Suiza cars

A Great War hero: Part 3 – an English adventure

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.

British-Italian racer Dario Resta was Peugeot's star in America

British-Italian racer Dario Resta was Peugeot’s star in America

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.

Louis Coatalen wanted Eddie Rickenbacker to win honours for Sunbeam

Louis Coatalen wanted Eddie Rickenbacker to win honours for Sunbeam

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.

A Sunbeam Ambulance on the Western Front

A Sunbeam ambulance on the Western Front

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.

Sopwith Cuckoo torpedo bomber with Sunbeam Arab engine

Sopwith Cuckoo torpedo bomber with Sunbeam Arab engine

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’.

Albert Ball was a hero in Britain for his daredevil exploits in the air

Albert Ball was a hero in Britain for his daredevil exploits in the air

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.

American volunteer pilots in the Lafayette Escadrille - and their pet lions - made headline

American volunteer pilots in the Lafayette Escadrille – and their pet lions – made headlines

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.

A Great War hero: Part 2 – call me Rickenbacker

After learning his trade as the protégé of pioneering automobile constructor and racing driver Lee Frayer, at the start of 1912, the 21-year-old Eddie Rickenbacher elected to become a professional racer.

Throughout 1912 and 1913 his bread and butter was earned on dirt tracks and board ovals at county fairs and anywhere else that paid a buck for driving fast. Or, for that matter, driving slowly – a particular favourite of the crowds being a contest to see who could go slowest and finish last without stalling the car.

County fair races brought out the crowds

County fair races brought out the crowds across America

When they weren’t racing, Eddie and his fellow drivers worked as handimen, mechanics and salesmen. Anything they could do to bring in the money they needed to get to the next racetrack and go at it – a travelling troupe of gladiators.

It was a risky business for competitors and fans alike and disaster was never far away. In mid-1913 an incident at an event in Mason City, Iowa, saw Reichenbacher’s car hit spectators at an unlicenced motor race. As a result his licence was revoked until the start of 1914.

After cooling his heels for several months, Eddie reappeared in California during February 1914 amid the most bizarre circumstances.

Mack Sennett, movie star and proprietor of the Keystone movie studios, was an enthusiastic patron of American motor sport. He owned and ran a Fiat grand prix car that he had entered in the 1914 Vanderbilt Cup Qualification Race in Santa Monica.

Mack Sennett's Keystone movies ruled the world

Mack Sennett’s Keystone movies ruled the world

During practice tragedy struck Sennett’s team when the big Fiat, driven by Dave Lewis, went out of control and ended up in the crowd. Six spectators were injured, among whom was the 69-year-old Civil War veteran, Louis G. Smith.

Mr. Smith succumbed to his injuries and the Fiat was deemed too badly damaged to start the race – but Sennett was determined to win the greatest road race in America, so he invested in a year-old Mason racing car, which was entered for a new and apparently rather colourful replacement driver.

According to Sennett’s inventive press information, the man at the wheel was called ‘Baron Reichenbacher’. He was described as: ‘A young Prussian nobleman who had fallen victim to the deadly Bacillus Motorus. Crazed by a lust for speed, he had absconded from the Vienna Military Institute in a stolen Mercedes. Expelled from the institute and disinherited by his father, he went to America to enter the AAA tour…’

It was, of course, hokum worthy of one of Sennett’s two-reel slapstick adventures. The ‘Baron’ was none other than Eddie, but his starring role was not to last: unexpectedly heavy rainfall caused the race to be delayed for several days, in which time both Dave Lewis and the big Fiat were returned to active duty.

Not only that, but Sennett convinced the race organisers to allow him to film the race for a new comedy feature – Mabel at the Wheel.

Sennett's Fiat stars in Mabel at the Wheel

Sennett’s Fiat stars in Mabel at the Wheel

Nevertheless, Eddie was back racing once again – this time for the princely sum of $3 per week plus his share of any spoils – for a team run by two German-born brothers from Iowa who had been instrumental in designing Mason racing cars and were busy setting up their own team. They were August and Frederick Duesenberg.

The Duesenberg brothers made Eddie their racing team manager as well as their leading driver. Their next race would be the 1914 Indianapolis 500 in which Eddie finished tenth, collecting a purse of $1,400.

'Fast Eddie' at the wheel of the Duesenberg brothers' entry for the 1914 Indianapolis 500

‘Fast Eddie’ at the wheel of the Duesenberg brothers’ entry for the 1914 Indianapolis 500

Five weeks later, in Sioux City, Eddie Rickenbacher won his first race, collecting $10,000 for his trouble and becoming one of the stars of American motor sport. Star status appealed to the young racer, who began to cultivate his celebrity. Stories were told that he had set speed records in the mighty Blitzen Benz during 1912 – fabrications that Eddie never troubled to deny.

He also gave himself a new name, entering first as E.V. Rickenbacher (not having been given a middle name by his parents, Eddie chose the letter ‘V’ for its impact and, later, settled on ‘Vernon’ as his chosen name). In mid-1915 he completed the transformation by changing his surname to Rickenbacker.

By this time, Eddie had parted company with the Duesenbergs, whose racing successes, while, impressive, did nothing for their finances. Instead he chose to drive for the current giants of European motor racing: Peugeot. Having won Italy’s Targa Florio and the Grand Prix in France, the rakish blue cars were now aiming for American glory – and Rickenbacker wanted to be the man to give it to them.

Part of Eddie’s decision was influenced by the fact that the Peugeot team favoured racing on the open road. ‘I always preferred the challenge and variety of road racing to going around and around like a ball on a string,’ he later said.

The roads were dusty and unpaved while the cars were faster, more powerful and noisier than anything Eddie had previously encountered. He was in love with the thrill of racing but also wary of its inherent danger, and so in order to stay in touch with his riding mechanic, Eddie fashioned facemasks which featured a rudimentary intercom.

Eddie Rickenbacker and mechanic demonstrating his intercom design

Eddie Rickenbacker and mechanic demonstrating his intercom design

‘You didn’t win races because you had more guts,’ he said later. ‘You won because you knew how to take the turns and baby your engine. It wasn’t all just shut your eyes and grit your teeth.’

The facemasks worked but were not a spectacular success. Neither was Eddie’s time with Peugeot spectacularly successful – or long lived. The cars were beautiful and technically brilliant, but needed fine tuning and patience that, perhaps, their American keepers lacked.

Furthermore, it was clear to Rickenbacker the star that American race fans wanted to see American drivers racing to victory in American machines. The final nail in Peugeot’s coffin for Rickenbacker was that Europe had become embroiled in war, and there was no guarantee that cars or parts would be readily available.

Once again he jumped ship – this time joining the home-grown Prest-O-Lite team alongside Barney Oldfield and Bill Carlson, racing Maxwell cars. The irony was that Eddie’s seat at Peugeot was filled by the Italian-British driver Dario Resta, who proceeded to win virtually every major race in America – much to Eddie’s chagrin.

The Prest-O-Lite Maxwell ready for the 1915 Indy 500

The Prest-O-Lite Maxwell ready for the 1915 Indy 500

Nevertheless, the Maxwell years brought Eddie Reichenbacker his greatest successes and unprecedented wealth – earning $80,000 in 1916, when he was ranked fourth overall by the American Automobile Association.

He also effectively ran the team – including the discipline of its staff and a series of secret signals to be carried on boards held up from the pit lane. The team triumphed in local and regional events, but at Indianapolis and the other major events its cars were outclassed.

It was clear that to fulfil his ambitions, he needed the sophisticated engineering of a European car. Although near the peak of his profession in American racing, Rickenbacker needed a major title to cement his reputation and earning power – and, while American fans might prefer to see him win  in American machinery, he would have to be pragmatic about it.

Thus, in the winter of 1916, Rickenbacker opened dialogue with Louis Coatalen, the French design genius who had turned the British marque, Sunbeam, into a major sporting force before the outbreak of war. Coatalen had developed a 5-litre six-cylinder racing engine that was ideal for Indianapolis but currently gathering dust – opening an extraordinary chapter in the life of ‘Fast Eddie’.

A Great War hero: Part 1 – the makings of ‘Fast Eddie’

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.’

Eddie Reichenbacher: the street-tough gang rat

Eddie Rickenbacher the gang rat

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.

Arches of lights over the High Street in Columbus, Ohio

Arches of lights over the High Street in Columbus, Ohio

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-Miller advertising c.1906

Frayer-Miller advertising c.1906

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.

Lee Frayer and his mechanic Eddie Reichenbacher take the start of the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup Qualification Race

Lee Frayer and his mechanic Eddie Rickenbacher take the start of the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup Qualification Race

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.

Firestone Clombus gave refuge to Frayer and Reichenbacher

Firestone Clombus gave refuge to Frayer and Reichenbacher

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.

The inaugural Indy 500 gets underway with Eddie Reichenbacher to play a key role

The inaugural Indy 500 gets underway with Eddie Rickenbacher to play a key role

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.

On the subject of Charlie Chaplin…

Glad everyone seemed to enjoy yesterday’s post about the links between Fiat racing cars of a century ago and contemporary Hollywood. While gearing up for further stories that connect to Mack Sennett, the Keystone studios and their connection to the motor racing and aviation world, to be told over the Festive Season, I thought it well worth posting a bit more of Charlie Chaplin’s magic.

The single reel of Kid Auto Races at Venice marked the public debut on Charlie Chaplin’s ‘little tramp’ character when it was released on 7 February 1914. Once again, as in Mabel Takes the Wheel, the movie was shot live on the streets of Santa Monica – this time when the Junior Vanderbilt Cup was held: a soap box derby with all the bells and whistles.

Once again, Chaplin proved to be fearless in pursuing his art in front of racing vehicles. And, once again, some of the fervour that surrounded motor racing in the days before World War 1 can be gleaned from the crowds he clearly amuses and irritates in equal measure.

The tramp himself may not yet be the complete article in Kid Auto Races, but it is nevertheless a film which anticipates those irksome types who stand on David Coulthard’s shoulder in the F1 paddock, mobile phones in hand, prattling on at their friends to let them know that they’re on TV. Enjoy…

Big Fiats and Movies

The Internet is currently abuzz with the restored/scratchbuilt thunder of the 1911 Fiat S76, brought back to life in the film The Beast of Turin. If you haven’t yet savoured the full violence of 300 horses blasting out of 28 litres capacity from four gigantic cylinders then feel free to amaze yourself here. It’s hypnotic stuff.

Big Fiats are something wholeheartedly approved of at the S&G – and so too are contemporary movies. So it was that the rip-snorting sound of the S76 set my mind on a path to no less a place than Hollywood in 1914, where the great impresario of the day, Mack Sennett (of Keystone Cops and ‘Mack and Mabel’ fame), actually had a slightly less manic Fiat Grand Prix car as his personal transport.

Sennett was regularly seen careering around California with his great star, Mabel Normand, riding shotgun. And, in a world where anything which came to hand usually ended up in front of the cameras, a Keystone movie was duly made which featured the car.

Entitled Mabel at the Wheel, this was quite an extraordinary movie. Sennett’s car was regularly entered in racing events across the USA at the time, and thus fitted right in to the chosen backdrop: the Vanderbilt Cup qualification race in Santa Monica, which was held from 26 to 28 February 1914 with the Keystone cast of clowns and cameramen in attendance.

Much like Steve McQueen’s Le Mans, therefore, what we are presented with in Mabel at the Wheel is a fictional story overlaid on real race footage. We are also presented with Charlie Chaplin – who, in only his tenth film appearance, takes completely unfamiliar role as a villainous dandy rather than a loveable tramp.

The plot is very much of its time. After an argument with her racing-driver fiancé, Mabel courts the attentions of Chaplin and takes off with him on his motorbike – but falls off, and reconciles with the racing driver. Chaplin then plots his revenge… and if nothing else, you should skip to around the 12 minute mark where he pulls off an outrageous stunt in those pre-special effects days of a century ago:

It’s an enjoyable little yarn – albeit far removed from the quality of Chaplin’s ‘Tramp’ canon – and brings with it a hint of the sheer fever that open road racing had 100 years ago. But it is also the start of a story which will carry us from Hollywood to Indianapolis and the Western Front this Christmas… so stay tuned to find out more about Mack Sennett, his big Fiat and its impact on land and air in the age of adventure.