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’.

Brooklands Reunion – A Racing Anniversary

Brooklands hosted a celebration of pre-war motoring enjoyment to mark 75 years since its last race

The air around Weybridge was ripe with the scent of Castrol R this weekend as Brooklands marked the 75th anniversary of its last competitive race meeting (albeit a little early – the last meeting was held in August 1939). With the aid of some fabulous weather, a bumper crowd turned out and many of them brought some delightful vintage motor cars along to play.

With only pre-war cars permitted within the grounds of the Brooklands Museum – the occasional Jaguar XK120 and kit car notwithstanding! – and with visitors invited to wear period clothing if possible or practical, the aim was to bring to life the lost days of motor racing in front of the right crowd for which it was renowned in the 1920s and 1930s. Certainly the addition of a little light ukelele in the paddock helped with the ambience…

There was much to see aside from the regular attractions of the Brooklands Museum and its incredible collection of artefacts and cars housed in the original buildings of the world’s first purpose-built racetrack. Mostly it was the selection of pre-war cars that had been driven to the event, of which a small selection can be seen here:

There were Bentleys aplenty

If you’re not a Bentley person…

There were quite a few Rollers…

…of many shapes and sizes

MGs by the horde…

A rare beauty of a K3 among them

Baby Austins almost outnumbered the MSG

Every corner was crammed with pre-war beauties

Plenty of ACs at their spiritual home

Aerial view of the paddock

Of course the principal stars of the show were always going to be the gigantic aero-engined Outer Circuit cars – and the event produced a memorable collection. As always, the Museum’s own 24-litre Napier-Railton took everyone’s breath away. As the outright lap record holder in perpetuity, John Cobb’s silver machine deserves such awe but it was given a close run for its money by the Leyland Thomas Special and 350hp Sunbeam – better known as Bluebird.

Outer Circuit cars drew the biggest crowd – quite rightly so

The day really took off when the organisers set about staging the ‘race starts’ to bring at least a little of the original Brooklands spirit back to life. Although the wartime Wellington Hangar continues to block the museum’s section of the start/finish straight until its lottery-funded relocation to the infield, there is still a good few hundred yards available before the Members’ Banking.

A modern day ‘Ebby’ Ebblewhite was on hand with the Union Flag to usher the runners and riders away. For most part this was at a fairly sedate pace, with cautious owners of cars and motorbikes now well into their eighth decade at least, but made for many wonderful moments. For each ‘race’ the starters would bound away to the foot of the banking, turn sharp right as though heading onto the Mountain Circuit, and disappear from view… only to return shortly afterwards, lest they thunder into Gallaghers’ car park!

The track surface is incredibly rough, but then it was hardly much better 75 years ago. Brooklands was made out of concrete – a relatively new invention in 1907 and one of which there was precious little understanding at the time. The concrete was simply set upon earth with virtually no coursing beneath, and thus regularly needed to be patched up from weather damage and racing wear and tear. This resulted in the famous film and photos of cars with all four wheels off the ground at 120mph and upwards.

Speeds were much more modest for this celebration event, but certainly produced a crowd-pleasing spectacle.

Some starts were livelier than others!

And then finally the Big Bangers of the Outer Circuit came and had a go. Given that it has taken 12 years and many, many man hours to get the Sunbeam running again, it is hardly surprising that a cautious approach was taken to its run:

Nevertheless, the sight, sound and smell of these evocative racing machines – coupled with an enthusiastic crowd and still more enthusiastic drivers – meant that the runs began to resemble motor races before long. This was the second attempt at running the big cars, resulting in the big Napier-Railton smoking its tyres in fine style to settle the hash of an impudent Voiturette!

It was a remarkable day carried out with all the dedication, good humour and style that sets the Brooklands Museum apart. Hopefully it has sown the seeds of an annual event worthy of sitting alongside the Revival. A few more ladies, gentlemen, boys and girls in pre-war attire are required to achieve this – but one imagines that all who came away from Brooklands this weekend did so looking forward to the next such event. Well done to all involved and many thanks to the volunteers who, as always, bring the place to life for visitors, be they regular or new arrivals.

Get Ready for the Brooklands Reunion

This Sunday (July 13) sees Brooklands commemorating the 75th anniversary of its last race meeting with an event aimed at attracting the Goodwood Revival crowd as well as Museum regulars. Period feel is to be expected and period dress is preferred as the world’s oldest motor racing circuit marks its place in history.

Period cars line up on the old Brooklands start/finish straight

Period cars line up on the old Brooklands start/finish straight

The final meeting at Brooklands was actually held on the August Bank Holiday of 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War – but given that the summer is a particularly crowded time in the vintage transport calendar, it was deemed necessary to bring the commemoration forward a touch.

The aim of the Reunion is to conjure up the atmosphere of Club meetings in the 1930s for both members and visitors. The site will be filled with visiting cars, motorcycles and bicycles that raced at the world’s first purpose-built track from 1907-1939. Other pre-War vehicles will also be parked up in their own enclosures, just as spectators’ vehicles would have been on race days.

Many and varied were the races staged at Brooklands in period

Many and varied were the races staged at Brooklands in period

 

There will be Test Hill demonstrations, with sessions for cars, motorcycles and cycles. Over on the Finishing Straight, the pre-War racing cars will form up in ‘grids’, which will be sent off up the Finishing Straight towards the Members’ Banking.

For many visitors, the awesome power and thunderous bravery inspired by Brooklands in period will be the highlight. Look forward to demonstrations from the star of the Brooklands Museum, the mighty 24-litre Napier-Railton with which John Cobb set the all-time Outer Circuit record of 143.44mph in 1935. The big Napier-Railton will be joined for a special guest appearance by the 350hp Sunbeam – itself a former record-holder at Brooklands, clocking 123.30 mph in 1922 before being made famous by Sir Malcolm Campbell as his Blue Bird record breaker.

At lunchtime there will also be a cavalcade on the Mercedes-Benz World track. The timetable for the day is as follows:

10.00   Museum open to the public
10.30   Race Grids briefing (Education Centre)
11.00   Race Grids on the Finishing Straight behind the Wellington Hangar
12.00   Cavalcade briefing (Education Centre)
13.00   Cavalcade at Mercedes-Benz World
14.15   Aero engine runs
14.30   Test Hill briefing (Education Centre)
15.15   Test Hill
16.00   Napier/Sunbeam demonstration
17.00   Museum closers

The S&G will, of course, be there to cover the action – and hopes that this is the start of big things to come for a long-overdue event…