(This article originally appeared in Hemmings Classic Car #121, October 2014)
The Captain’s Car
How could a new automobile manufacturer ensure car sales in the flooded 1920s marketplace? One company thought the answer was to name the company after an American hero. That American hero was race car driver and World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker. The Rickenbacker Company had a large name to live up to. But how could the young company make sure their cars were worthy of that name? They would try by offering high quality, useful features and affordability. In the company’s mind it would be a car “built up to a standard – not down to a price.”
One of the first pieces of Rickenbacker sales literature was issued in 1922 and announced the new company to the public. This large unit folds open to a poster-sized 19” X 24 ½”. Inside we learn that Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, “undoubtedly the dean of the world’s race drivers”, would be the company’s Director of Sales and, of course, spokesman. The poster promised a car three years in development that could travel faster than 60mph and had “absolutely no period of vibration” thanks to tandem flywheels in the engine. The poster also pictures the company’s other driving forces, namely Barney Everitt, William Metzger and Walter Flounders. Take the first letter of each man’s last name and you get EMF. If you were wondering, those were the men behind the EMF Company that faded 10 years earlier.
In 1923 Rickenbacker would be the first medium-priced manufacturer to offer four-wheel brakes and the company capitalized on this fact by issuing a sales catalog titled “4 Wheel Brakes.” This catalog doesn’t include any colorful illustrations but it is certainly well written. It claimed that with 4-wheel mechanical brakes “you can stop ‘in a car length’ at any legal speed – or glide to a velvety pause, in half the distance you are used to.” According to the catalog, 4-wheel mechanical brakes also promised to eliminate traffic congestion in cities and reduce wear on tires, brake linings and other parts. The catalog couldn’t reveal all of the benefits of the 4-wheel brakes “For, if we told you here all the advantages of this greatest achievement, your credulity would be unequal to the test.”
Rickenbacker sales literature and advertisements would be quite prolific in the mid 1920s. While they would produce more catalogs in subsequent years touting the 4-wheel braking system, by 1925 Rickenbacker sales literature evolved into colorful brochures that provoked emotion and made a reader want to experience a Rickenbacker in real life. By 1927 one such catalog describes the Rickenbacker “European type” 8-80 sedan as “a most bewitching 8 that just itches to go. A beautiful, captivating, colorful, large roomy car, possessing smart sweeping lines with grace and dignity.” The advertised price for the 8-80 was $1795.
After hitting its sales peak in 1925 with 8,049 units sold, sales began to plummet with 4,050 units in 1926 and 517 during the company’s final year. Eddie Rickenbacker’s name could only carry the company so far and the Captain would bail out of the dying company in late 1926 just before the company seized operations in February of 1927. Rickenbacker sales literature, and the Captain himself, was colorful and did an excellent job promoting the cars. But, just like its spokesman, it too couldn’t carry the company aloft.