Monday, May 14, 2012
The Rickenbacker, DKW, and the move to Germany
1929 Audi SS Zwickau, based on the American Rickenbacker
Innovation at the Periphery: The Cracker Jacker, Rickenbacker
The Rickenbacker automobile, advertised as “a car worthy of its name,” was manufactured in Detroit between 1921 and 1927.42 Named after Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, America’s “ace of aces” during World War I and the commander of the “Hat in the Ring” squadron, the Rickenbacker was designed along the lines outlined by former auto racer “Captain Eddie’s” specifications. In 1919 Rickenbacker decided that he would build a car that incorporated such race-proven advanced features as a rigid frame, 4-wheel brakes, and a high standard of construction. Envisioned as fitting in the market somewhere between the low-end Ford Model T and the far higher priced Cadillac and Packard, it was to be affordable to white-collar workers, prosperous farmers, and “women of taste.”
Rickenbacker sold his ideas to Maxwell executive Harry L. Cunningham, who subsequently recruited an impressive management team. Among the new firm’s executives were coach builder Barney F. Everitt and Walter E. Flanders, formerly the production manager at Ford. With Cunningham as Secretary and Treasurer and Rickenbacker as Vice President and Sales Manager, the Rickenbacker Motor Company was initially well positioned.
During 1921 a six-cylinder prototype was built and tested, $5 million worth of stock was sold, and a plant with a 12,000 unit capacity was acquired. Three Rickenbacker models debuted in 1922 – a Tourer, Opera Coupe, and Closed Sedan – and more than 3,700 cars were sold, resulting in a 5 percent stock dividend.
Rickenbacker six- and eight-cylinder models gained a reputation for innovative technology and enhanced safety features. For example, while not the first American automobile to offer 4-wheel brakes, the Rickenbacker was the first moderately-priced car to do so. Other advances not found in less expensive models included a low vibration flywheel engine, ignition and transmission locks, and an ingenious system to purify engine oil and avoid crankcase dilution, a carburetor air cleaner, and automatic windshield washer. The proud owner of a Rickenbacker could sing along to the popular tune “Merrily I roll along and there’s nothing wrong . . . in my cracker jacker, Rickenbacker.”43
But in fact storm clouds soon passed over the fledgling firm, and it began to experience production and financial difficulties. By then, Walter Flanders had died the result of an unfortunate accident. Handicapped with small profit margins, Everitt cut prices without consulting dealers and stockholders. Marginal dealers went bankrupt, stockholders and management squabbled, and in 1926 Captain Eddie resigned. Everitt was now on his own and on borrowed time, and the company closed its doors in February 1927. Its machinery and engines were later sold to German industrialist J. A. Rassmussen, who used Rickenbacker engines in his Audi Dresden Sixes and Zwickau Eights between 1928 and 1932.
Like the Richelieu, Saxon, Dort, Flint, Winton, King Jewett, Wills Ste. Clair and numerous other Midwestern automobile companies, the Rickenbacker could not survive competition from more highly capitalized and cost-efficient firms, even during America’s prosperity decade of the 1920s.
Enter DKW into the Rickenbacker story
DKW was another new name on the German automobile scene during the 1920s. DKW = Das kleine Wunder (the Little Wonder) started out in the 1920s as a motorcycle designed and made by Danish engineer J.S. Rasmussen. in the small town of Zschopau. By the end of the decade it was Germany's largest motorcycle maker, using a moving assembly line to produce 450 per day. At he time Rasmussen also acquired more small firms, in addition to foundries and forges. In 1928 he began making small cars in Berlin, using the DKW name and a two stroke water-cooled engine. The car was designed by Rudolf Slaby, it had no frame, and was held together by a unitized plywood body. In 1930 a modified model had front wheel drive, and it gained market acceptance despite Depression economics.
Rasmussen bought all the Rickenbacker designs, patterns and equipment and brought them to Zwickau. Yet, these cars proved to expensive for the Germans, and in 1932 DKW was merged with other Saxon companies into the firm Audi.