Engine builders John and Horace Dodge started making automobiles in 1914 — 100 years ago. However, the Dodge brothers actually got into the automobile industry in 1900 and actually manufactured engines under contract to Henry Ford in 1900. Eventually, they built all of Ford’s mechanical parts.
John and Horace were talented machinists who started at the bottom and worked their way to the top through their hands-on skills and ambition to succeed in business. Like many automotive pioneers, the brothers first made bicycles. Then, a few years later, they opened up a machine shop in Detroit — the city that became the hub of American car making.
Before building engines for Ford, the brothers built transmissions for Olds Motor Works. Within a year, Ford offered them a contract to make engines for his Dearborn, MI, company, but they had to stop doing work for his upstate rival from Lansing, MI. In exchange for their motors, Ford anted up a 10% share of Ford Motor Co. stock, which made the brothers wealthy engine makers.
As historians tell us, Henry Ford could be ornery and he fought with the Dodge Brothers over costs and financial matters.
They fought constantly for 12 years, then Ford yanked the cord, prompting the talented Dodges to make their own car. They started with a successful four-cylinder 30-hp vehicle called the Dodge Brothers Model 30. It was made in a factory in Hamtramck, MI. Before too long, Dodge Brothers Inc. was the second largest automaker in America.
Dodge Brothers, Inc., was set up through the sale of $5 million worth of common stock. The new Model 30 was the world’s first mass-produced, all-steel touring car. It was the best-selling new car ever at that time with a record first-production of 45,000 units.
Gen. John J. Pershing’s well-publicized use of 250 Dodge touring cars to hunt down Mexican rebel Pancho Villa in 1916 established a reputation for durability and reliable operation.
Dodge engines didn’t quit!
With the Model 30 selling well, the Dodge brothers looked for a way to grow their business and began building trucks in 1917. During World War I it built thousands of military ambulances. Panel delivery trucks, fire trucks, pickups, chassis-cabs and other body types soon joined the Dodge Brothers truck lineup.
In 1920, John Dodge caught the flu while attending the New York Automobile Show. It developed into pneumonia and he died January 14. Horace also contracted the flu, which affected him off and on that year until he passed away in Palm Beach, FL, on Dec. 10. Ironically, the deaths took place the year Dodge took the number 2 sales position with production of 141,000 vehicles.
Frederick J. Haynes, an old friend of the brothers, took over as president. Unfortunately, a postwar recession started about that time, dropping sales to 81,000 units and causing lay offs. The fact that the design of the Dodge was practically unchanged from 1914 did not help matters. Though the 4-
cylinder engine was sturdy and reliable, it was not keeping up with 1920s technology. In 1921, Dodge Brothers agreed to market Graham Brothers medium-duty trucks and Graham agreed to use Dodge engines. This partnership provided Dodge dealers with a full line of trucks to sell. Dodge eventually bought Graham Bros.
By 1925, one million Dodge cars had been manufactured and business was trending upwards again. A New York investment-banking firm paid the brothers’ widows $146 million cash for Dodge Brothers.
In 1928, the bankers initiated negotiations with Walter P. Chrysler to buy Dodge. The $170 million transaction was completed July 31 of that year. It made Chrysler instantly five times as big and one of America’s “Big Three” automobile manufacturers.
Dodge Brothers’ reputation was so good that Chrysler used that name in its advertising all the way through 1930. Soon the company was selling
6-cylinder and straight eight models. The Ram’s head hood ornament designed by sculptor Avard T. Fairbanks was first used in 1932. Over the years, this symbol was dropped and revived. Today, Dodge’s slogan is “Take Life by the Horns.”
During World War II, Dodge manufactured weapons, tanks, ships and air raid sirens. Dodge factories turned out more than 500,000 military trucks and over 18,000 aircraft engines. As World War II production contracts were issued the Dodge 4 x 4 was improved. The experience would come in handy postwar.
Dodge’s stodgy three-box postwar cars used a variety of flathead in-line sixes for power, with larger displacements in larger car models. Things began to change rapidly in 1953 when the Dodge Coronet could be ordered with a Red Ram hemi-head engine, the first Dodge V8 in 20 years.
NASCAR driver Lee Petty captured Dodge’s first checkered flag there, while another Dodge V8 won the Mobilgas Economy Run.
In 1954 the Chrysler Proving Grounds opened with NASCAR driver Betty Skelton driving the Hemi-powered Dodge Firearrow show car to a new world speed record for a woman on a closed course of 143.44 mph. To top off all of this, a yellow Dodge convertible with a continental kit paced the Indy 500, and Hemi-powered Dodges set 196 speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Dodge introduced the D-500 Hemi engine option in 1956. These stick-shifted performance cars had two four-barrel carbs atop their heated-up Hemis and cranked up 295 hp to help Dodges win 11 NASCAR flags. Dodge continued using the wedge-head V8 in its less expensive lines and the Hemi V8 in its pricier cars until the muscle car era began. A flathead six remained, but after a 1957 recession spurred interest in fuel economy and compact cars, Dodge developed a new engine called the Slant Six. At the 1960 Daytona 500, a racing Hyper-Pak was released for this motor, which was destined to become another long-lasting Dodge power plant and an icon among 6-cylinder offerings.
A 413-cid Ramcharger Max-Wedge engine became a muscle car favorite in 1962.
Then the 1963 Ramcharger 426-A wedge V8 arrived. It delivered 425 hp and blazing off-the-line acceleration for drag racing. A new 426-cid 426-hp Race Hemi designated for “off-road” (competition) use only was built in limited numbers after 1964.
During the ‘60s, Dodge blew out its performance car image. The Ramchargers drag racing team was a hit and Roger Lindamood’s ‘Color Me Gone’ Dodge took the National Hot Rod Assoc.’s Top Eliminator title. A Ramcharger-equipped rail dragster set a new national speed record of 190.26 mph. In NASCAR, 500-hp Hemis ruled. A ’69 Dodge Hemi Daytona with a long nose and shelf-like rear spoiler won the checkered flag at the Daytona 500.
Dodge’s answer to the Mustang finally arrived in 1970 as the Challenger could accommodate the Hemi V8. Even the Dodge Dart was offered in Hemi models before the government and insurance companies teamed up to put a lid on muscle cars. The 1973 Gulf Oil embargo changed the car industry and renewed interest in smaller, more fuel-efficient engines and cars. Subcompact Omnis, Aries K-cars and Caravan front-wheel-drive minivans saved the day.
In 1992, Dodge’s high-performance image was instantly revived when the V10 powered Viper supercar arrived. In 1996, a new Viper coupe paced the Indy 500 with Chrysler president Bob Lutz behind the wheel. Viper GT-R competition models raced and won at LeMans.
With Dodge turning 100 this year, it’s interesting to review Dodge history and reflect on how far it is possible for top-notch engine builders to go in business and in life.