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The Dodge Boys
April 15, 2004, by Bill Cawthon
The word "dependability" is common enough today, but it you wouldn't have found it in the dictionary before 1914. That was the year two brothers from southwest Michigan introduced a car line that became so well known for its reliability that it inspired legendary advertising copywriter Theodore McManus to coin the term.
John Francis Dodge was born in Niles, Michigan on October 25, 1864. His brother, Horace Elgin Dodge, was born almost four years later, on May 17, 1868. The Dodge family could trace its roots in America back to 1629, and the boys' grandfather, Ezekiel Dodge, had run a successful machine shop in Niles since the 1850s, catering to the fishermen and sailors who worked the St. Joseph River. Ezekiel Dodge passed on his skills to his son Daniel, who took over the business, but times had changed by the time John and Horace were born. The family worked hard to scrape by and Daniel taught the machinist's trade to his two redheaded sons.
The boys had already begun working in the shop when the family began moving, first to Battle Creek, then to Port Huron and finally to Detroit in 1886. In Detroit, John and Horace found work making marine boilers at Murphy's Boiler Works. Eight years later, the Dodge brothers moved across the Detroit River to Windsor, Ontario, where they took jobs with the Dominion Typograph Company.
Though John was the better machinist, it was Horace Dodge who received the first patent, for a dirt-resistant bicycle bearing. A year later, in 1897, the Dodges and a partner, Frederick Evans, began building "Evans & Dodge" bicycles.
In 1900, John and Horace Dodge sold their interest in the bicycle company for $3,700.00, which they used to open a machine shop in the Boydell Building in Detroit. They initially produced stove parts, but soon added production for the new automobile industry. Their first major automotive customer was Ransom E. Olds, who hired them in 1901 to produce 2,000 engines for his famous "curved-dash" Oldsmobile. Olds was pleased enough with their work to add 3,000 transmissions to his order the following year, making the brothers major players in the automotive industry.
While they were building engines and transmission for Oldsmobiles, another would-be car manufacturer approached the Dodges. Henry Ford needed a production source for his new car. More important, Ford, who had by this time burned most of the major venture capitalists in the Midwest, needed a source that would take a piece of the company instead of cash. John and Horace by this time had enough cash and could afford to take Ford's offer of ten percent of the Ford Motor Company. On February 28, 1903, Henry Ford hired the Dodge brothers to supply chassis and drivetrains, giving each brother fifty shares of stock. John Dodge later became a Ford vice president.
The Dodge brothers supplied everything except the body, wheels and tires for the new Fords. By now, they had outgrown their original quarters at the Boydell Building and had an assembly plant of their own. By the time the Model T made its debut in 1908, a larger facility was required. Ford had built his own plant in Highland Park, but even this wasn't enough to keep up with demand. On June 1, 1910, the Dodges broke ground on a new plant in Hamtramck, at that time, a small town on the northeast side of Detroit. This would eventually become the five-million-square-foot Dodge Main, one of the largest automotive assembly plants ever built. Bet a lot of the men I used to see working on the lines at Dodge Main would have been surprised to learn their plant had originally been intended to build Ford components.
The Dodges remained suppliers to Ford for ten years, but became increasingly unhappy with Henry's decisions. In the early years, the Dodge brothers had regularly offered ideas and new developments for Ford cars, but with the Model T, everything changed. The Model T, with all of its shortcomings, was Henry Ford's baby and he would hear no criticisms. In 1913, John declined to renew the Ford contracts and resigned his position with Ford. The brothers decided to develop their own car that would incorporate the improvements they had offered to Ford. Asked why they decided to enter the highly competitive automobile business, John Dodge is reported to have said, "Think of all the Ford owners who will someday want an automobile."
The new Hamtramck plant was retooled and the first Dodge Brothers Touring car rolled off the assembly line on November 14, 1914. The car was thirteen feet long and six feet, nine inches high. It had a 110-inch wheelbase and weighed 2,200 pounds. The Dodge was powered by a 35-horsepower, 212 CID, four-cylinder engine driving the rear axle through a three-speed transmission. It had electric lights and horn and a starter generator with battery, features not available until later on the Model T, which had to be crank-started until 1919. The price for all this luxury? Just $785.00 FOB Detroit.
By the end of the 1914, 249 cars had been built and Dodge Brothers Motor Company was well on its way.
From the beginning, Dodges were built to be rugged and reliable with features like Budd all-steel bodies. They were accepted by the U.S. Army and used by General "Black Jack" Pershing when he chased Pancho Villa into Mexico, marking the Army's first motorized operation.
By 1916, Dodge had added more models and was the fourth best-selling automobile brand in the United States with 70,700 sales. Dodges were already using a 12-volt electrical system and Horace Dodge had developed an oven system to bake the enamel onto the steel body, which improved the durability of the finish.
The following year, Dodge introduced its first truck, which the company called a "Commercial Car." It was a half-ton pickup built on the standard 114-inch chassis and had heavy screens between the bed sides and roof. Solid panels later replaced the screens for a fully enclosed panel delivery truck.
During World War I, Dodge not only produced staff cars and ambulances for the Army, they built precision recoil mechanisms for the French 75 and 155 guns used by the Allies. The French could produce only five mechanisms a day, working by hand and had turned to the U.S. government for assistance. French Marshal Joseph Joffre and Secretary of War Newton D. Baker asked John Dodge if the Dodge Brothers firm could help. Dodge said if the French provided accurate blueprints and left the project entirely to the company, Dodge could supply any quantity desired. Joffre and Baker told Dodge they did not think it was possible to mass-produce the mechanism.
"The hell it isn't," Dodge said.
"I am not accustomed to being spoken to in that kind of language," said Baker.
"The war would be a hell of a lot better off if you were," Dodge shouted back. "Do you want us to do this job or don't you?"
The Dodge boys did the job, producing upwards of thirty mechanisms a day. After the Armistice, the French Government awarded the Legion of Honor to John Dodge and the workers in the plant.
John and Horace Dodge tended to be hell-raisers. Even though they remained devoted to each other throughout their lives, they often argued and had strong differences of opinion. The brothers were also notorious for their barroom escapades. Even fame and fortune didn't change that. When they announced they would build their own car at a party at Detroit's upscale Book-Cadillac Hotel, John, the "quiet" brother, capped off the festivities by marching up and down atop the banquet tables, using a cane to darken the hall by smashing the light bulbs in the chandeliers.
In 1919, Henry Ford announced his intentions to reinvest all profits in the company in order to built the huge River Rouge complex and gain complete control of every aspect of manufacturing the Model T. The Dodge brothers led a successful stockholders' revolt to force Ford to pay dividends to his investors. After winning their suit, they sold their shares to Henry Ford for $25 million.
The Dodges were now hugely wealthy and their car was huge success. Indeed, it was one of America's favorite brands. But neither brother would live to enjoy the fruits of their labors.
In January 1920, John and Horace Dodge visited the International Automobile Show in New York City. The Spanish Flu pandemic, which had broken out in 1918, was still raging and both brothers were infected. John's influenza rapidly developed into pneumonia and he died on January 14 at the age of fifty-five. Horace lasted a while longer, but never recovered. He was only 52 when he died on December 10, 1920.
Control of the Dodge Brothers Motor Company passed to their widows, Matilda Rauch Dodge and Anna Thompson Dodge. The widows brought in Frederick J. Haynes to run the company.
In 1925, the Dodge Brothers Motor Company was sold to Dillon Reed and Company, a New York investment firm, for $146 million, at that time, the largest cash transaction in the history of the automobile industry. In 1928, Walter P. Chrysler bought the company for his new Chrysler Corporation, paying $175 million.
It was during this time that the word "dependability" came into being. Dodge car buyers frequently wrote to the company, praising the car for being so well built and reliable. The word most often used was "dependable." After "dependability" made its debut in promotional literature, Dodge marketing kept the term in active use for over half a century.
Dodge has always been a special brand to me. It was my first contact with the automobile industry as well as the place where my Dad worked, a source of pride in itself. In 1955, he became general works superintendent of Dodge, a position that essentially put him in charge of all production. It also meant he got his first company car, a blue Dodge Coronet 4-door sedan.
Dad's job was tough and demanded long hours, meaning he did not have much time to spend with his family. Father-and-son outings for Dad and me were most often a Saturday spent down at Dodge Main. Back in those pre-OSHA days, I could watch the cars being assembled up close and got to see the first car of a new model run being assembled in its special, secure enclosure (just to make sure the folks at Ford and GM didn't have every detail of what the new car was going to look like). And I had Dodge cars to play with.
Those were the glory days of the American auto industry and a magic time in the Motor City. Every fall, like kids across the U.S., we waited for the new cars. Of course, where I lived, we already knew what some of them were going to look like, but it was fun to see what the competition had up its sleeve.
Of course, things change. Dad left the auto industry for new challenges in 1962. Dodge Main is now long gone, declared obsolete and shut down by Lee Iacocca in 1980. Dodge is now part of DaimlerChrysler and is best known for the trucks that were a much smaller part of the market back in the 1950s.
Over the years, Dad and I swapped stories about the various industries in which we worked, but we both still enjoyed talking about cars and would spend hours discussing the styling and engineering or the latest bone-headed direction this executive or that was taking the business. Even then, we would talk about the days at Dodge.
On Friday, April 2, I attended the Chrysler media briefing before the opening of the Houston Auto Show. I got to see the new hemi-powered Dodge Magnum and Chrysler 300 whose styling is based on the concept cars Virgil Exner designed in the early 1950s, soon after Dad returned to Chrysler after serving in the Korean War. Dad and I had both expressed reservations about the high beltline and low greenhouse of the new design, but in real life metal and plastic, the new cars come off well.
I had planned to call Dad that evening and tell him about all the new iron coming from Detroit and elsewhere, but got busy with other things and decided to make the call Saturday evening. I wish now I had made that call. Saturday morning, my phone rang. I looked at the area code and knew even before I answered that Dad was gone.
At the commitment and memorial service, everyone spoke of Dad's faith, which was deep and abiding, and his achievements, which were many. But I had one more thing for which I am grateful: I was the lucky one with whom Dad shared his fascination with the automobile.
- Bill Cawthon
Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is senior editor of Route 1-87, the magazine of the 1/87 Vehicle Club, and a columnist and product reviewer for Model Railroad News. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.
In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant for MARK III Systems, a successful information technology company. He also writes for just-auto.com, an international auto industry publication, reporting on the U.S. light vehicle industry.
He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.
Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.
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