Dependability Meets Determination: A Tribute to the Dodge Brothers

October 10th, 2017 by

Though they were only at the helm of the company for a short time, and despite that company being part of Chrysler for almost 90 years now, Dodge has never forgotten the two men who established the marque or the maverick spirit that they brought to auto making. Even all these years later the company is still building vehicles that would make the Dodge brothers proud, and which have retained the core values that made them stand out a century ago.

Born three-and-a-half years apart in post-civil-war Niles, Michigan, John Dodge and his younger brother Horace were two of several children born to Daniel Rugg (also ‘Rug’) Dodge and his wife Maria. Daniel was an early mechanic and ran a shop where he worked on marine internal combustion engines, so John and Horace learned the family trade from him, but they also attended public school and worked together from the time the family moved to Detroit in 1886 – first at Murphy Boiler Works and then at the Dominion Typograph Company, just over the Canadian border in Windsor, Ontario. As the boys matured into men it became clear that their education had produced a remarkable combination – John displayed impressive sales and management skills, while Horace had inherited and even improved upon their father’s talent for all things mechanical.

This synergy of skills would be one of the keys to their later success, and got its first chance to shine when Horace invented a dirt-proof ball bearing for bicycles. The brothers were able to secure a patent for the bearing in 1896 and set themselves up as bicycle manufacturers a year later, working out of the Dominion plant. They would leave the bicycle business in 1900 with around $10,000 in their pockets – which was used to set up their own machine shop back in Detroit – and the Dodge brothers took their first steps into the auto industry when they secured a contract to build transmissions for Olds Motor Vehicle Company. The deal didn’t last long though and was soon replaced with a Ford contract that would be John and Horace’s bread and butter for the next ten-plus years. The Dodge Brothers shop was re-tooled and they began turning out engines, transmissions and chassis that would be transported to nearby Ford plants for final assembly into finished Ford vehicles. The contract also came with a 10% stake in the Ford Motor Company, and a position as vice-president for John.

However, the partnership was beset by three big issues. Firstly, despite the Dodge brothers earning a reputation for the reliability, durability and quality of the components they produced for Olds and then for Ford themselves, Henry Ford liked to complain that the Dodge Brothers’ parts were not up to scratch – though it never stopped him ordering more. Secondly, in 1905 Ford began taking steps that would allow him to produce engines and transmissions in-house – both parts being supplied by Dodge Brothers at the time – and thirdly, while the contract survived and production numbers increased for years amidst these difficult circumstances and new plant openings by both Ford and Dodge (who moved into what would become their spiritual home in Hamtramck, MI in 1910), the brothers were wary of being dependent on one customer – especially one who might pull the plug at any time, as Ford were seemingly well-positioned to do. As a result, in 1913 they pulled the plug themselves – John resigned as vice-president of Ford and the brothers gave their long time partners the year’s notice required for termination of the contract, becoming an automaker in their own right in 1914. Inexplicably, the Dodge brothers kept their stake in Ford after the split, and so through stock earnings Henry Ford funded his own competition for a time, to the tune of about $1 million a year. In 1916 Ford tried to stop shareholder dividend payouts in order to finance his new Rouge River plant, and was taken to court by the Dodges on behalf of the shareholders. Ford lost, and was left to choose between continued dividend payouts, or a buyout of all of his shareholders. He chose the buyout, and reached a settlement worth a cool $25 million with John and Horace for their 10% of the company. That was just the largest slice of the pie though, and getting back the rest of his company would cost Henry Ford a further $100 million.

Dodge’s first car, the Model 30 touring car, was marketed as an upscale alternative to the Fords they used to help build, and while it was $200 – $300 more expensive than the standard Model T, a top-of-the-range, fully equipped version of Ford’s first icon would still cost you more. You got a lot for your money with the Dodge, too – it boasted an all-metal body, electric starter and a speedometer (which wasn’t always a given in those days) as well as an extra 13 horsepower, an extra 6V of electricity compared to the Model T, and of course the trademark Dodge ‘dependability’ – a word that wasn’t in the dictionary until it was used in connection with this car. Accordingly, the motoring press and auto dealers alike were very excited for the model 30’s launch – to the point that The Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record proclaimed “When the Dodge Bros, new car comes out, there is no question that it will be the best thing on the market for the money.” and thousands of dealers were asking to sell the car before it had even been seen. The first Model 30 – dubbed ‘Old Betsy’ – was completed on November 14, 1914, and she was followed by another 248 examples before a roadster was added to the lineup for 1915. In their first full year of production Dodge Brothers sold 45,000 cars, and 70,000 in 1916 – good enough for second place in U.S. sales. 150 of those cars were sold to the Army, and they were used extensively in the Mexican Border War – the proven reliability of the car in this conflict is what led thousands of Model 30 Staff Cars and trucks to be sent to France when the U.S. entered the First World War.

By the time the war ended in 1918 the Dodge brothers were well established automakers, and self-made millionaires. However, a second, far deadlier global event had already begun – The Spanish Flu outbreak – and sadly both brothers would fall victim to it before the end of 1920. John was first to pass on January 14, and Horace would follow him from this life on December 10 of that year. Fittingly for two brothers who were said to be inseparable throughout their lives the cause of death was found to be the same in both cases – pneumonia brought on by Spanish Flu – and they lie together even now in the family’s Woodlawn Cemetery mausoleum. The company they built would find its way into the care of Walter P. Chrysler just 8 years later and remains part of Chrysler to this day, but for we that sell them at Bob Richards Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram, those vehicles marked with the Dodge name have always held something of the spirit of John and Horace – raging against the old guard and breaking new ground, while not forgetting the basic necessities of the everyman motorist – good workmanship, and of course the old Dodge dependability – all at an affordable price.

Posted in Dodge News, History