The Real Dodge Brothers

Advertising is seldom what it seems. If you’re looking for reality, commercials are not only not real, but sometimes not to be taken seriously at all. And I’m not talking about funny commercials.

Take the Dodge Brothers ads for Fiat/Chrysler (visual, top left). The ads looking to immortalize the Dodge brothers would have you believe those young bucks were hell-raisers, racing up and down semi-rural roads looking for speed, possibly drag racing their buddies for money. But that’s not exactly what happened.

Horace and John (left and right, respectively at top right) grew up in Niles, Michigan, with John being the older of the two. John was born in 1864 while Horace was born in 1868, which by anyone’s math made them both well into their 40s by the time they started developing their own first automobile in 1914.

John and Horace were not interested in speed. The family had moved to Detroit by the mid-1880s and the mechanically minded brothers were working at places like a marine boiler factory and later a machine shop across the river in Windsor, Ontario. John was an inventor, and having built and patented a dust-shielded bicycle hub bearing in 1896, they paired up to build their first bicycles the next year for the E & D Bicycle Company. Three years later, with their shares of the business netting them $10,000, they quit the bicycle business to open their own machine shop back home in Detroit.

One of their first contracts was designing and building engines for Oldsmobile. It was not at all long before they became one of the largest auto parts makers in Detroit.

Henry Ford’s company had already gone bankrupt more than twice before looking to the Dodges for help. They’d already started building engines for him; now they’d be partners. They would own 10% of Ford—and all of it—if Ford went broke again. They were smarter than anyone gave them credit: they borrowed 75Gs for new tooling and built Ford a totally new car. The Dodges designed and built the entire Model T drivetrain (engine, transmission, differential, etc.), and by the end of 1914 had churned out 650 cars for Ford, now their only customer.

But Ford’s ego was not going to let him continue to have someone else build his cars. He bought out the Dodges the next year for $25 million, and that gave the brothers enough to start making their own line. In 1915, they had sold 45,000 units, making them the 3rd largest automobile producer in the country.

The thing about the brothers was that they were innovators. They pioneered features in cars that later became standard: all-steel body construction (while others continued with wood frames), 12-volt ignition systems (6-volt systems were the norm until 1950), and sliding-gear transmissions. Their first cars had 35 horsepower (compared to Ford’s 20).

This kind of upscale quality gave them a great reputation in the industry. The lower left visual is their 1915 touring car, a definite step up for most customers, and at right, their line of trucks gave them an industry pat on the back. Their 1916 touring cars were used by Lt. George Patton to capture the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa because the US Army trusted the durability of Dodge.

But in 1920, with Dodge now the second-leading seller of cars, tragedy struck the family. John, now 55, died of pneumonia in January and Horace, 52, in December. The family eventually sold the company to an investment group, which by 1928 sold it to Chrysler.

That’s the real story of the Dodges. Their automotive input was short in time but long on legacy.

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Look for the next column on December 1. I’m taking next week off for the Thanksgiving holiday.

 

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