John and Horace Dodge: From Building Fords to Dodge Brothers
Dodge is now a “muscle” brand, but it started out by making a car which was just about as far from muscle as it gets: the Ford Model T.
The Dodge family arrived in North America in 1629; in the 1830s, Ezekiel Dodge travelled from Massachusetts to Michigan, where he repaired boat engines. Ezekiel and his wife Anna had two daughters and eleven sons, including Daniel Rugg Dodge.
Eventually Daniel took over the business, building and repairing marine engines. Daniel had two children by his first wife, and after she died, married Maria Duval Casto, and had three children: Della in 1863, John Francis in 1864, and Horace in 1868.
Horace and John, according to Ellis Brasher, were “two red-haired urchins, who spent many hours at their father’s side, learning the machinists’ trade. John was the quieter of the two and the better machinist. Horace was the leader and financier, making sure the no one took advantage of the pair. The brothers were inseparable.”
Horace and John worked in different cities in Michigan, until, casting for jobs where they could be together — and from then, that was a condition of work — both were hired by the Murphy Iron Works in Detroit, 1886. They later crossed to Windsor, across the river from Detroit.
In 1896, Horace created a dirt-proof ball bearing at his home workbench; he shared credit with John in the patent. The next year, they worked with Fred S. Evans to make a bicycle under the Evans & Dodge name.
The brothers, increasingly diverted by sales of automotive parts, returned to Detroit and started their own shop in 1902, after selling their share in the bicycle business; then they moved from Beaubien Street to Hastings and Monroe.
Their high quality led Ransom Eli Olds, father of the Oldsmobile and the first automaker ever to use an assembly line, to their door. He had the dodge brothers make thousands of engines and transmissions for his curved-dash Oldsmobile starting in 1902; Oldsmobile made 30% of the cars built in the United States in 1903. The brothers also sold parts to other automakers, giving them a thriving business.
The Dodge brothers build Fords for a decade
Meanwhile, Henry Ford had gone through two bankruptcies, and was having a hard time finding financers or suppliers who would provide parts on credit. He finally approached the Dodge Brothers, who, in light of Ford’s past, drove a hard but fair (given the risks) bargain. The Dodge brothers gave up their other customers, borrowed $75,000 for tooling, and created the production drawings and all mechanical parts for Ford’s new company. According to Thomas McPherson (in The Dodge Story), the brothers also redesigned the car’s rear axle, engine, and other key parts, which may have made the difference between Ford’s past failures and his new success.
When Ford started making its first cars, Dodge reportedly had 135 employees making parts, and Ford had 12.
Dodge Brothers built every part of the Ford car except — depending on the source — the seats and tires, or the seats, body, tires, and radiators. The Dodge Brothers profited both by building the car, and by owning stock in the company, getting $10,000 in dividends in the first year — well under their investment but a good start.
Henry Ford grew eccentric, allegedly fearing red-heads (like the Dodges), hiring thugs to beat “trouble making” employees, imposing religious demands on his workers (enforced by house visits), and sponsoring a newspaper to blame Jews for all the world’s ills. Money and fame may have affected the Dodges, too, though they continued their hard work. They wore identically tailored suits, according to James Mays, and would not read mail unless it was addressed to both of them; they also raced boats, and most sources say they partied hard, drinking and carousing in workingman’s bars.
In 1910, the incredible Dodge Main plant in Hamtramck was started (June) and completed (November), with five thousand workers and $6 million in annual payroll; the unusual 24-acre multi-story plant had the assembly line moving from floor to floor, eventually becoming extremely complex. [Stories] According to Greg Kowalski, one reason for choosing Hamtramck was because it was on two railroad lines, once of which went straight to Ford’s new plant.
John and Horace Dodge were in sharp contrast to Henry Ford when it came to employee care; they did not invade their houses or dictate religious practice, but did have a fully staffed medical clinic, a department to look after workers’ social needs, and, perhaps most significantly (and a fore-runner of Silicon Valley and 3M), a machine shop called “the Playpen” where men could fix or invent things after hours. Employees were served huge platters of sandwiches and pitchers of beer at lunch hours, paid for by the company. In the heat of summer, beer was served in the afternoons in the foundry and forge.
Henry Ford eventually built his River Rouge plant to replace the Dodge Brothers — and to swap the Dodge Brothers employees with people making less, and easier to control or replace at a moment’s notice. Once done, Ford did not need the Dodge Brothers. The brothers had already been planning for independence.
The Dodge brothers knew the Model T’s weaknesses, and had suggested improvements, but Henry Ford refused. This was their chance to make a far better car, at a slightly higher price.
The Dodge Brothers cars
In 1913, Dodge Brothers announced that they would stop building Ford cars and would design, build, and sell their own car. Even as they built their last Fords, the Dodge Brothers greatly expanded their manufacturing plant and built a new national sales network and advertising campaign. Part of their strategy was building the first on-site test track of any automaker, anywhere, to ensure quality.
Even the first Dodge had a 35-horsepower four-cylinder L-head engine, far better than the Fords, with a rare-for-the-time 12-volt electrical system and an all steel Budd-designed body. The cars weighed 2,000 pounds and, at $785, were nearly double the price of the Model T, leaving the cheap field to Ford. (Accounting for inflation, $785 in 1914 would be around $18,685 today.)
In July 1914, Dodge Brothers was formed; on November 14, the first Dodge car rolled off the line, priced far higher than the Model T but supplying much more, including an electric starter (the manual starter favored by Ford was responsible for many injuries). Mike Sealey wrote that Dodge’s first dealer was Cumberland Motors of Nashville, Tennessee, which remained in business until the late 1960s, proudly advertising their status as “World’s First Dodge Dealer.” There were 22,000 applications for Dodge dealerships before production even started.
According to Walter McPherson, the driver of the first Dodge Brothers car in the photo below was Guy Ameel. Just 249 cars were built during 1914, all black touring cars with wooden-spoke wheels, real grain leather, sliding-gear three-speed transmissions, a cone-faced clutch, and a 2,250 pound total weight. Famously, when asked why Dodge Brothers would leave Ford to sell their own cars, John Dodge said, “Just think of all the Ford owners who will someday want an automobile.” (This quote has been written in different ways.)
Willem Weertman wrote in Chrysler Engines 1922-1998 that the brothers worked with George Kierman to create the “Dependable Dodge Four” engine, an L-head design wtih a forged steel crankshaft, three main bearings, and open combustion chamber, and gear-driven camshaft. It had separate engine and gear oil supplies, unlike the Model T, and, through its life, displaced 212 cubic inches or 3.5 liters (Ford’s engine was 177 cubic inches), putting it into the range of the 1960s-2010s six-cylinders. The car had a rear-mounted gasoline tank unprotected (in factory trim) by a bumper, and the then-common vacuum tank system.
The engine had a rotary oil pump driven by the camshaft, with a gravity feed to get it to the camshaft and main bearings; the connecting rods had splash troughs so they were lubricated when they hit the bottom of their strokes. They also had a centrifugal water pump for forced circulation of coolant, which Ford had given up by this time. With a 4:1 compression ratio, the car was not sensitive to “bad gas,” but generated just 30-35 horsepower at 2,000 rpm (gross). No torque rating is known.
The intake air was warmed during cold weather, by routing it across the exhaust manifold and engine block, to improve drivability; the driver could manually switch this system to a fresh-air supply and avoid boiling the fuel. Moderately complicated, but easy to use and understand, the setup did not need an intake manifold.
The three-speed manual transmission had a floor shift and multiple-dry-disc clutch, with a semi-floating rear axle. The wood-spoke wheels were held together by wire bands (later replaced by steel bands). The electric starter, once the engine was running, became a generator to refill the battery. A flat leather belt drove the fan whenever the engine ran, while the water pump was driven by the crankshaft.
An identically priced roadster joined the touring car in 1915; the touring car itself was becoming popular, especially with the farmers treasured by Henry Ford, for its durability and relatively high fuel economy. Around 45,000 cars were reported as being built in 1915. The Dodge Brothers lost money for their first few months of production.
In their first full year (1915), they were America’s third best selling automaker. The brothers tripled the plant’s size as they prepared for higher volumes, and John Dodge crash-tested a car into a brick wall at 20 mph to study the results.
In 1916, a Dodge Brothers advertising campaign coined the word “dependability,” which soon was listed in the dictionary. Their other slogan was “It speaks for itself,” though then it would not need the slogan. Late in the year, Dodge Brothers added “winter cars,” essentially the touring car and roadster with removable hardtops and snop-on side glass windows made by a supplier; these sold for $950. A center-door sedan was also launched, though few were sold. 1916 also saw a dry multiple disc clutch replaced the original cone setup, and a wheelbase change to 114 inches (this may have taken place in 1917) from 110 inches.
Henry Ford was not happy that the Dodges were using his dividends to build cars, and in 1916 stopped paying dividends. The Dodges sued and got $19 million in back dividends. Then, to try to trick the brothers into selling their shares, Ford announced that he was retiring, and leaked a story to the Los Angeles Examiner wrote that he was creating a new company to build a cheaper car, undercutting the existing Ford and making the shares worth much less.
The Dodges suspected a scam, especially when mystery buyers offered them $7,500 per share. They still auctioned their shares, achieving $12,500 per share, gaining $25 million. Ford’s “new company” ended up being a chimera and he went back to work.
One major 1916 publicity gain was the sale of 150 cars to the U.S. Army. General John Pershing famously used Dodge Brothers cars over treacherous roads and open land to catch Pancho Villa, and then-Lieutenant George Patton Jr. used three Dodge Brothers cars in the first mechanized cavalry charge in United States history (with 15 soldiers). Patton would later state a preference for Dodge trucks in World War II.
Dodge Brothers did not have a truck line, though Dodge would later be known for their trucks. In 1917, though, responding to pressure from buyers and dealers, and probably not wanting people to make an inferior truck out of their chassis, they started experimenting with the idea, then in 1917 made an ambulance for World War I use; it spawned a civilian version, the screen-side Dodge business truck, with a thousand-pound payload, selling for $885.
In 1917, Dodge dropped to fourth or fifth (depending on source) in U.S. sales, but this was also the first year they started exporting cars to Canada. They sold around 90,000 cars, but Chevrolet’s rapid success pushed them downward a notch.
In 1918, Dodge produced over 60,000 cars, along with a 155 mm gun recoil system for the Allied forces (mainly the French army), still engaged in fighting World War I; the artillery system required a new plant, and they sold with an overall profit of one penny, foreshadowing Chrysler’s World War II work (but not by any means the standard for American automakers).
In contrast to World War II, when automakers completely stopped civilian production, American cars kept rolling off the lines during World War I. In 1919, they’d made 400,000 cars; they also launched an enclosed fourdoor sedan during the year.
At this point, the Dodges were quite wealthy. Hamtramck Historical Commission chair Greg Kowalski said,
I firmly believe that if it weren’t for John and Horace Dodge there really would be no Hamtramck today, it would have been absorbed by the city of Detroit. They changed the whole destiny of the community.
The Dodge brothers were fascinating characters. They were two of the most colorful people in the history of this city, they were loyal, devoted brothers. They were also brawlers and drinkers and did all kinds of wild things. They would get into fights and all kinds of trouble.
... they literally bought their way into Grosse Pointe society. One of the brothers built the Rose Terrace mansion, they had their yacht there and they tried to get into Grosse Pointe society. But Grosse Pointe society would have nothing to do with them, because of all the trouble that they had in the bars of Detroit. But by pretty much underwriting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, they bought their way into high society in the Detroit area.
While attending the 1920 New York Auto Show, Horace fell ill with pneumonia. John rushed to his bedside where he sat idle for days. John caught pneumonia almost immediately and died ten days later. Horace lingered on for a few more months and then died. Ironically, this was the first time Dodge Brothers jumped up to become America’s second best-selling car company.
Dodge Brothers without the Dodge brothers
The brothers’ wives inherited all of the company, worth around $60 million; they were smart enough to promote Frederick J. Haynes, who had been with the brothers since the bicycle days, to run the company. He set up a joint ventures with the Graham Brothers, to turn Dodge car chassis into trucks. The company continued to improve its cars, and maintained its #2 place in 1921, albeit with a sales drop to 81,000. They also expanded their Canadian presence, starting by using an old wharf building in Windsor as a small assembly plant and import center.
By this time, Dodge Brothers had sizeable worldwide sales, reflected in the globe on their logo, possibly due to the use of their dependable cars in the European war.
An expansion in 1922 provided the ability to make 600 cars per day. The car was made lower, despite a taller radiator; and Budd steel disc wheels were added, supplementing the wooden wheels; and the iron pistons were replaced with aluminum versions. Dodge Brothers also launched the first all-steel car in the industry, a business coupe (essentially a two-door, single-row-seating sedan). Still, the company fell to sixth place in sales. See our review of a 1922 Dodge Bros. Touring Car.
In 1924, Dodge Brothers opened its first major Canadian plant, in Walkersville, Ontario; started using a new semi-ellipitcal spring for the rear suspension; lengthened the wheelbase to 116 inches; finished a major expansion that allowed production to hit 1,000 cars per day using 20,000 people; put louvers on the hood; and gave the entire car a lower appearance. Automatic windshield wipers replaced the single hand-operated wiper. Roy Chapman Andrews took three Dodge Brothers cars on a 10,000mile, fossil-hunting expedition into China and inner Mongolia. With these changes and this publicity, Dodge Brothers recaptured third place. Still, the Dodge wives decided to sell the company.
In 1925, the same year Walter Chrysler formally took over and renamed Maxwell Motors, and Dillon, Read, & Co.—a financial firm — purchased it for $146 million in 1925, the largest transaction in history to that point. They outbid General Motors, which showed a serious interest in one of their largest competitors. Dillon, Read replaced Mr. Haynes with E.J. Wilmer, as head of the company, despite Dodge Brothers’ success under Haynes.
The one millionth Dodge was produced, and production exceeded 200,000 cars.
For 1926, the started using a six-volt electrical system, with a separate starter and generator. The distributor moved from behind the water pump to the accessory housing, and geared directly to the camshaft. Midyear, a new sheet metal air cleaner was added; and they started using a five-main-bearing crankshaft (none of this caused the power rating to change). They also took over the Graham Brothers company entirely, moving from being partners to being owners; the Grahams had just become members of the Dodge Brothers board, but at this point they left the company for a new venture, Graham-Paige.
Dodge Brothers, though, dropped to fourth place in U.S. sales, and fell to seventh in 1927, possibly prompting their owners to cast about for a sale.
The sales drop may have caused the company to create a more powerful “Fast Four” engine, which was launched in mid-1927 for the new 108-inch-wheelbase Model 124. It kept the same block and displacement, according to Willem Weertman, but switched to a conventional intake and exhaust manifold setup, an indirectly driven oil pump, timing / generator chain, and a distributor on top of the head. It still had a flat belt to drive the fan, eschewing the newer V-belts, and kept splash lubrication, despite Chrysler’s successful full lubrication; these changes and a slight increase in compression (to 4.1) helped boost power to 40 @ 2,400. This engine was only used for one model year, but it powered the Model 124 to 60 mph or a sustained 50 mph.
The company also switched to a single-plate clutch, shortly afterwards going to the SAE-standard H-shift pattern for the manual transmission.
Midyear in 1927, Dodge Brothers launched their first six-cylinder, the Senior Six, on a 116 inch wheelbase, advertising the sedan at a pricey $1,595, with a 224 cubic inch, 60 horsepower engine. This L-head straight-six was rather different from the original engine, and included turbulent combustoin chambers, full pressure lubrication, seven main bearings, a V-belt drive for the water pump and fan, and other features that appear to have been borrowed by the advanced Zeder-Skelton-Breer engines used by Maxwell and Chrysler. Designed by Dodge Brothers, it was built by Continental Motors, which also supplied the Zeder-Skelton-Breer-designed Flint engine to Willam Durant.
Dodge Brothers under Chrysler Corporation
1928 was a big year. They finished the changeover to six cylinders, using a 208 cubic inch Standard Six and Victory Six (58 hp); the Standard Six used a 110 inch wheelbase, the Victory a 120 inch wheelbase (the Senior was put onto that same wheelbase midyear). Then, in July, not long after the engine changeover was finished, Dillon, Read, & Co. sold Dodge Brothers to Chrysler Corporation for $170 million.
Chrysler already had a truck range, Fargo, based on Plymouths, which was phased out in the US, and continued as a label for Dodge trucks in export markets. They also had a brand they had started to compete directly against Dodge Brothers — DeSoto — which they moved slightly to make room for the Dodge Brothers range.
Chrysler engineers went over the Senior Six and bumped it to 78 hp, mainly by increasing the bore (so it was now 242 cid) and compression ratio. The Victory and Standard Six were combined into one carline, starting at $995.
In 1929, Chrysler brought the first downdraft carburetor to the industry — used on Dodges as well as other Chrysler cars— and Dodge Brothers had sales of 124,557 cars, but again ranked as the #7 automaker. The Depression hit late in the year, and over the next few years, many automobile companies went bankrupt. Chrysler survived it through numerous tricks, including combining dealerships to sell multiple brands, and offering employees the choice of layoffs or a pay cut (they took the latter).
Both of the Dodge Brothers engines were phased out in 1930, and replaced by a 190 cubic inch Chrysler six, with 60 hp and 120 lb-ft of torque (in 1930). During the life of Dodge Brothers as an independent company, they had used just four engines, in three displacements. They sold an impressive 90,755 cars for the year, which was also the first year for a factory radio in a Dodge Brothers car.
The 1930 Dodge also included the first ever Dodge Brothers eight-cylinder, a straight-eight with 221 cubic inches (smaller than the old six) and a downdraft carburetor. The Six now had a 109 inch wheelbase.
In 1931, “free wheeling” was added, the roadster was dropped late in the year, and Chrysler’s top engineering department added factory rust-proofing, automatic spark control, and valve seat inserts to dramatically increase the lifetime of the valve seats.
For 1931 or 1932 (depending on the source), Avard Fairbanks created a Ram hood ornament [story] in exchange for a new car.
For 1932, Chrysler’s Floating Power engine mounts were added, and an automatic clutch became optional, as Dodge slipped to seventh place with model year production of 27,555. One of the brands above them was Plymouth, launched the same year Dodge Brothers was acquired by Chrysler Corporation.
1933 brought slanting V-shaped grilles, raked radiators, longer hoods, and a quiet, helical-gear transmission; the price of the Dodge Six dropped to $585.
Depression sales and the success of the newly priced Dodge Six led the company to drop the Dodge Eight in 1934, while adding 117 and 121 inch wheelbases; for a single year, an independent coil sprint front suspension replaced the leaf springs. Steel wheels replaced the wood spokes. Visibly, the cars were completely redesigned, and said to be the most attractive in America. The company added the industry-first automatic overdrive transmission. Production shot up to 95,011, despite the Depression.
The end of an era came in 1935, when the Dodge Brothers Corporation was absorbed by the Chrysler Corporation, no longer a wholly owned company; this was part of a corporation-wide change, with Plymouth Motor Corporation and such also becoming divisions. The new division was not called Dodge Brothers, but simply “Dodge Division.” The story could stop here, but the cars remained labelled as Dodge Brothers for some time yet.
With sales remaining low throughout the industry, Dodge Brothers dropped to a single 116 inch wheelbase; having an interior temperature gauge (a Chrysler first) let the company put the radiator cap under the hood. 1935 also brought new 3/4 ton and one ton trucks, both based on the standard 1.5 ton pickups. Production reached a new high of 158,999, and the company hit the industry’s #4 position, with Chevrolet at #1, Plymouth #2, and Ford #3.
For 1936, production rose to a record 265,005, and wiring for a radio antenna was added for the first time, along with an all steel roof. 1937 brought a “safety interior” with recessed knobs, flush-mounted gauges, curved door handles to prevent snagging, built-in defroster vents, and better safety padding on the back of seats (mandatory seat belts were still decades away). A new hypoid rear axle let engineers drop the floor, and industry-first fully insulated rubber body mounts for a smoother ride.
1938 model-year production was less than half that of the 1937s, falling to 114,529, though the new Dodge Truck plant opened in Warren, Michigan, to become part of the massive “Dodge City” complex. The company made its last convertible sedan. The Dodge Brothers logo and name were phased out in the middle of the year, after growing wings and having an abstracted globe background during Chrysler ownership.
Just one year later after the final Dodge Brothers-labelled car were the 25th anniversary cars, dubbed Luxury Liners, with new fastback styling, an integrated trunk, headlights built into the fenders, coil-spring front suspension, and a V-type windshield. They made 179,300 Dodges in 1939.
Dodge Brothers’ second buyer, Chrysler Corporation, officially ended in 1998; a portion of what remained of the company was ejected in 2007, only to be purchased by Fiat, which renamed itself to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
Dodge Brothers and Dodge through the years
- Dodge trucks, from first to current
- Dodge cars, 1914-2015, year by year
- Dodge cars by name
- Wartime: Dodge Chicago • Radar
- Dodge trucks 1960 • 1983
- Front-drive performance 1983-1993
- Production figures: Dodge US • Dodge Canada
- How Chrysler Corporation bought Dodge Brothers
- Graham Brothers, builders of Dodge trucks
- Creators of the Chrysler car: Fred Zeder, Carl Breer, Owen Skelton
- Pioneers of the American auto industry
- Clessie Lyle Cummins, engineer of the Cummins diesel engines and inventor of the Jake Brake
- Lee and Richard Petty, legendary NASCAR racers
- Other bios • Chrysler history