The Dodge Brothers Saga: The Chrysler Canada Story, Chapter 3

horace and john dodgeThe Chrysler Canada story has multiple beginnings. First there was Walter Percival Chrysler himself, a railroad man who learned the automobile industry at General Motors under Charles Nash and GM’s founder, William (Billy) Durant. The second beginning of the corporate empire was the Maxwell and Chalmers companies which were rescued from ruin by Chrysler’s astute business acumen. The third beginning of Chrysler’s story is that of the Dodge brothers, Horace and John.

The Dodge family came from tough if dour New England stock. Grandfather Ezekiel made the long trek from Massachusetts to Niles, Michigan in the 1830s in search of a better life. The riverside village had scarcely a dozen dwellings, but as a machinist he found work on the docks. He passed his extensive skills on to his sons Daniel and Caleb. Daniel Dodge had two children with his first wife—who died—and three with his second wife. The children from the second marriage were Della, John, and Horace.

John and Horace, like the rest of the family, were raised as strict Methodists. They were expected to excel in every way. After school, the redheaded brothers worked in the family machine shop where they became well-schooled in the family trade. Niles was not a great centre of commerce and the family moved on, eventually arriving in Detroit, not yet known as Motor City; Detroit was principally a trans-shipment point for rail and water-bound freight. It was 1886 when they arrived, and John was twenty-two while Horace was eighteen. They insisted on being hired as a team, and their vast work experience made them worth their weight on gold.

John and Horace both married around a decade later; not wanting to waste time, they took the boat to Windsor, Ontario, were married at lunch hour, and went back to work. The both started families, but their true love was inventing things when they weren’t working in the foundry. The boys ate lunch together every day and worked long into the night inventing things.

Dodge BrothersThe brothers tinkered with bicycles. Horace invented an advanced dirt-resistant ball bearing and they set up shop in Windsor, Ontario in 1897, building Evans & Dodge bicycles on Ouellette Avenue. Two years later, the company was purchased by National Cycle of Toronto.

In one of the only times the brothers were ever separated in their lives, Horace stayed in Windsor to look after the business and John moved to Hamilton, Ontario to manage another bicycle factory that National had acquired. A year later there was another takeover and the Dodge brothers found themselves unemployed, but with $7,500 in cash and nice royalties for the ball bearing.

The brothers bought a building and opened a machine shop in Detroit. Business was good; they stood head and shoulders above other machine shops in quality. Although their trade was mostly in railroad equipment, the horseless carriage was making its debut, and Ransom Olds placed an order for engines. He was so pleased with the high quality of work that he had the Dodge brothers build 3,000 transmissions for his Oldsmobile. They had to expand immediately. At the same time, the bicycle company in Canada failed. In lieu of stock and royalties, the brothers took the plants’ machines and moved them to Detroit. They were going to need them.

dodge brothers in the first dodge car

Only 11,000 cars were built in the US in 1903, but a good 30% of them were Oldsmobiles. Thanks to Ransom Olds, the Dodge brothers were already one of the largest auto parts suppliers in the country.

Next to call on the brothers was Henry Ford. The man from Dearborn had a bad reputation in Detroit, having already failed with two automobile companies. The brothers took a chance on him because he had impeccable backing from a banker, but Ford was given only five days to pay bills in full instead of the customary thirty. The Dodge brothers would build entire undercarriages in a new plant. Ford would supply the body, tires and radiators. Soon the troubled Ford company needed more capital and the Dodge brothers became shareholders, more to protect their investment than anything else.

Dealing with Henry Ford was quirky on good days. He feared redheads and believed that seeing one brought bad luck unless he immediately spied a white horse. Nonetheless they did business together and business boomed. A year later John and Horace were able to recoup the entire $162,000 they had invested in the shaky company. The brothers were content to expand their plants, supply parts to one and all, and let the money pile up.

The pair grew as eccentric as they were wealthy, wearing identically tailored suits and refusing to read mail that wasn’t addressed to “the Dodge Brothers.” They raced boats and got into local politics. By 1913 the brothers were worth a cool $50 million. The Ford Motor Company alone was contributing $10 million of that to John and Horace’s ledgers, and the mega-hit of the century, the Model T, was in its infancy.

The brothers built a new, extra-large plant in 1910. Five thousand men worked within its walls, with an annual payroll in excess of $6 million. The design was unusual; it had multiple floors, and the assembly line would eventually become quite complex, moving from floor to floor.

Dodge Main plant

John and Horace had grown up on factory floors; they made sure their employees were well cared for. The plant included a fully staffed medical clinic, a “welfare department” which looked after workers’ social needs, and a machine shop called “the Playpen” where men could fix or invent things after hours. Employees were served huge platters of monstrous sandwiches and pitchers of beer at lunch hours, daily, all paid for by the company. In the horrendous heat of summer, beer was served in the afternoons in the foundry and forge so that the workers might slake their thirst.

1920 dodge brothers cars and engine

All was not well, though, in Motor City. Henry Ford wanted all the profits from the Ford Motor Company for himself and tried to cut out the Dodge brothers in a serious of legal maneuvers. They all wound up in court, where the judge ruled against Ford; John and Horace walked away from Ford with a cool $25 million in cash.

dodge brothers emblemJohn said, “Someday, people who own a Ford are going to want an automobile.” Now was the perfect time. The brothers had the facility and the know-how to build a car named after themselves. The Dodge Brothers trademark was intertwining Greek deltas, standing for the letter “D,” and later mistaken for a Star of David. Incorporated in June of 1914, every penny of the $5 million worth of stock was owned by the two brothers. As soon as the news broke some 22,000 people rushed to apply for Dodge Brothers dealerships.

When the Dodge Brothers’ automobile entered the market in 1914, it was one of 250 new cars. The brothers’ sterling reputation caused Dodge Brothers to rise like cream to the top of the pail. Dodge Brothers would be the fourth-best selling car in the United States in its first full year on the market.

1920 Dodge MainThe plant tripled in size for the new job. John took one of the new cars and smashed it into a brick wall at twenty miles an hour to study the results. It was a superior vehicle, with a four-cylinder L-head engine rated at 35 horsepower. Horace had looked after the engine design. It had a twelve-volt electrical system—rare for its day—and an electric starter. The all-steel body was designed by the Budd company. The massive, 2,000-pound cars were finished in black paint and stood seven feet from the ground.

Priced at $785, Dodge Brothers nearly double the price of Henry’s Model T, but the men were wise enough to leave the low-priced field to Ford The word spread like a prairie grass fire that the Dodge Brothers’ car was as dependable as the brothers were honest.

In 1917, Dodge Brothers cars went on sale in Canada as imported vehicles. Five years later, Dodge Brothers was the third best selling brand of automobile, behind Ford and the combined output of General Motors.

1920 Dodge carThen tragedy struck. While in New York City for the unveiling of the 1920 automobiles, John became ill. Horace addressed the assembled dealer body alone, then hurried to his brother’s bedside. John died several days later. Horace, lost without his brother, went into decline and died in December of the same year at his winter home in Florida.

The brothers left behind complicated wills which left their families with limited monthly allowances. It didn’t take long for the widows to sell Dodge Brothers through competitive bidding. The winner was Dillon Read & Company, which paid $146 million for the right to manufacture Dodge Brothers cars.

Dillon Read was better at banking than manufacturing and they tried to move the Dodge Brothers upscale, pricing cars as high as $2,000. People didn’t buy. By 1928, the company was nearly broke and there wasn’t enough cash in the kitty to meet the next payroll for the 20,000 workers. Dodge Brothers was up for sale. Enter Walter P. Chrysler. See the full Dodge Brothers story at allpar.

James C. Mays’ writing can also be seen on the OldCarsCanada site. Also see: Chrysler Canada summary • Canada at Valiant.orgFargo Trucks

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