1922 Dodge Brothers Winter Roadster car review (with video)
From 1914, when they started making their own cars, the Dodge Brothers were a major success. They set a record for first-year sales, building 45,000 cars in 1915, and were the fourth best seller in the US by 1916.
Tom Buss' 1922 Dodge Brothers "Second Series" touring car is similar to the original 1914s, though with many improvements and some cosmetic changes. Mr. Buss was kind enough to provide his car for a test drive on local roads.
Ride and handling
Designed before paved roads were common, the Dodge Brothers car had skinny bicycle-type tires with inner tubes, and a front-and-rear leaf-spring suspension that handled impacts well and could stand up to years of (ab)use. In our test drive, the car handled bumps and pot-holes well, cushioning blows and feeling something like a modern Power Wagon
Handling is hard to compare with modern car standards due to the low top speed of the 1922 cars. At its cruising speed, the Dodge Brothers touring car, despite worn tires, easily handled sharp turns, albeit with some driver effort.
There was no power steering on Dodge Brothers cars, or, indeed, just about any car of the time. An oversized real-wood steering wheel and light car with skinny tires all combined to make manual steering fairly easy compared to that of, say, a 1979 Volkswagen Rabbit. Once the steering wheel was moved from its well-defined center position, turning it further was easy. Thus, with the car moving at cruising speed, it was easy to make a 90° turn, and the car had no problem following the command.
The steering wheel did not vibrate much. We encountered one "death wobble
" type event due to a moderately bent front wheel, which started the entire front of the car vibrating alarmingly until speed was reduced (this happened on hitting unusual road conditions). The turning radius seemed compact even by modern small-car standards.
While the steering wheel was devoid of audio controls (no audio system), cruise controls, headlight stalks, and the like, it did have two attached controls: one for the engine timing, used only during warmup (or if particularly bad gasoline was encountered, back in the olden days), and one duplicate throttle control. The latter was probably in place because the engine was started by a button to the right of the gas pedal, so finessing a hard start could be hard.
The "oo-gah!" horn button was conveniently placed on the door, where the driver could reach it with an elbow while both hands were occupied. The switch was easier to operate than "over the airbag" designs.
One thing I cannot convey easily is how much fun it was to drive this car (and how terrifying, as well - not wanting to damage anything in the 92-year-old powertrain). The direct mechanical connection of car to driver is often lacking in newer cars, but with absolutely no sound insulation, no "floating power," no power steering, brakes, or anything else, the Dodge Brothers car brings you back to the reality of the simple motorized carriage.
Performance and driveability
There were no highways in 1914, when the first Dodge Brothers cars were made, and most roads were still dirt or gravel. The four-cylinder engine provided a then-reasonable top speed of around 35 mph, but most drivers probably kept it down to around 25, since the faster one goes, the noisier and more alarming the engine gets. You can decide whether the expected lifespan of 1920s cars or limited space is responsible for the odometer only reaching 9,999 miles. The practice of having the gauge's top speed far in excess of what the car can actually do, doesn't seem to be a modern innovation.
Dodge Brothers had one transmission, a three-speed manual; first gear was very low, to carry the car uphill when loaded with passengers or cargo. Normally, drivers would start in second, with third gear picking up the pace. Without any pressure on the gas pedal, in first gear, the car went at a slow walking pace; in the direct-drive third gear, it went to 10 mph, again without use of the gas pedal.
The clutch worked smoothly, but without synchronizers, drivers had to double-clutch or grind the gears. We had a few botched shifts this way, fortunately without (obvious) damage to the transmission.
The engine worked best when left alone, and had a small range of operation (peak horsepower comes at 2,000 rpm and redline is presumably slightly above that). The long-throw shifter was enjoyable, though it could be hard to find the gears.
Dodge Brothers included a way to pour fuel directly into each cylinder if the engine needed to be primed; in later years, this was deemed unnecessary. The vacuum tank
sometimes needed to be manually filled.
The engine started without problems, warm and cold. From a cold start, the manual choke could be slowly disengaged and the spark timing advanced from the steering wheel. On a summer's day this was complete around 30 seconds after startup.
A tachometer seemed unnecessary, as the engine rattled and shook and made a great deal of noise as it went faster; without any use of the gas pedal, it went smoothly and at a decent pace, without stalling. The 1922 Dodge Brothers car seemed much less prone to stalling than some modern cars (1979 Rabbit, I'm looking at you), even going uphill in higher than appropriate gears. Since the engine was designed for low-octane fuel, it did not ping even as it strained, at low rpm, to take steep climbs.
There was not much extra speed to be gained by running the engine faster; I found it more effective to change speed by changing gears or using the brake. The car often sounded as though it was stalling, but never did.
Despite the engine's 35 hp rating, the crankshaft was drop-forged chrome vanadium steel. There was no oil or air filter, but the oil had a strainer to keep larger objects from circulating.
Dodge Brothers, like many companies of the time, had mechanical brakes on the rear wheels only. There were two sets of brake pads, one for the foot-brake and one for the hand-brake. Pressing down hard on the foot brake seemed to act like a suggestion that the car may want to slow down at some point in the future; lifting one's foot off the clutch worked faster when going uphill or on a level surface. In a fight between the brakes and engine, in this car, the engine wins, though much of that may be a maintenance issue.
The hand-brake (or emergency brake) was more effective; part of that may have been its long throw, which I would estimate at being six times (or more) the sweep of a modern emergency brake handle.
Getting onto a main road required a great deal of patience, since the top speed was lower than the speed limit of most suburban feeder roads. Acceleration seemed fast but that was likely a combination of the low speed range and lack of sound insulation, and was pretty much limited to 0-35 mph.
The hood was easy to open - on either side, or both; each side was held down by two clamps (familiar to Jeep Wrangler owners), and the entire hood could also be opened across the entire engine. Access to all parts of the engine bay seemed essentially unrestricted.
Interior, comfort, and features
Getting into the Dodge proved to be easy, as long as one was not driving it. The steering wheel made getting in and out of the driver's seat a bit of a puzzle at first; exiting was not an issue. All doors opened to a full 90 degrees, with no detents in the hinges - and none needed, with their light weight.
Access to the passenger seats was easy, thanks to half-doors and running boards. A three-year-old could and did easily scramble into the back seat, which Tom set up with a modern child seat (using seat belts bolted to the frame and a long rear tether strap coming out the back of the fabric roof.) Door latches were simple and easy to operate, and very different in design from modern ones.
The interior was simple and generally devoid of plastic. Dodge Bros. brochures played up the steel bodies with enamel paint, and so it should be no surprise that the gauges were set in a steel dashboard coated with body-color enamel. The floor was covered wood; door panels appeared to be a heavy gauge cardboard, with provisions for hanging bags. The standard leather seats were originally stuffed with "real hair."
The Dodge Brothers car did not have rearview mirrors as a standard feature, though Mr. Buss attached a bicycle mirror to his as a partial solution (some have mounted mirrors onto the front fenders). The small plastic rear window was not large enough to be effective. The closeable split windshield let air come through at a comfortable pace, without hurting visibility; the small, single hand-operated wiper was a feature of dubious merit.
The car did not come with seat belts, airbags, turn signals, reverse lights, side lights, or brake lights. A single bulb lights the license plate fairly well, and doubles as a red tail-light if one is a few feet away from the car. Oversized headlamps provided enough light to run 20 mph at night, and had a dimmer, presumably if the battery was getting low. Mr. Buss attached reflectors to the rear bumper in lieu of tail-lamps. Driving at night in the 1920s was indeed an adventure.
The seats were surprisingly comfortable in front and back; leather was standard. The seats were comfortable and mildly supportive, perhaps more than those in the Ram Power Wagon we drove on the way over, though part of this may have been the effective of years of wear on the springs. Bench seats were standard in front and rear (on bodies with two rows of seats).
About the Dodge Brothers cars
The car had a four cylinder engine with low-pressure lubrication, a rear-mounted gasoline tank unprotected (in factory trim) by a bumper, and a vacuum tank system
, nearly universal for the day. The 212 cubic inch "reliable four" had launched in 1914 and was nearly unchanged since that time.
A centrifugal water pump provided even engine cooling; an updraft carburetor was attached to the block, without need for an intake manifold. A manual system let the driver choose between a cold- and hot-weather setups, drawing fresh air or air that had been drawn through the block. 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 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 steel bands (in previous years, wire bands were used).
The car had a 12 volt positive-ground system, altered in Mr. Buss' car to the conventional negative-ground system. 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.
Despite the top speed of around 35 mph, the speedometer went up to 60 mph; a trip odometer was standard along with an oil pressure gauge and ammeter (heat gauges were sold separately and installed atop the radiator). Leather seats were standard. The standard tires were 32 inches in diameter, and four inches wide.
Around 65,000 cars were built in this series; the touring car cost $880 and weighed 2,500 pounds. Buyers could opt for anything from a two-passenger roadster ($850 and 2,300 pounds) to a four-door fully-enclosed sedan with a steel roof ($1,440, and 2,940 pounds) which must have been an interesting drive with the little four-cylinder. The 1922 models were good to Dodge Brothers; they built 142,000 in the calendar year, 152,673 in the model year (there was a prior series of 1922s). That was a very good sales run for the era, and a premium car.
Options included front and rear bumpers (available separately), a spare tire cover, wire-spoke wheels, a "fat man" steering wheel (presumably with a shorter column), a heater, "Moto-meter" (radiator cap replacement with a temperature gauge built in), external rear-view mirror, external spotlights, side curtains, running board, and luggage rack.
About this particular car
This 1922 Dodge Brothers car is owned by Tom Buss, the third owner. The radiator and hood were higher than in past models (including the 1922 Series One), and a windshield visor was provided.
From here, we will call on Tom to talk about it:
Tom Buss is a board member of the National Chrysler Products Club and is active in the Skylands Region.
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I grew up watching TV shows like The Waltons
in the 1970s, and in the TV shows they had cars like Model A Fords. I've always wanted one of the cars with the flat radiators and the exposed headlights and all that.
I'm a muscle car guy primarily, but I saw this car advertised in Mopar Collector's Guide,
and kept an eye on it month-after-month and the price was going down. When I finally saw it, I was surprised that it was a complete car. The engine wasn't seized up. It wasn't running, but within a week of getting it home, I had it running.
The seller was a bartender in Rutherford, New Jersey. The car had been in his family since about 1964, since his father bought it. The son was always just tinkering with it, driving around the block. In the year 2000, he was in his early 60s, and he said, "I really can't keep this car if I have to pay the storage and upkeep." Like a lot of people with older cars, he was trying to find somebody that would take good care of it. Don't make it into a street rod; respect it. He made me promise I'd never sell the car.
My kids like it. My wife likes it.
I haven't had a lot of time or money to do much with it over the years. In 2001, I was driving it and broke a piston and a valve. It took me until about 2009 until I started working on it and got it running again. In 2011, I trailered it down to Lahaska for NCPC
. Then, in 2013, we trailered down to the Bird in Hand NCPC show. I'm intending to take it both to our show in Bud Lake in July
, and I'm hoping to take it to Macungie, which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Dodge Brothers this year.
The man who bought it in 1964, from a friend, ran a vegetable business in Passaic, New Jersey. He would take it from his home and drive it to his farm stand on the weekends. I was told by the son he hung stalks of bananas and stuff on it and parked it right out front so it'd attract business. He was about 17 years old at the time.
Even when the vegetable business closed, and after the father passed on, the son was trying to hang onto it and enjoy it. He didn't seem mechanically inclined, but he definitely had a passion for the car. His friend had a Charger and a subscription to Mopar Collector's Guide
. He said "You want to sell your car? I get a free ad in there."
When I got this car, I was trying to get some part of some kind in the auto parts store. The guy at the counter said, "I'm assuming you'd like to soup it up a little, wouldn't you?"
I said, "No, I'm going to keep it exactly as it is."
It needs a lot. The tires are bald and I need to tighten the brakes. It could use a paint job and upholstery. There's not a lot of time and not a lot of money, so over the years I've been keeping it running and safe, where we can use it. It's a lot of fun to just say "Hey, let's go for a ride," and get the family in the car and go around the lake.
To promote the NCPC
show, we drove down to the Wendy's in Danville because they have a car show every Wednesday night. I had never been there.
We got there late, around 7:00. Everybody was looking at us. We parked the car, and all the guys came over. I must've talked for an hour and 45 minutes, just guy after guy after guy, about what kind of car it is and does it have a vacuum tank and what year is it? That gave me an opportunity to talk about
and give out the literature.
I didn't want to drive it in the dark, though the headlights work, but when we got out of there it was 9:30. So we came up the five-and-a-half miles from Wendy's up to the house in the dark, at 20 or 25 miles an hour.
It gave me a little trouble when we were leaving. But when we came back, it ran like a sweetheart. It's a little seat of the pants. If this was an airplane, it'd be like a biplane with holes in the wings. But as long as it starts, it runs, it goes, and we enjoy it, that makes me happy.
[The Gabriel "snubbers" underneath] must have been made as an aftermarket item, because I've never seen them on any other car. Someday I'm going to take them off and have somebody rebuild them, but it's definitely an add-on.
I have an ammeter and a speedometer whose cable is broken at the moment. We have oil pressure.
The brake pads are riveted to their surfaces. You buy the material by the foot, then you rivet it in. When I bought the car, the material was good enough. I cleaned it, but I didn't replace it. [Chrysler invented bonded brake pads
After I got the car, I found a really nice fellow in the NCPC
that had a car like this, out in Ohio. He was a terrific resource; between him and the people in the Dodge Brothers club and a small mom and pop operation called Romar that makes Dodge Brothers items and sells them, it's been a tremendous help. A lot of people ask me how I get parts, and I say "Well, you just have to know the right people and you can get a lot of stuff." It's not a big problem.
I've cleaned the carburetor, and put new gaskets in. I've got a tank in the back, copper, with a quarter-inch copper line, and a vacuum tank which uses vacuum from the engine to pull fuel from the back. This tank has a valve inside, and it's constantly filling and emptying, filling and emptying. When I first got the car, I'd just cleaned up the vacuum tank and I would throw a quart of gas in and just drive it around for 15 minutes. It took some time to fix that.
The vacuum tank is important because there's no fuel pump. Sometimes if it hasn't been run for a while, I'll open the vacuum tank and fill it up with gas and away she goes.
I was told in 2001 that the running boards were from the wrong car. They probably rusted away or got damaged, and somebody along the way grafted them in, but they're probably similar. There are a couple of boards stuck under there to try to hold them up a little bit. Maybe someday I'll change them, but I'm okay with it for now.
Back in 2000, I wanted to go to the Wendy's car show and got about three miles down the road. I probably was trying to go too fast, and the engine started puckering and sputtering. I backed off, the engine settled in again, and I started going fast again.
I heard this bang, then "clink, clink, clink." I thought, "Something broke and is falling down into the oil pan." I got towed home. Sure enough, when I dropped the oil pan, I found pieces. I had blown a hole in the piston, and the head of the intake valve, that piston was gone.
The theory is the head of the valve broke, and it busted a hole in the aluminum piston. When I took the head off, I realized that the exhaust valve on the cylinder, where the firewall was, was also missing. You could smell the gas, but I didn't know until that time that I had no compression in that cylinder.
I replaced the piston with a lot of help from friends, using a new valve and new rings. My mechanic loaned me a tool for compressing the rings. I dropped the piston in on its connecting rod, straight down in, reconnected to the crank shaft. The hardest thing to repair. The oil pan, the float that tells you the amount of oil, is permanently attached inside the pan. It's just a stick, it looks like a piece of coat hanger, that goes straight up. You have to lift the pan with that piece of metal sticking up, and you have to find the place where it pops through the side of the block.
This pan is two feet long and probably weighs 30 or 40 pounds. I'm trying to prop it up. I ended up getting my wife out at 11:00 at night with a flashlight. She's holding the coat hanger piece trying to line it up for me, because I needed four hands. But for all the valves, the piston, all the things I had to do, that was the hardest thing. I never want to do that again. It was real sludgy in there, too.
I laid on the floor many a night with a toothbrush and brake parts cleaner, spray, scrub, spray, scrub. Then like a knife, a putty knife or something, just trying to clean as best as I could. People are saying to me "You've got to take the block out. You've got to have it rebuilt." Should I? I probably should, but the budget. Like I said, I'm just going to fix what's broken, and if it doesn't work out, I know what I've got to do. And you know what? People said it wasn't going to work out, and it worked.
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