Few people are aware of the important role that John and Horace Dodge played in shaping Detroit’s early auto industry, and of the story of a dynamic partnership formed between two enterprising brothers who remained inseparable throughout their lives.
John (right) and Horace Dodge
Born into an industrious but poor family, Dodge brothers, John (born in 1864) and Horace (born in 1868), received their mechanical training from working in their father’s machine shop, in Niles, MI, that made internal combustion engines for marine use. The Dodge family moved from Niles to Battle Creek and then Port Huron before ending up in Detroit in 1886.
After their arrival in Detroit, the Dodge bothers quickly began sharpening their machinist skills by working in area machine shops, including Murphy’s Boiler Works in Detroit and Windsor’s Dominion Typography Company. By 1896, the brothers partnered with Frederick Evans and began manufacturing Evans & Dodge bicycles with the new dirt-resistant ball bearings that Horace had invented and patented. The Dodges sold their interest in the bicycle company in 1900 for $3,700, which they used to open their own machine shop in 1901. They initially produced stove parts, but soon began to manufacture parts for the growing automotive industry, building a strong reputation for turning out the best products available.
Evans & Dodge Bicycle
BUILDING AN AUTOMOTIVE EMPIRE
Their first major automotive customer was Ransom E. Olds, who hired them in 1901 to produce 2,000 engines for his new curved-dash Oldsmobile. Olds was pleased enough with their work to add 3,000 transmissions to his order the following year, making the brothers major players in the automotive industry.
1901 Olds Engine
The Dodge brothers were approached by Henry Ford, in 1902, with his plans for a new automobile and contracted with them to become the exclusive supplier of 650 chassis (engines, transmissions and axles mounted on frames- everything but the body, wheels and tires). When Ford, who was initially short on cash, couldn’t make a $5,000 payment, he offered the brothers 50 shares of Ford stock worth $10,000, making them 10% stockholders in the new Ford Motor Company.
In 1910, the Dodge brothers built an assembly plant in Hamtramck, which later became known as “Dodge Main,” to build Model Ts for Ford Motor Company because demand far outstripped Ford’s capacity. However, as Henry Ford expanded his capacity in the Highland Park plant, John Dodge, recognizing their exclusive contract with Ford was unwise, declined to renew their contract with Ford Motor Company in 1913 and stepped down as the company’s vice president. The brothers began planning production of their own Dodge automobile and established Dodge Brothers Motor Car Company with stock profits made from Ford.
In July 1914, the Dodge brothers incorporated as the Dodge Brothers Motor Car Company, with a capital stock of $5 million, which they increased to $10 million in 1917. In 1913, they had decided to manufacture and assemble their own automobile, severed relations with Ford, and began an ambitious program of plant expansion. The Dodge reputation for quality was so widespread that 13,000 dealers asked to become Dodge agents before anyone saw the new car. The Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record declared emphatically, "As a matter of fact, 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." The reason was simple "The Dodge brothers are the two best mechanics in Michigan. There is no operation in their own shop from drop forging to machining, from tool-making to micrometric measurement, that they can't do with their own hands."
The Dodge brothers decided to produce a high-quality car that would sell for about $800 and thus not compete directly with the cheaper Model T. In 1914, Dodge introduced its four-cylinder Model 30/35 touring car. Marketed as a slightly more upscale competitor to the Model T, it pioneered or made standard, many features later taken for granted like all-steel body construction, 12-volt electrical system, 35 horsepower engines, and sliding-gear transmission (instead of planetary). Once the Dodge brothers produced their own car, John Dodge was once quoted as saying, "Someday, people who own a Ford are going to want an automobile." As a result of this, and the brothers' well-earned reputation for the highest quality truck, transmission and motor parts they made for other successful vehicles, Dodge Brothers cars were ranked second place for U.S. sales, as early as 1916.
1915 30/35 Touring Car
Although total production for 1914 was a mere 249 touring cars, the following year. Dodge offered a two-passenger roadster, which also sold for $785, and the plant went into full production. They increased the workforce to 7,000 by April 1915 and, by the year's end, the firm produced an incredible 45,053 cars at the Hamtramck plant. The Dodge developed a reputation for dependability which helped sales greatly. During the 1916 expedition against the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa, war correspondent A.H.E. Beckett published several reports in Motor Age on the use of Dodge cars in the campaign.
The years following the Mexican Campaign were prosperous for the Dodge Brothers. Production climbed from 70,000 cars in 1916 to 124,000 the following year and reached 145,000 in 1920. Dodge was the fourth largest producer in the United States by 1917, behind Ford, Chevrolet, and Buick. The workforce also grew from 7,000 in early 1915 to about 20,000 by 1920.
1920 Delivery Trucks
Dodge Brothers cars continued to rank second place in American sales in 1920. However, the same year, tragedy struck as John Dodge was felled by pneumonia in January. His brother Horace then died of cirrhosis, in December of the same year. With the loss of both founders, the Dodge Brothers Company passed into the hands of the brothers' widows, who promoted long-time employee Frederick Haynes to the company presidency. During this time, the Model 30 was evolved to become the new Series 116 (though it retained the same basic construction and engineering features).
At the same time, Dodge Brothers greatly expanded its truck line and became a leading builder of light trucks. On October 1, 1925, Dodge Brothers, Inc., acquired a 51% interest in Graham Brothers, Inc., for $13 million and the remaining 49% on May 1, 1926. Haynes purchased all of Graham's truck activity and, in 1926, the Graham branch took charge of all of Dodge's truck manufacturing. A total of 60,000 Dodge Brothers trucks were built in 1927. The three Graham brothers, Robert, Joseph and Ray, assumed management positions in Dodge Brothers before departing early.
Despite the truck sales, stagnation in development was becoming apparent. The public responded by dropping Dodge Brothers to fifth place in the industry, by 1925. That year, the Dodge Brothers company was sold by the widows to the well-known investment group Dillon, Read & Co. for $146 million. Frederick Haynes remained as company head until E.G. Wilmer was named board chairman in November, 1926. Changes to the car, except for superficial things like trim levels and colors, remained minimal until 1927, when the new Senior six-cylinder line was introduced. The former four-cylinder line was kept on, but renamed the Fast Four line until it was dropped in favor of two lighter six-cylinder models (the Standard Six and Victory Six) for 1928.
1928 Senior Six
Due to mounting debts, the company was sold to the new Chrysler Corporation, in 1928, for $170 million. On January 2, 1929, Chrysler announced that it was dropping the Graham Badge and Dodge Brothers would be building Chrysler's trucks.
Ninety-two years later, in 2015, Dodge went back to its roots in an advertising campaign that featured the “Dodge Brothers.” The ads highlighted the Dart and Durango, as well as the “muscle car” Scat Pack trims of the Challenger and Charger.
The 60-second “First Dodge” ad shows that the competitive spirit of John and Horace Dodge developed early on. The brothers see a kid with a bike and decide to top it by concocting a bike of their own, the first vehicle they ever built.
The commercials echo the following sentiment: “Today’s Dodge vehicles have the same passion for performance as John and Horace Dodge established in the first vehicles they crafted, more than one hundred years ago.”
Here is a link to a video compilation of the Dodge Brothers ads that appeared on television: