dodge

AT THE TURN OF THE 20TH century, watches were typically found in vest pockets. And a pocket watch is a perfect metaphor for the Dodge brothers. They worked like a precision instrument, their two talents meshing seamlessly in clockwork fashion. John, the elder, was the visionary, handling the business end of things, while Horace was the mechanical genius who knew how to keep the enterprise ticking.

The mainspring was their humble upbringing. John was born Oct. 25, 1864, followed by Horace about three and a half years later, on May 17,1868. Born into a family of machinists—their father, Daniel, and two uncles practiced the trade—the pair grew up in southwest Michigan in the small town of Niles, before their father moved the family first to Battle Creek and then Port Huron before settling in Detroit in 1886.

The brothers worked at Murphy Boiler Works in Detroit doing rough machining work for six years before finding new jobs across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario, at the Dominion Typograph Co., where they added precision machining to their repertoire.

In 1896, after Horace invented and won a patent for a new kind of bicycle wheel bearing, the brothers struck out on their own. They started a Canadian bicycle company with Harold Evans, whom they had met while employed by Dominion. The Evans & Dodge Bicycle venture lasted just four years—the Dodge siblings sold their shares in 1900, taking their expertise back to Detroit, where they established a machine shop.

A year later, they landed a contract to supply Ransom Eli Olds and his Olds Motor Works with engines for the famed Curved Dash. It was their first foray into the burgeoning automotive industry, and the Dodge Brothers machine shop was located a few blocks north of the OMW factory, which was on the Detroit River. The Olds site is now a parking lot in the shadow of General Motors’ Renaissance Center headquarters.

A devastating fire in 1901 destroyed much of the OMW factory and, in turn, created the opportunity for more work for Dodge Brothers—the company was contracted to supply more than 2,000 transmissions to Oldsmobile.

Meanwhile, Henry Ford, after failing twice to start a car company, turned to Dodge Brothers to supply a wide range of components for his original Model A. Ford’s third run at launching a car company proved to be the charm, thanks in no small part to Dodge Brothers. In fact, so successful was Dodge Brothers that the company supplied virtually complete chassis to Ford—Ford only needed to add a body and wheels to finish cars.

The relationship grew as Dodge churned out a generation of Ford vehicles, including the Model С and Model F, although Ford’s Model В (which contained some Dodge content) relied on other companies for parts as a way for Ford to retain some leverage over its main supplier.

Still, in the rough-and-tumble early days of the auto industry, it was hardly smooth sailing. Due to Ford’s low capitalization when it was incorporated, payments to Dodge Brothers were slow. But even this dark cloud had a silver lining that would turn to gold for Dodge.

To settle some bookkeeping, Dodge Brothers wrote off $7,000 in overdue payments and took a $3,000 credit in exchange for a 10 percent share of Ford Motor Co. in 1903. It turned out to be the deal of the still-young century.

Not only did Dodge Brothers profit handsomely over the next 10 years from its exclusive supply contract with Ford, their holdings in Ford paid millions in dividends. Getting those dividends from the notoriously tight-fisted Henry Ford, however, proved difficult. The Dodge brothers joined a 1916 lawsuit brought by malcontent shareholders, forcing Ford to share its cash hoard. The Dodges finally sold their 10 percent stake in 1919 for $25 million.

The decade-long relationship with Ford (along with the money earned from fellow industry pioneers) allowed Dodge Brothers to expand, building a larger machine shop around the comer from its original shop, followed by a much larger factory in Hamtramck in 1910.

Hamtramck was a Polish enclave located just a few miles from downtown Detroit and not far from Ford’s new assembly plant in Highland Park. Dodge Brothers’ new factory would later be known as Dodge Main and proved to be the ideal launching pad for the company’s first car.

What drove Dodge Brothers to build its own car isn’t particularly clear-cut. Historian Richard Crabb maintains that it was a desire by the brothers to build a better car than Henry Ford, fueled in part by the automaker’s refusal to incorporate product improvements suggested by his erstwhile suppliers.

Charles Hyde’s authoritative work, “The Dodge Brothers; The Men, The Motor Cars, and the Legacy/’ paints a slightly different picture. According to Theodore MacManus, who ran an ad agency that had Dodge as a client, the brothers met with their attorney Howard B. Bloomer, who asked them why they didn’t consider building their own car. John Dodge is said to have been content with the Ford business and the dividend income, and didn’t want to have the hassle of retailing cars to the public. But Bloomer advised them that their total dependence on Ford could be their undoing. The next day, John and Horace met again with Bloomer and agreed with his assessment.

By August 1913, John Dodge was publicly quoted as saying that he and his brother had been making plans to build their own car and had begun buying property to expand their Hamtramck plant. “Our business has grown too big to be dependent upon anyone else and we have decided to go into the manufacture of automobiles for ourselves,” he told the press. In July, he had notified Henry Ford that Dodge would cease all work for him in 12 months’ time.

As the work for Ford wound down, Horace Dodge shifted into high gear in developing the new car. Helping him was Frederick J. Haynes, whom the brothers had first met back in their Evans & Dodge Bicycle days. Haynes came to Detroit from the H. H. Franklin auto company in Syracuse, N.Y., and proved instaimental in transitioning the plant from making components to building complete automobiles.

The first car, dubbed “Old Betsy,” rolled out of the plant on Nov. 14, 1914. Guy Ameel, superintendent of production, was behind the wheel, driving John and Horace Dodge around Detroit.

While purported to be the first Dodge car off the assembly line, the press previewed “Old Betsy” before the roll-out ceremony, where they learned that she was, in fact, a development car. This canny use of the press was key to Dodge Brothers in not only building demand for the car, but also attracting the dealer network needed to launch and sustain the business.

Dodge’s first dealer was John H. Cheek of Nashville, Tenn. The son of Joel Cheek, who founded Maxwell House coffee, Cheek’s father urged him to travel to Detroit to talk to the Dodge brothers. Cheek, who sold Chevrolet and REO cars through his Cumberland Motors, won the franchise and sold the first retail unit on Dec. 22, 1914, and later gave up the Chevy business. When questioned by John Dodge about his high initial order of cars, Cheek responded, “If you don’t shoot for the moon, you will never hit it.” Chief among Cheek’s later customers was a famous World War I hero, Sgt. Alvin York—Cheek not only sold York his first car but taught him how to drive.