Dodges have been part of the fabric of American life since Lyon’s Whelp arrived in Salem, Mass., in 1629 from Gravesend, England (along with sister ship Mayflower). Farmer William Dodge’s 280-plus acres in what is now Beverly, Mass., made him the largest planter of the era; and his many civic contributions set up the family for enduring success.
They spread rapidly, and one of the many Dodge outposts of the 19th Century was Niles, in southwest Michigan, where Ezekiel Dodge settled in 1830 and launched a marine steam engine shop. Several of his 11 sons, including Daniel Rugg Dodge, later assumed control. Daniel’s son John Francis was born in October 1864, and John’s brother Horace Elgin in May 1868.
While both were extremely mechanically inclined, older brother John was somewhat more reserved (although like Horace, not averse to beating a man unconscious on the street if he felt insulted) and a natural machinist; Horace had a hair trigger temper and was good with numbers. Together the redheaded Dodge boys became an unstoppable, inseparable force.
By the mid-1880s, the family had moved to Detroit, where the brothers worked first at a marine boiler factory, then at the Dominion Typograph Company’s machine shop in Windsor, Ont, Canada. At home, John had started inventing, and they shared a patent for a dust-shielded bicycle hub bearing in 1896. This was the foundation of their careers, and in 1897 they began production of the E. & D. bicycle (with Detroit manufacturer Fred Evans) at the Dominion plant. Horace also worked part time for Henry Leland, while Leland laid the foundations for Cadillac, in the late 1890s, and John was sick with tuberculosis.
The E. & D. bicycle was apparently quite successful, because when they quit the bike business in 1900, their share was worth $10,000, enough to start a machine shop of their own back in Detroit, where one of their first major contracts was producing engines for Olds, which must have soured relations with Henry Leland, who’d had his own Olds engine design rejected.
Within two years, the Dodge Brothers were among the largest suppliers in Detroit; by 1910 they’d established their vast 24-acre, 5,000-employee Hamtramck plant, capable of building a quarter-million complete cars a year. All of them for Ford.
In the early 1900s, Henry Ford’s reputation was mud, following several bankruptcies, and the Dodges might have been his last chance to find a supplier for his new Ford Motor Company. They understood the risk, and tried to make sure they got paid: They would own 10 percent of Ford, all rights to Ford in the event of another bankruptcy, $10,000 up front, and gave him five days to pay an invoice. In return, they’d borrow $75,000 for new tooling and other expenses, and build Henry Ford a car.
Dodge gave up all its other business to concentrate on Ford, churning out 650 cars in the first year for Ford to assemble. Dodge designed and built the complete Model T drivetrain, and most of the rest of the car, too—at the end of their work for Ford in 1914, their 5,000 employees were building a quarter-million transmissions, rear ends, crankshafts and front axles.
Neither company was thrilled with the arrangement. Henry Ford was uncomfortable with being dependent on a single supplier, and the Dodges knew Ford was looking for alternatives. They were also unhappy with their role in the shadows, and when, in 1913, they saw Ford building his (and the world’s) first moving assembly line and looking at 2,000 acres of land along the Rouge River, they took that as a signal to give a year’s notice on their contract.
They had one more fight with Ford to go, through, when Ford stopped paying dividends on stock in 1915. The Dodges, with 10% of the company, led a successful shareholders’ lawsuit that resulted in Ford buying them out for $25 million. With that much capital and the Hamtramck factory’s extra capacity, they essentially had an entire independent company ready to go.
The first Dodge was completed in November 1914. Their reputation and announced plans for a high-quality car led to over 21,000 dealership applications before the first sale, and in 1915, their first full year of production, they were America’s #3 brand with over 45,000 sales. An advertising campaign orchestrated by archetypal adman Theodore McManus with slogans like “Think of all the Ford owners who would like to own an Automobile,” had built demand throughout the summer of ‘14. Through the rest of the decade, they built hundreds of thousands of cars and soon, trucks.
Buyers and dealers may have literally lined up for Dodge cars, but acceptance within Detroit’s tony suburbs was more difficult. Their reputation as brawlers was made public in an article in the Detroit Times after John was in a lurid bar fight. He responded by first apologizing to the bar owner and paying up, then threatening to kill the paper’s owner. Horace was generally much calmer, but also once beat a man unconscious in the street after he made fun of Horace for being unable to crank his Ford. They would go out drinking—hard—together, in identically tailored suits, took up speedboat racing, and eventually insisted on all mail being addressed to both of them. Otherwise, they would refuse to read it.
Unsurprisingly, they were excluded from polite Detroit society, so they bought their way in. John was refused membership by the Detroit Club, but his fortune gave him access to power and he ended up as a Republican party kingmaker. When the Grosse Pointe Country Club wouldn't admit him, Horace built an enormous mansion on the adjacent property, with a 12-car garage facing the country club in order to make as much noise as possible. He also gave extensively to the Detroit Symphony and led the effort to build their Symphony Hall, where the Symphony still performs today.
Just as the Dodge Brothers lived together, they died together. John contracted influenza at the New York Auto Show in 1920 (the tail end of the global pandemic of 1918-1919 that killed millions) and died shortly thereafter. Horace, heartbroken, didn’t live out the year.
There are a million what-might-have-been stories in Detroit, but in 1920 Dodge had 20,000 employees, could produce 1,000 cars a day and was America’s number two brand. Despite capable management under longtime employee Frederick J. Haynes, the heirs displayed little interest in running the company, preferring to live off their vast wealth and in 1925 sold the company to a banking firm for $146 million in cash, at the time the largest cash transaction of any kind in American history. Three years later, Walter Chrysler took over.
If any of the prewar independents could have made it through the Depression and World War II, it was Dodge. They had the product, the resources, the capacity, the name and the sales to pull it off, and that there are Dodges today is still a huge credit to their success. But without the vision and steel of John and Horace themselves, it was just another company.
Hagerty’s Essentials is an ongoing series that helps introduce enthusiasts to people, places and things that every well-rounded car lover should know. Rather than being in-depth, Essentials is a quick take giving you a conversational knowledge and ultimately, an idea of how the whole fits together.