dodge challenger and George Washington.
6 min read

Arsenal of Democracy: Dodge Brothers Build a Reputation

Throughout American history, the Dodge brand has maintained a strong bond with the United States military, from Chrysler Defense developing the first M1 Abrams tanks all the way back to when George Washington drove a Dodge Challenger to lead his troops to battle. The Father of our Country’s giant middle finger to the British with one hand, his flintlock pistol brandished through the sunroof with his other – all while mashing the gas pedal for an epic burnout and blasting Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” – was the boost in morale and firepower the Yankees needed to prevail in the Revolutionary War.

 

George Washington and his soldiers standing next to a Dodge Challenger

Horace and John Dodge sitting on a boat with sailor caps onOK, maybe my memory is a little blurred regarding some details of that last part. History was never my best subject; I can’t recall if I read that in a book or saw that in a documentary or a maybe a commercial. Either way, I don’t think it affects my point: The collaborations between Dodge, Chrysler and the United States armed forces have resulted in both incredible machines and borderline unbelievable stories. Now we begin an epic DodgeGarage series that will expound on both, along with what the Dodge brothers accomplished to get to that point.

American industry as a whole, and Detroit in particular, became revered as “The Arsenal of Democracy” during World War II, a reputation that has rightly endured. But the Dodge brothers impacted national defense years before President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pleaded for our country’s manufacturing assistance to aid the Allied Forces in its battle against the Axis of Evil. Even before the U.S. was drawn into WWI by German U-boats and intercepted messages, the Dodge brothers loved their country … and a good challenge.

Together, Horace and John Dodge were a force of nature in Detroit, in both the business and social scene (we’ll focus on the former now). Machinists by trade, they had as big of an influence on the city’s exploding automotive industry as anyone. The brothers invented both parts and innovative processes while developing a reputation for possessing elite mechanical minds. They supplied Ransom E. Olds with thousands of engines and transmissions before getting involved with a bizarre, brilliant man who had burned to ashes nearly every bridge he’d crossed up until that point: Henry Ford.

Henry Ford with his early race car. John Dodge all the way on the left.
Henry Ford with his early race car. John Dodge all the way on the left.

Ford was desperate, and considered a bad risk. He’d already sunk two automobile manufacturing ventures, and even the original Henry Ford Motor Company gave him the boot before they found success (with his design) as the Cadillac Automobile Company. Instead of developing cars to manufacture, he spent all of his time building and “perfecting” a one-off racecar, and then fiddling with pre-production prototypes that he wouldn’t release. At least not before his investors’ cash vanished. Kinda seems like an ironic start for the father of the moving assembly line – although, perhaps, that was motivation. In 1903, along with his one remaining partner, Alex Malcolmson, Ford was incorporating his latest company with very limited personal resources.

Dodge Brothers machine shop 1915
Dodge Brothers machine shop 1915

The Dodge brothers were already monsters in Detroit’s burgeoning industry. They owned and operated the sickest machine shop in Michigan, renowned for its size and performance. Henry Ford wanted them to build a car of his design, but the Dodge brothers weren’t about to jump into a project of that scale with no say. They were well aware of Ford’s track record with stakeholders, and actually were in the process of extracting payment for parts they’d already built for him, but rightly saw his limitless potential.

Dodge Brothers assemble the first touring car
Dodge Brothers assemble the first touring car

So with a very strict payment schedule, and a hand in the design of the parts they were creating, the Dodge brothers agreed to exclusively supply Ford with basically everything but the body of the automobile. Also, they were given 10% of the new Ford Motor Company. Technically, they made a personal investment of “only” $10,000 to buy in, but due to loans for tooling costs and the demand the production would put on their business, John and Horace were risking much more than $10K by throwing in with Mr. Ford.

The brothers had an interesting, contentious relationship with Henry Ford for most of the rest of their lives, but their gamble paid off financially in big ways, almost immediately. Ford was finally successful in crafting a passenger car for the people, due in no small part to the mechanical prowess of the Dodge brothers. Within the first five months, Ford Motor Company turned a profit of $37,000. Within a decade, hundreds of thousands of Model Ts were being purchased. John and Horace were compensated in a couple of ways: Once through their factory with the massive amounts of parts they were producing for Ford, and again with their 10% ownership of Ford Motor Company. The influx of money meant the brothers could do whatever they wanted. Which, in this case, meant leaving Ford in 1914 and establishing their own car brand: Dodge Brothers, Incorporated. In the end, the pair profited 32 MILLION dollars from the partnership.

Horace & John Dodge being driven in the very first Dodge Brothers car, 1914
Horace & John Dodge being driven in the very first Dodge Brothers car, 1914
1914 Dodge Touring
1914 Dodge Touring

Alright, I’m getting to the military stuff! So often this early automotive history is ignored or glossed over, with the Dodge brand getting very little credit for the cars built by Ford Motor Company, and I wanted to lay out the background of the Dodge brothers and their cars.

Despite Dodge Brothers, Inc. being a brand-new company, the Dodge brothers had been building cars for a decade. Before their first car was delivered, they had a reputation for the best mechanical work out there. Now in 1914, World War I was starting and the United States was readying itself for conflict. This is when, for the Army, the Dodge brand built its first pickup truck. That’s cool and all, but I believe I promised “borderline unbelievable.”

NEXT TIME: America’s First Motorized Attack

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