Arsenal of Democracy: America’s First Motorized Attack

If a tornado were a man, I’d imagine his bio would resemble that of George S. Patton. Patton was, for better or worse, a force of nature. His grandfather was a Civil War colonel and his father was an accomplished lawyer and semi-successful politician. His mother brought the family into money, owning businesses and a large amount of Southern California farmland. He could have chilled out in Los Angeles growing oranges and selling wine, but military service, and competition, was in his blood. He battled in the Olympics as a pentathlete in 1912. He was the Army’s first “Master of Swords” and an elite shooter, known for carrying two ivory-handled revolvers on his hips. Patton also scowled and called it his “war face,” questioned the merits of denazification, and believed he was a reincarnated Roman legionary. He was a complicated individual and leader. But what does any of this have to do with John and Horace Dodge, Detroit and the Arsenal of Democracy? We’re getting there, but the story is so nuts, I feel the need to supply some context.


Early in his military career, before World War I, before he was given command of the Third Army, before his display cases were filled with medals earned in battle, and before Hitler called him “that crazy cowboy General,” George S. Patton was simply a West Point graduate looking for action. Then Pancho Villa happened.

The political landscape between Mexico and the U.S. in the 1910s was as treacherous as the actual landscape between the countries. The Mexican Revolution was in full swing, as was the violent Border War it spawned. The revolution did not go as planned for Pancho Villa and he ended up poking the red, white and blue bear with raids on American towns and executions of civilians, which provoked a full-on American invasion.

President Wilson, despite a seemingly imminent entry into the First World War, ordered General John J. Pershing across the border into Mexico with thousands of men to disband the bandits, and to capture or kill Pancho Villa.

This was in the spring of 1916, and Gen. Pershing was on the cutting edge of Warcraft, which was becoming increasingly mechanized. Even at this point, most soldiers used horses, but that was rapidly changing. The previous year, Pershing had been assigned a 1915 Dodge Brothers touring car while at Fort Bliss, and he loved it. When the time came to order personal transport for him and his staff for the expedition, there was no question of which brand he demanded.

The Dodge Brothers had a reputation for quality well before they started their own stand-alone car company, having supplied the likes of Ransom Olds and Henry Ford for years. They were the largest parts manufacturer in Detroit before they split with Ford in 1914 in order to build their own car. Their machining and mechanical prowess, combined with unique bodies stamped from steel and welded together, put the Dodge Brothers’ touring car at the top of the hill when it came to performance and dependability. In fact, Dodge literally invented the word “dependable” in its post-Border War advertising campaign.

The terrain in northeast Mexico tested the grit of man and machine alike. Pershing special ordered Dodge Brothers touring cars for the expedition. They wore a unique khaki color to blend in, with special canvas tops and interiors to withstand the elements. Each car had water jugs, food storage units, a tent and a spotlight. The car’s track was actually 4” wider than a normal DB touring car in order to tackle the uneven surfaces they operated on.

In talking with war correspondent A.H.E. Beckett, courrier Dick Evans would say, “The factory engineers never even thought of such tests as [Pershing] is now giving their cars . . . The cars have to be driven through sand, over loose rock, up and down grades and even across mountain streams. The staff cars stand up remarkably well. General Pershing has ordered that only Dodges be used by his staff. The cavalry can’t keep up with the motor car, even over such rough country as has been traversed in Mexico.”

A.H.E. Beckett commented, “Some day, perhaps, there will be a poet who will write the modern version of the “Charge of the Light Brigade,” but he will not write of horses, but of motor cars.”

Those who questioned the veracity of these statements didn’t have to wait long for an answer.

A month after the interview with Evans was published in Motor Age magazine, Pershing’s Dodges accomplished something his men on horses could not.

In the first motorized military attack in United States history, George Patton led a trio of Dodge touring cars – in Pershing’s personal car – to strike a farm where Cardenas, Poncho Villa’s right hand man, was hiding.

The story goes, Patton was making a run to buy supplies from locals when he got word that Cardenas was at the farm. He’d already performed recon on the area, as they suspected Cardenas would come back there to visit his wife. Now, Patton decided his small group of men, with the advantage of their speedy Dodge cars, could shock and awe the rebels. This was a bold decision, considering no assault in the history of American warfare had ever used motorized vehicles. The ensuing shootout was legendary. He and his men kept their cool under fire and took out three of Villa’s top men; and as the Americans left the farm, they did so as quickly as they first attacked, because a band of 40-50 bandits had arrived for back-up! Again, the horses could not keep up with the Dodges. As word leaked with the details of the attack … the gun handling, the marksmanship, the Dodge cars, the escape …Patton’s ascension to hero status was launched.

The soon-to-be Lieutenant Patton wasn’t going to return to the base empty handed, though. He wasn’t going to make General Pershing take his word that he killed the trio of Villastas. Remember in Game of Thrones where any time you needed to prove you’d terminated a life, you must cut off the head of the victim to show the king? Well, Patton didn’t decapitate anyone. He did, however, strap the bodies of the three deceased men to the hoods of their three Dodge cars for the duration of the trip home. Legend has it that Pershing was both grossed out and impressed with Patton’s bloated, raunchy “trophies”, and ordered their immediate burial. Of course, no detail of this insanity slipped past the media, and his picture and the story was in every major paper across the U.S.

“We couldn’t have done it with horses, the car is the modern war horse,” Patton said. The Dodge Brothers automobile was now cemented as a necessary battle machine in the mind of General Pershing. Immediately following Patton’s excursion, Pershing placed an order for 250 more. Some would remain cars, others would use the chassis as a base for ambulances, panel trucks and other light-duty trucks. When the Mexican Punitive Expedition ended, it was to concentrate on the World War Roosevelt finally entered. Pershing was sent to France and headed up the American Expeditionary Force, and he made sure the remainder of his 250 Dodge cars were forwarded there.

Pancho Villa was so blown away by the touring car’s performance that he ended up buying one for himself! It’s the car he ended up getting gunned down in a few years later in 1923.

The Dodge brothers themselves loved the attention, the fact that they were now battle tested and military approved. For an upstart car company, this was publicity that you just couldn’t buy; and within a few years, they were the 2nd best-selling car in America.

For Dodge, this was merely the beginning of a long relationship with the United States military. A year after Patton’s exploits, Washington, D.C., was talking to John and Horace about another collaboration for WWI, and this one didn’t involve cars at all!

Next time…

Past Arsenal of Democracy Installments:

Arsenal of Democracy: Dodge Brothers Build A Reputation