February 5, 2007

Dodge

And the men behind the brand were...
John and Horace Dodge

John Dodge and his brother Horace were inseparable. The brothers survived high school in Niles, Michigan and hastily began careers as machinists. They worked as a team; hire one, hire both. John, four years older and more outgoing, would typically do the talking for the brothers with Horace remaining a shadowy presence.

They worked in Battle Creek and Port Huron and finally migrated to Detroit in 1886 where the Dodges worked for the Murphy Boiler Works. In 1894, at the age of 30, John was stricken with tuberculosis. Although he made a complete recovery the brawny John Dodge was no longer interested in the strenuous physical labor he had heretofore thrived on.

The brothers landed at the Dominion Typograph Shop, described as "manufacturer of typesetting machines and bicycles." In 1897 Horace Dodge patented a dirt-resistant ball bearing and the brothers started their own bicycle business, Evans & Dodge Bicycle Company.

Two years later the company was absorbed by National Cycle and Automobile Company, a Canadian firm. Horace was retained as a machinist in Windsor, Ontario while John was sent to manage a plant in Hamilton, two hundred miles away. It was to be the only time the Dodge brothers would ever be apart.

After a year the business was sold again and the Dodges received $7500 and royalties for the ball bearing. With this capital John and Horace returned to Detroit in 1901 and opened a machine shop. Unlike many machine shops of the day the Dodge Brothers did not operate out of a flimsy shack or backyard shed. They rented space in the attractive Boydell Building in downtown Detroit, giving the concern an aura of substance and vitality.

But finances were tight. When John's wife died later in the year he had to borrow money for her burial. One of the first orders to come to the Boydell Building was for some automobile engines from Ransom Olds, who was just starting to make cars. The quality of the Dodge engines was so superior that by 1903 Dodge Brothers was supplying all the transmissions for the popular Oldsmobiles. That relationship alone insured they would be one of the largest suppliers in the infant auto industry.

In 1903 John and Horace signed an agreement to deliver 650 "automobile running gears" to a new, undercapitalized and highly speculative venture - the Ford Motor Company. It was a strange business marriage. The Dodge Brothers were risking a highly prosperous business since they had to turn away every other client for this new car. There was no warm affection between Henry Ford and the brothers. In fact Ford, who was highly superstitious and said to look for a white horse every time he saw a redhead, must have suffered great consternation every time he dealt with the redheaded Dodges.

From the beginning it was apparent the Dodges were not going to receive payment on terms. As builders of the new Model A the Dodge brothers accepted ownership in the company to deliver the cars. All 650 Model A cars sold quickly when they reached the market and John and Horace were not only suppliers but part owners in a successful automobile business.

By 1906 Ford maneuvered partners out of the business and announced plans to manufacture engines himself. The Dodge brothers still owned 10% of the Ford Motor Company but were now only supplying axles and transmissions. It was obvious to John and Horace that it was only a matter of time before they would no longer be a Ford supplier and began making plans for their own car.

By 1913 John and Horace were ready. They cancelled their relationship with Ford and announced their intentions to build a touring car under their own name. The Dodge reputation set the auto industry abuzz. Twenty-two thousand people applied for a new Dodge dealership. The Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record predicted, "When the Dodge Brothers new car comes out there is no question it will be the best thing on the market for the money. The Dodge brothers are the two best mechanics in Michigan."

They set about to build the best car they knew how. Horace worked on the engine. John dropped tires off the roof of the four-story factory to see how they survived. He personally drove cars into a brick wall at 20 mph.

On November 14, 1914 the first Dodge, called "Old Betsey", was ready. In 1914 there were 120 new makers of automobiles in addition to the Dodge Brothers Motor Company. Five years later the brothers were the #3 car-maker in America behind only Ford and the new conglomerate, General Motors.

The plant was completely re-tooled, tripling capacity at a cost of over one million dollars, all Dodge money. Their entire lives the brothers never had a line of credit at a bank. Seeking to cut off the capital to a formidable competitor Henry Ford suspended dividends on Ford stock. The Dodges sued to force the dividends to be paid and a defeated Ford bought the last of their stock in 1919 for $25,000,000.

With their ownership in Ford and as makers of dependable cars themselves only Henry Ford amassed a greater personal fortune from Detroit's auto industry than John and Horace Dodge. Horace loved to spend his money on yachts, John lavished his riches on mansions.

In 1920 the brothers travelled to New York for a dealer's convention. Horace fell gravely ill from an undiagnosed malady. Keeping a round-the-clock vigil in the doorway between their rooms John also fell ill and deteriorated rapidly, dying two days later at the age of 56. Horace recovered but never completely regained his robust health and passed away before the year was out.

Rumors spread that the Dodge brothers had been poisoned in New York but doctors clung to a diagnosis of influenza. The minor scandal died away and their heirs quickly sold the company, leaving only the Dodge name as the brother's legacy to the auto industry.

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