Dodge at 100

Expect the same from the 2015 Challenger with a 707-horsepower Hellcat Hemi V-8, the most powerful muscle car to date.”
John Lamm

There’s something wonderfully red, white and blue about the manner in which the U.S. automobile industry grew. Inventors, tinkerers, men of vision, oftentimes starting with little money, wheeled us out of the so-called second Industrial Revolution, creating an industry that WardsAuto tells us produced 16,074,821 light vehicles in 2013.

It’s estimated there were more than 1800 attempts at gaining industrial traction building automobiles in the U.S., but all the majors disappeared save for Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Ford, GMC, Jeep, Lincoln and, now in its 100th year, Dodge.

Darn shame American Chocolate (1903-1906) and Seven Little Buffaloes (1909) didn’t survive…can you imagine their ad campaigns today?

A Dodge timeline begins in 1864 with the birth of John Dodge, followed four years later by brother Horace. Not uncommon in the history of car companies, the pair began in the bicycle trade but sold out in 1901 to open a machine shop that would become the largest in Detroit. They were soon supplying engines, transmissions and axles to many of the fledgling automakers–they created engines for Ransom E. Olds’ famed Curved Dash–but dropped that to concentrate on one customer: Ford.

Between 1903 and 1914, the Dodge brothers helped build Fords and in the process came to own 10 percent of the Ford Motor Company. They would sell that share for $25 million in 1919, but prior to that were part of a landmark law case against Henry Ford that dealt with shareholder value in a corporation.

Before that case was settled, the Dodge Brothers were in the car business for themselves as of 1914, adding commercial vehicles in 1917 and by 1919 assembling more than 100,000 units annually.

But not long to the profit of John and Horace Dodge. Both contracted influenza while attending the New York Auto Show in January 1920. John was dead by January 14, just 55 years old. Horace passed away in December at 52. The Dodge family kept the company until 1925, then selling out to a New York investment bank for $146 million in cash…$1.9 billion today. The other bidder for Dodge? General Motors. Dodge’s time as a stand alone lasted just three years before Walter P. Chrysler stepped in to make it part of his expanding corporation on July 30, 1928 at a cost of $170 million… $2.4 billion in 2014 dollars. The rest of the corporate story is, of course, history.

The reality is that if you wander today’s concours, you won’t find a large number of prewar Dodges. Its models were known more for their reliably and conservative nature than their beauty. Dodge was denied the admired-but-unsuccessful Airflow designs used by upscale Chrysler and DeSoto. This proved to be a sales blessing in disguise as buyers turned to the more conservative Dodge models.

Postwar, Dodge was more an able to keep up in the fin-and-chrome styling era, while Chrysler’s engine designers set a new standard with the Hemi V-8s. Visit a muscle car show instead of a classic concours and you’ll have no trouble finding Dodges. There will be Challengers, Chargers and Super Bees fitted with Hemis and, arguably the monster of them all, the 440 Six-Pack. Darn near 500 lb-ft of torque 45 years ago. The cars weren’t known for their build quality, but they sure could get your heart pumping.

A modern Viper keeps up the heart pumping part though thankfully not the quality concerns. Expect the same from the 2015 Challenger with a 707-horsepower Hellcat Hemi V-8, the most powerful muscle car to date.

We also need to do a tip-of-the-hat to the Dodge non-cars, to the minivan that created a not only a vehicle sales segment, but also a sector of American society. High points also to the Ram trucks, now their own division within the corporation but for decades a solid blue-collar moneymaker for Dodge.

Among the celebrations for its centennial, Dodge held a drive event for the press at Meadow Brook Hall, just north of Detroit. A National Historic Landmark, the Tudor Revival-style mansion was built by John Dodge’s widow, Matilda Dodge Wilson, finishing in 1929. Today it’s part of Oakland University, and Dodge provided 26 of its automobiles for the press to ride in or drive near the “castle.” Car ages ranged from a 1915 Dodge Brothers Touring car to a 2008 Challenger SRT. Only one complaint: The list included several Hemi-powered models, with a former drag car, a high-wing Charger Daytona and a NASCAR replica, but they banned burnouts or squealing tires.

Temptation, get thee behind me.

We’d been driving new Chrysler cars the day before, but the enthusiasm then couldn’t match the manner in which the press went after the vintage Dodges. Hard to say which was the most popular vehicle, though the 1941 Command Car military machine might be the winner. We worked our way through the gearbox of the 1919 4-door sedan and 1929 Roadster. Sampled the progress in body engineering by the time of the 1939 Hayes Body Coupe.

We chuckled over the push button automatic transmission in the 1956 Custom Royal Lancer. Were again amazed by the era’s very low effort, finger-light steering with absolutely no feedback to the driver. Marveled again at the genius of the first Dodge minivan. Remembered the thundering power of the Hemis and 6-Pak three-carb engines, but also the minimal quality of Dodges of the 1980s. Can’t wait to drive another Hemi Charger, but will also try to forget the front-drive Shelby Charger and Omni GLHS.

Modern Dodges aren’t like that. In the J.D. Power 2014 Initial Quality Study of new cars, Dodge fits between Nissan and Land Rover ahead of luxury brands like Infiniti and Acura.

Somewhat ironically, in its centenary year Dodge has been given a new and somewhat smaller role in what is now called Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. It will lose its minivan and mid-size sedan, but become the performance brand at FCA. The SRT group will be folded back into Dodge, bringing with it the Viper and other modern muscle versions.

The good news is that the products that began with John and Horace Dodge won’t be going the way of DeSoto, Plymouth, Pontiac and Oldsmobile. On to another 100 years?