Dodge brothers didn't live to enjoy success

May 06, 2007|By JASON STEIN

John and Horace Dodge could have never imagined what would transpire. That two brothers' dreams would turn into one solid deal, that would turn into another venture, that would eventually turn into an auto empire.

The Dodge brothers could barely see tomorrow. They were too concerned with making the most of today. You could see it in their brashness, their toughness and the deal-making, saloon-wrecking style that was the stuff of Detroit automotive legends.

Their success would begin so fast. It would end so soon. But, oh, what a middle.

Like the night in November 1914, when Horace and John announced during a public party at Detroit's posh Book-Cadillac Hotel that they were building their own motor car. The announcement, a direct response to Henry Ford's surging Model T business, was punctuated by John Dodge's drunken celebration march up and down the banquet tables smashing light bulbs in the chandeliers with a cane.


Or there was the time earlier that year when Horace Dodge was denied admission to the fashionable Grosse Point (Mich.) Country Club because his style didn't fit the club's social mold. Undeterred, Dodge retaliated by building a Renaissance-style home on property directly next door to the club, a residence opulent enough, he said, to make its neighbor "look like a shanty."

Drunken nights. Barroom brawls. Social disputes. Despite their troubled image away from the assembly floor, their reputation as car builders was highly regarded.

Dodge meant dependability long before an ad department told you so. It was a rugged reputation built on the backs of vehicles that were made to last. And it was developed from two men who knew what it meant to start from nothing, and didn't care if they left with anything.

Born three years and 65 days apart, John and Horace, as young men, took their burgeoning bicycle business from dirt-poor, depressed Niles, Mich., through the streets and small towns of the state by building components and growing by word of mouth. They worked in a world all their own, fixing anything and everything that crossed their path. And the path would become more interesting than they could imagine.

As the new century unfolded, the brothers' machine shop grew and they eventually moved to downtown Detroit, converting to the manufacture of automobile parts as the young industry grew. Ransom E. Olds had commissioned the Dodges to make 3,000 transmissions for his company, Olds Motor Works. That same year, the brothers also took a chance and retooled in anticipation of the yet unknown Ford Motor Company. They even became minority stockholders in the new endeavor.

As the years followed, the business flourished, and so did a reputation for building the best. They were a team intent on turning an impoverished beginning into business success, and just as intent on celebrating it. John was the astute businessman; Horace the mechanical genius. Both knew how to live. They built homes across the country. They entertained with wild parties. And they knew what they wanted.

But after offering improvements to Ford over the years, they hit a wall with the Model T. Henry Ford would take no suggestions on his new model. When demand far outweighed Ford's capacity, the brothers offered to help build Ford's car. But as Ford kept expanding, the brothers could see their future was drying up.

By 1914, they were set to build their own car just as the auto industry began to flourish, improving on what they believed to be Ford's many defects. It would be a roaring success.

Just as well known for their integrity as their escapades, the Dodge brothers began building an empire. Buyers soon gobbled up the new Dodge's durability. Letters from buyers of early Dodges praised the power and rugged construction of the new vehicles, but mostly, they were solid.

The Dodges made trucks. They made ambulances. American General John Pershing used Dodge cars to chase Pancho Villa and other Mexican bandits back over the border. American troops used three Dodge touring cars to charge bandit headquarters 200 miles south of El Paso in the first motorized combat operation by the U.S. Army.

They even invented a word that Webster had not included in his first dictionary: dependability. The word was coined by Theodore MacManus, a marketing genius for Dodge, who had also worked for Cadillac.

By 1917, the Dodge nameplate was No. 4 in the country, employing more than 20,000 people.

They built together, planned together, dreamed together and died together. Three years later, it was all over.

The Dodge brothers were enjoying incredible success when, in January of 1920, they attended the International Automobile Show in New York. While there, both John and Horace contracted influenza. Within a month, John was dead at age 56. Eleven months later, Horace died at age 52.

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