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The Dodge Brothers - John and Horace Dodge
By: Lawren Dame \ Associate Editor \ September 3, 2014
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From impoverished beginnings arose a success story of two inseparable brothers who would change the automotive industry as we know it: John Francis Dodge and Horace Elgin Dodge. Born on October 25, 1864, young John Dodge couldn’t be separated from his brother, Horace—from his very first day of life, May 17, 1868, right up until his very last. The boys were the best of friends, and grew up playing in the streets of Niles, Michigan, where they were born. They picked up on the intricacies of mechanics at an early age by working with their father, Daniel Rugg Dodge, in his machine shop, which built and maintained engines for river boats.
Daniel also operated a foundry—a factory that produces metal castings—and this gave his sons early experience in metal-working in addition to their mechanics knowledge. The family lived off of the money their father made from the boats traveling the St. Joseph River, and the brothers used this opportunity to understand machine parts inside and out. The shops didn’t provide much of a living, unfortunately. The family couldn’t afford shoes for the boys and their sister, so they all trekked shoeless to school—even in early winter. Both boys were able to complete their education nonetheless, John graduating from high school in Niles, and Horace finishing up from home in his father’s shop.
Ironically enough, as transportation made a transformation throughout the United States to dependence on railroads and roadways, people left the riverboats—and sunk the Dodges even deeper in poverty. The family moved to Port Huron in 1882 in the hopes of better business, packing their bags again four years later to relocate to Detroit to be near the Detroit River. Though the booming innovation of the transportation revolution initially meant bad news for the Dodge family, it would prove to become the gateway to the Dodge brothers’ success.
Upon their arrival in Detroit in 1886, John and Horace began honing their skills in the machine industry. They gained employment at such machine shops as Tom Murphy’s Boiler Works in Detroit and Dominion Typography Company across the river in Windsor, Canada. This gave them the opportunity to produce machines that utilized precision to cut printing type, as well as improving the company’s Maple Leaf bicycle with a device of Horace’s creation—a dirt-proof ball bearing that he devised at his home workbench and patented himself. As John was apt when it came to finances, he arranged for financial backing to build the first Dodge vehicle—a bicycle utilizing the ball bearing. It was now 1896, and the brothers joined with Frederick Evans to sell their innovative Evans & Dodge bicycles. With the profits they received by redeeming their interest in the company in 1900 for $3700, they were able to open their very own machine shop in 1901. Producing stove parts from the get-go, the brothers finally realized their true potential and began assembling parts within the booming automotive industry. As the industry grew, so did the Dodge brother’s fame as producers of some of the finest machinery on the market.
A year after they began production, the brothers were commissioned by their first major automotive customer, Ransom Eli Olds. His claim to fame: the Oldsmobile, which ran on engines built by the Dodge brothers themselves. John and Horace built 2,000 engines for the new curved-dash Olds in 1902, Ransom was so delighted with their craftsmanship that he requested 3,000 transmissions for the upcoming year as well, boosting the brothers to major automotive notoriety.
Meanwhile, as the Dodge brothers were busy gaining recognition for their work, the infamous Henry Ford was establishing progress with his new ideas for a car company. John and Horace hit it off with Ford, and were so intrigued by the make of his cars and engines that they put their business future in his hands, signing a contract to become the exclusive supplier of the models chassis. According to contract, the brothers would produce 650 chassis to near entirety, each consisting of the engine, transmission, and axle mounted on a frame, and only lacking the wheels, tires, and body. At one point during their partnership, Ford was unable to make a $5,000 payment to the brothers, and thus offered 50 shares of Ford stock valued at $10,000, which made them ten-percent stockholders of the newly-formed Ford Motor Company. Horace and John were now profiting doubly; they were not only making money selling car parts to Ford, but they simultaneously owned stock in a company that was only going up from here on out. In fact, the brothers would come to gain millions of dollars because of this initial stock investment.
“I'm tired of being carried around in Henry Ford's vest pocket." John Dodge 1913
With tempers flaring between the brohters and Ford and this burgeoning increase in wealth, the Dodge brothers started investing their income in feeding their business. They extended the shop to keep up with their developments with Ford, and in 1910 moved into a newer, larger facility in Hamtramck. In addition, they started establishing the ground work for a new car to be built and manufactured exclusively by the two of them, with the knowledge that depending on Ford exclusively as their major source of income could backfire. That year, the brothers declined to renew their contract with Ford. This resulted in John’s resignation from his position as Vice President of the Ford Motor Company as of August of 1913. The next step for the brother-partnership was to expand the factory in Hamtramck for production of their Dodge vehicle. John and Horace had the added benefit of the press’ backing when it came to such decisions. Newspapers gleefully announced the upcoming prospect of a 1914 Dodge car, and journals across the nation gave special attention to Dodge’s plans due to the auto industry’s recognition of the large role the brothers paid in Ford’s success. In August of 1914, The Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record labeled the Dodge Brothers “the two best mechanics in Michigan,” saying that “to a great extent, the splendid work of the Dodge Brothers [and] their quality production, has been the silent compelling factor behind the record-breaking sales of Ford.” The nation held its breath, awaiting the arrival of a reasonably priced, four-cylinder competitor to Ford’s Model T.
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On July 15, 1914, the Dodge Brothers built their final Ford part. That same month, The Dodge Brothers Motor Car Company was born with $5 million in common stock. At this time, they were so well-known for the quality and dependability for their work that 22,000 customers applied for dealerships before any information about the upcoming automobile was even released. November 10, 1914, brought the first car produced entirely by the brothers for their own company, the 1915 Dodge Brothers Model 30-35 Touring Car. The Dodge brothers’ automobile bore many improvements in comparison to its Ford forebear, which only a year ago had been built with Dodge parts. This car featured a self-starter that rarely required cranking, and a hand-controlled fuel pump that allowed the vehicle to ascend steep hills without making the driver change his gear to reverse and make its way up the hill backwards, as Model Ts were known to do. The Dodge model contained many enhancements which Ford had previously rejected for the Model T; it was overall a much-improved make, and the price was for only $100 more.
By the end of their company’s first year of production, John and Horace were already hatching plans for their 1915 Dodge makes, including a two-passenger Roadster with a rear luggage compartment and the first closed car: a center-door Sedan. Dodge trucks and cars were so dependable and well-received that they made a huge cameo by the American forces in World War I. By the time the war was over, the Dodge Brothers plant was ranked fourth in production among American car producers. They were in such demand that by the summer of 1919, the Dodge factory was producing 500 cars per day and still ran behind in requests of orders from dealers. Horace and John were undoubtedly in high spirits upon leaving Detroit to head to the 1920 National Automobile Show, reveling in the glory brought on by their skill and fame. Disaster soon struck within that very same week, however; Horace Dodge became deathly sick with the flu, and John, rushing to be with his brother, caught it soon after. John’s lungs had a weak disposition due to a bout with tuberculosis over 20 years prior, and this new onslaught was too much for his body to bear. On January 14, 1920, John passed away. For the first time since his birth, Horace Dodge found himself without his brother. Lost and abandoned, grief and drink overcame him. Following in his brother’s footsteps, Horace, too, died within the year—on December 10, 1920--due to cirrhosis of the liver.
The year of their death, the brothers’ company was one of the largest in the industry. Though their lives were cut short, Both John and Horace had achieved many great and profound accomplishments within the time they were given. The Dodge Brothers were the true embodiment of what teamwork can do, setting the stage for the continuation of solid, trustworthy cars that remain in production to this day. In 1928, the Dodge concern was purchased by Chrysler Corporation. Many automobile companies crumpled under the weight of the Great Depression, but Chrysler remained afloat. Chrysler Corporation and Daimler-Benz formed DaimlerChrysler in 1998, splitting in 2007—yet, ever resilient, Dodge remains alive and well to date. The Dodges did not start from a vantage point of high opportunity or wealthy beginnings—far from it. However, their talent and ambition would establish a business empire that would go on to survive not only the Depression, but both World Wars, remaining prosperous an entire century after its creation.