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Car Books – Fifth Gear

Continued from Car Books – First Gear, Second Gear, Third Gear, Fourth Gear

 Last year I inundated you with books about cars that I had read. In all my years of loving cars, I had never read this many car books in a single year. But it got to be addictive and my love for cars just fueled that lust for reading about them even more. This latest book I enjoyed so much, I read it in just three days (which is really fast for a slow reader like me).

The Dodge Brothers: The Men, The Motor Cars, and the Legacy written by Charles K. Hyde had been on my Amazon wish list for almost two years so when I got a gift card from two of my children, it was high on my list to purchase.

Unlike some of the other car books that I had read, this one was not told from the perspective of the car guys. In fact it was more of an academic work garnered from research into a variety of historical documents because there was simply very little written about the two brothers and nothing authored by them. There is actually a very good reason for that as they both died well before their time not long after they started their automobile company.

Everyone today is familiar with the Dodge brand of cars but the Dodge Brothers actually started out as machinists, manufacturing various iron, steel, and brass parts for first the typographic industry and then the bicycle industry. After working for several different firms in these fields, the brothers opened their own machine shop in 1900 to manufacture gasoline-powered engines.

Their well-deserved reputation for precisely machined pieces landed the brothers their first big contract to manufacture automobile engines for one of the first Detroit automobile companies, Ransom E. Olds (Olds prior to being bought by GM). This soon expanded to producing transmissions for Olds as well. And then in 1903, their operation expanded dramatically when they agreed to become the major parts supplier for Henry Ford.

These were not just any small car parts; this was everything except the wheels, tires, and bodies. To be specific, Dodge Brothers supplied the running gear (engine, transmission, and axle mounted to a frame). At that time, Ford was not so much an automobile manufacturer as an automobile assembler. As Ford began to manufacture his own components, Dodge produced less of the car but due to the large volume of cars that Ford was producing and selling, the brothers still had trouble keeping up with the demand of manufacturing a smaller variety of components.

But the association they had with Ford made the Dodge Brothers very rich which allowed them to afford a lavish life style and to be able to expand their manufacturing capability dramatically without having to borrow money.

Their relationship with Ford was tumultuous at times. Recognizing that their fate was so intricately tied to Ford, they decided in 1912 to end their contract with Ford and begin to manufacture their own automobiles. The Dodge Brothers company was legally established in July 1914. It was no small feat starting in 1913 to convert from a parts supplier to an automobile manufacturer, all the while working out the last year of their Ford parts contract. But they did it and these first cars were revolutionary as they were the first all-steel bodied cars (other makes used a steel and wood body) with the initial customer delivery taking place in December 1914.

The Dodge cars also quickly earned a reputation of being durable, reliable, and affordable. Establishing and maintaining one of the best dealer networks in the US helped the Dodge Brothers to expand their sales of cars dramatically over the next five years landing them in either 2nd or 3rd place among other producers (notably GM and Ford).

Then sadly tragedy struck in January 1920 when both brothers contracted influenza on a business trip to New York. Before the month was out, John had died. Horace still too sick could not even attend his brother’s funeral back in Detroit. In December of the same year, Horace also died.

Fortunately, the Dodge brothers had wisely placed highly competent executives in key positions and so the successful company they had founded and guided continued to excel. But in 1925, having no direct heir qualified or interested to run the company, the two widows sold the company to an investment-banking firm. Within a short time, the new owner replaced all of the existing management and executives with their own people, who ironically did not have any experience running an automobile company. In a pattern to be repeated with the Chrysler Corporation almost a century later, the capital investment company nearly bankrupted the company making numerous product changes that caused sales to plummet.

Walter Chrysler, in 1928, recognized that the only way he could survive and effectively compete with the larger Ford and GM was to expand. With Dodge in a state of shambles, Chrysler offered to buy Dodge Brothers from the investment company. After a series of negotiations, Chrysler purchased Dodge Brothers in a no-cash deal and made Dodge, a division of Chrysler just as they are today.

Other than knowing that the two brothers started Dodge Brothers, this book provided me with tremendous historical information. Having read about the early history of Ford, I knew that the Dodges had been associated with Ford before they started their own car company but I never realized what an important part they actually played in Ford’s early success. But with the brother’s untimely deaths, I now recognized why so little was known about them. And it was remarkable that just like in my lifetime, an investment bank had driven the company to the precipice of bankruptcy before being bought by Chrysler.

Having owned a car produced by the most recent merger of Chrysler with Fiat made me want to learn more about the history of Chrysler.

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