The Dodge Brothers

By Andrew West


Portraits of John (left) and Horace Dodge (right). Source: National Automotive History Collection.

Everyone knows about Dodge and their muscle cars, but most people aren’t familiar with its founders: John and Horace Dodge. John was aggressive and short-fused, while Horace was the smart and easy-going of them. They developed alcohol abuse and would frequently get into fights at bars and with anyone that insulted them. Henry Ford’s company would have never been able to mass produce his first car without the cooperation of these two to supply most of it, but it wasn’t without its hiccups and payment conflicts. Their car company grew to become the second largest in the country by the late 1910’s, shortly before their deaths.

John and Horace’s Family

John dodge was born on October 25, 1864, and Horace Dodge was born on May 28, 1868; both born in Niles, Michigan. Their parents were Daniel Rugg Dodge and Maria Duval Dodge, whose occupations were machinist and seamstress, respectively. The family moved to Battle Creek between 1882-1884, moved to Port Huron near the end of 1884, and arrived in Detroit near the end of 1886. John married Ivy Hawkins in September 1892 and had three children: Winifred Dodge, Isabel Cleves Dodge and John Duval Dodge. Horace married Christina Anna Thompson in July 1896 and had two children: Delphine Ione Dodge and Horace Elgin Dodge.

Early Machining Careers

Under the influence of their parents, John and Horace made their first careers in machining. Their potential came from a plausible story from when they still lived in Niles; They saw the wealthy guy in town with a high-wheel bicycle and fabricated their own out of jealousy. Even though they crafted it by hand with scrap, it was just as good as one they could find at a store. When they lived in Port Huron in their teenage years, they most likely had apprenticeships at the Upton Manufacturing Company while also working full time jobs. By 1887 when they lived in Detroit, they got machinist jobs at Murphy Iron Works. By 1890, still working there, John and Horace were making $16.50 and $13.50, respectively. six years later, they resigned and moved to around Windsor, Ontario. It wasn’t until 1900 when they started their own machine shop, starting off making replacement parts for typography machines, special purpose machinery and steam engines for pleasure boats.

The Evans & Dodge Bicycle

A couple years later they found and took positions at Dominion Typograph, which became the Canadian Typograph Company in 1896; during this time was when Horace invented a dust-proof bicycle bearing and, through a partnership with Fred Evans, made a very successful bicycle. Before this major change of employment, John developed tuberculosis and couldn’t work, so Horace got an extra job to compensate. When all American and Canadian bicycle companies merged to become the National Bicycle & Automobile Company in 1899, John became the manager of the Hamilton plant, and Horace stayed in Windsor, Ontario. Near the end of the year, the last independent Canadian bicycle makers merged and became large enough to buy out National Cycle during the summer of 1900; furthermore, they sold their assets to Canada Cycle and Motor Company for $7,500 and used the money to start their own company.

Automobile Contracts

John and Horace gained their crucial machining experience fulfilling contracts for Ransom Olds and Henry Ford. Not only did their work aid in the growth of these companies, the production boost got the auto industry off the ground. The Dodge Brothers first automotive contracts were from Ransom Olds in 1901 for engines and transmissions for the ‘curved-dash runabout.’ Their company grew large enough that they had to build a bigger factory, and after negotiations and retooling, the Dodge Brothers started producing sets of running gear for Ford by the end of February 1903. Their relationship with Ford, the most important one in the automotive industry, came to an end in 1919 after a lawsuit forced Ford to pay them almost $2.1 million in dividends and $25 million in stocks.

Starting Their Own Car Company

John and Horace had the idea to start their own car company and develop ideas for their first car while still working for Ford. The size of their factory complex was massive enough that they could branch off, but they still needed a plant to manufacture their car. They decided to use the Hamtramck plant and, because it plant was set up for producing Ford’s cars, they had to rearrange and retool the entire thing, costing them about $500,000. Even the work of selecting materials for the new car, designing the parts and components and then purchasing or making all the needed parts was monumental. The result, thereafter, proved that a car could be both reliable and practical.

Dodge Brothers Car. Courtesy of The Alma Record, 1916.

The Dodge Brothers car company was established on July 1, 1914, spending over $1,000,000 on buildings. one of the buildings incorporated a test track, which was a first in the automotive industry. They seem to have tested top speed, cornering ability and its ability to climb a hill. Their company had an advertising department, but it wasn’t necessary; they could rely on their customers to spread the word and testify to other companies. Their strategy before the unveiling of their first car involved being extremely vague, slowly introducing adjectives describing the car. Their car production strategy was to only improve their cars mechanically, a strategy also used by Henry Ford. Not only did this simplify production, it also allowed for vast versatility. It wasn’t until the late 1910’s when the Dodge Brothers started to introduce practical new body styles. An underrated feature of their cars was an all steel body, which they incorporated in partnership with Edward G. Budd. Not only were they stronger and cheaper than wood panels, they could be painted in half the time. The Dodge Brothers were willing to be flexible with Budd on prices to keep his profits in check. This was part of their policies on keeping things fair and honest. While Ford was focused on expansion and large-scale production, the Dodge Brothers company was relatively large but small enough that its employees could be paid and treated well.

Even though they made all their decisions together, they carried out their work in separate offices at opposite ends of the building. John’s roles in the company were to negotiate contracts with suppliers, manage finances; direct sales advertising and public relations, and be the general administrator. Horace’s roles in the company were overseeing the engineering and designing of their car, as well as the machines to make the artillery recoil mechanisms.

Dodge Brothers Test Track. Source: National Automotive History Collection.

One quirk about them was that they would only accept letters directed to their business addressed to ‘Dodge Brothers’ since they, with respect to their business operations, saw themselves as one. This was especially present in the design of their company logo; mainly, the ‘D’ and ‘B’ interleaving and the triangles black and white, representing their body and soul.

Dodge Brothers Logo. Courtesy of the National Museum of American History.

Success and Accomplishments

Their use of their cars in the army during World War I further increased their reputation. The U.S. army purchased thousands of their vehicles in every produced body style. They also contributed to the war by manufacturing recoil mechanisms for 155-millimeter artillery pieces; of course, they had to build a separate factory just to produce those. The Dodge Brothers car didn’t do very well overseas; however, with the help of Sydney Cheney and Edward Holden, a different body design helped sell about 5,000 in Australia. Using a salvaged steamship, Cheney could keep Australia in steady supply during the war.

The Dodge Brothers’ treatment of employees was considered progressive for its time. Not only did every employee receive health insurance that increased in value the longer they worked there, they were encouraged to take part in activities outside of work. The Dodge Brothers had a baseball team, a band and a bowling team, and encouraged practice outside of work. On top of this, they were one of the first Detroit car companies to employ African Americans.

What happened to them?

The sickness that brought the Dodge Brothers to their early demise was influenza, which was considered an epidemic between 1918-19. Even though they contracted it attending a national car show in New York the year after this period (January 7, 1920 to be exact), this was most likely a contributor. John was the first one to die due to the previous damage to his lungs from tuberculosis. He died a week later at 10:30 p.m. at the age of fifty-five. His body had to be taken back to Detroit by train, then placed in a bronze casket at William Blake’s funeral home. The depressing part was that his wife and family were unable to attend because of either sickness of their own or unbearable sadness; after the funeral, the Dodge Brothers employees wanted to view John’s body and pay respects, but time constraints would not allow it.

Horace could recover his health enough to be able to go back and continue to run the company as the new president along with Howard Bloomer. By the end of 1920, his pneumonia consumed him and could no longer continue working, so he had to move to Florida. Foreseeing his death, he took actions that would ensure the survival of the company; mainly, making sure the right people oversee his company. he promoted Frederick Haynes to the president and Bloomer to the directing head.

John’s death left Horace psychologically scarred and unable to see a reason to live. He died on December 10, 1920 in his Palm Beach mansion on an extended vacation with hopes of getting better. Although he had influenza and pneumonia, the main cause of his death as diagnosed by I. L. Hill was ‘atrophic hepatic cirrhosis’, a severe liver disease. The day before his funeral, when his body arrived back in Detroit by train, the Dodge Brothers workers were given a chance to view it at the same funeral home that John’s funeral was held. Horace’s funeral, however, was held at his mansion at Grosse Pointe and featured the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Because they were so famous, and their deaths were so tragic, many people and some authors wanted to believe that the Dodge Brothers were poisoned. The conspiracy created by Caroline Latham and David Agresta suggests that Henry Ford put arsenic in their drinks at the New York auto show in January 1920 to eliminate the Dodge Brothers as competition. The historical evidence against this shows that Henry and his son were able to serve as pallbearers at Horace’s funeral, and that Henry was devastated hearing the news of their deaths.

Current State of the Dodge Name

Once the Dodge Brothers’ widows sold all company assets to the Dillon, Read & Company in 1925, the Dodge family no longer had any affiliation with the company. With the exchange totaling $146 million, it became the largest cash transaction in history. Anna Thomson Dodge passed away in June 1970, and Ivy Hawkins succumbed to tuberculosis in 1901. Their children didn’t live after 1980 and there are no records of them having grandchildren.