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100 years of Dodge: History comes alive as museum hits road

Published July 15, 2014

Wheels writer drives classic Dodge vehicles from the past century

ROCHESTER, MICH.—Dodge has certainly come a long way in the 100 years since its incorporation on July 17, 1914. What began with cars that made just 35 horsepower evolved into everything from military trucks and chrome-bedecked land yachts to muscle cars, race cars and the creation of a whole new family segment: the minivan.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary, Chrysler recently removed 26 historical models from its Michigan museum and invited me to come along for the occasion.

“Yes, I’d love to see them,” I said.

“Oh, no,” they said. “You get to drive them.”

Pinch me, I’m dreaming.

These were cars fresh out of storage, so the route was short and the speeds relatively low, but it was still the thrill of a lifetime to pilot such vehicles as a 1939 custom-bodied coupe, a 1929 roadster, a 1970 Challenger convertible, a 1968 Charger with a 426 Hemi V8 engine and a 1956 Coronet NASCAR replica in all its bone-shaking, eardrum-popping glory.

1970 Challenger convertible

And that was just the beginning.

Although they’re rivals today, Dodge owed its initial success — and arguably its existence — to Ford.

Brothers John and Horace Dodge initially made bicycles in 1896. They were based in Michigan, but worked for a while in Windsor and Hamilton when they sold their bicycle business to a Canadian firm. After founding and then selling a printing machine company in Windsor, they returned to Detroit and opened a machine shop.

After receiving an order for 3,000 transmissions from Oldsmobile, they were approached by Henry Ford in 1903, and they produced most of the components for Ford’s earliest cars.

Business soared when the Model T was introduced five years later, but the Dodges wanted to make a car of their own.

With the money they’d made from Ford, they formed Dodge Brothers, and turned out their first car on Nov. 14, 1914. A year later, they were the third-largest automaker in the U.S.

Getting into a 1919 Dodge sedan helped show me why. Its 35-horsepower engine was relatively powerful for its day, its ride was smooth and, as the company’s priciest model at $1,900, it contained elegant mohair upholstery and sporty wire wheels.

But the Dodges didn’t have long to enjoy their success, as both died from influenza complications in 1920. Five years later, their widows sold the company to a consortium of bankers for $146 million. In 1928, Walter Chrysler bought it from the bankers for $170 million.

Chrysler’s influence was immediate, as I discovered when I took a 1929 Senior Six Roadster out for a drive. All engines now had six cylinders and the styling echoed Chrysler’s elegant designs. And while Ford and Chevrolet still used mechanical brakes, Dodge’s were hydraulic.

Being a fan of 1940s vehicles and large trucks, my biggest thrill was piloting a 1941 Army command vehicle. Like all U.S. automakers, Dodge would shut down car production in 1942 to produce war supplies, but it was already making military vehicles based on its commercial trucks.

Jil McIntosh drives a 1941 Dodge command car during a 100th anniversary event at the Meadow Brook estate in Michigan. She discovered it's a real workout to shift and steer this heavy vehicle.

You want a workout? Don’t bother with a gym; just crawl in and out of this thing, shift it and then muscle it around a turn.

“Muscle” was the key word as Dodge moved into the 1960s. Sure, the company made low-key, everyday drivers like its Dart and Polara, but during the war, it had developed engines with hemispherical combustion chambers.

Chrysler got the first one in 1951, when it was called the Firepower engine. When Dodge got it a year later, it was the Red Ram Hemi.

The Holy Grail of Hemi engines was the 426-cubic-inch (6.9-L) V8, producing 425 horsepower.

I drove it in three cars: a 1968 Charger R/T, a 1970 Challenger R/T and a 1966 Charger that drag racer Al Eckstrand took to Europe, where he trained American servicemen stationed overseas to safely drive the new, high-horsepower cars they’d be seeing when they returned home. And this particular car was no replica — it was the real thing!

As with all muscle cars in those days, Dodge put these monster engines into cars that had sub-par steering on higher-speed turns, and woefully inadequate brakes.

The Hemi-equipped 2006 Charger and 2008 Challenger also at the event wouldn’t have turned as many heads at the local cruise night, but they showed just how far cars have come.

History-wise, perhaps the most important vehicle there was a perfectly preserved 1984 Caravan. Not only did it usher in the minivan era, but along with the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant “K-Cars” introduced in 1981, it saved the company in its financial crisis.

Lee Iacocca had arranged $1.5 billion in loan guarantees from the U.S. government, which these models helped pay off seven years early.

Dodge’s history display was rounded out with cars such as the turbocharged 1985 Shelby Charger and the roomy “cab-forward” design of the 1993 Intrepid, along with a static display of 10 concept cars, including the 1989 Viper that was only meant to be a show car, but turned into a production vehicle just three years later.

Over the years, Dodge has produced vehicles for almost every segment of the market. But it was an unheard-of opportunity to get behind the wheel and help make a century of history come alive.

A chrome-bedecked 1956 Custom Royal Lancer carries a 315-cubic-inch (5.1-L)

FIVE FACTS ABOUT THE DODGE BROTHERS

1. Horace learned many of his precision machining skills from Henry Leland, who founded both Cadillac and Lincoln.

2. After his first wife died, John married his housekeeper, but kept their four-year marriage and subsequent divorce a secret.

He later married his company’s secretary.

3. Up until 1913, the Dodge brothers made about 60 per cent of the parts that went into each Ford Model T.

4. Horace could play the piano and was a key supporter of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in its early years.

5. Inseparable in life, the Dodge brothers were interred together in an Egyptian-style mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit.

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