Few people are aware of the important role that John and Horace Dodge played in shaping Detroit’s early auto industry, and of the story of a dynamic partnership formed between two brothers who remained inseparable throughout their lives.
Born into an industrious but poor family, Dodge brothers John (born in 1864) and Horace (born in 1868) received their mechanical training from working in their father’s machine shop in Niles, Michigan. The Dodge family moved from Niles to Battle Creek and then Port Huron before ending up in Detroit in 1886.
After their arrival in Detroit, the Dodge bothers quickly began sharpening their machinist skills by working in area machine shops, including Murphy’s Boiler Works in Detroit and Windsor’s Dominion Typography Company. By 1896, the brothers partnered with Frederick Evans and began manufacturing Evans & Dodge bicycles with the new dirt-resistant ball bearings that Horace had invented and patented. The Dodges sold their interest in the bicycle company in 1900 for $3,700, which they used to open their own machine shop in 1901. They initially produced stove parts, but soon began to manufacture parts for the growing automotive industry, building a strong reputation for turning out the best products available.
BUILDING AN AUTOMOTIVE EMPIRE
Their first major automotive customer was Ransom E. Olds, who hired them in 1901 to produce 2,000 engines for his new curved-dash Oldsmobile. Olds was pleased enough with their work to add 3,000 transmissions to his order the following year, making the brothers major players in the automotive industry.
The Dodge brothers were approached by Henry Ford in 1902 with his plans for a new automobile and contracted with him to become the exclusive supplier of 650 chassis’. The brothers agreed to produce almost the entire chassis (engines, transmissions and axles mounted on frames — everything but the body, wheels and tires). When Ford, who was initially short on cash, couldn’t make a $5,000 payment, he offered the brothers 50 shares of Ford stock worth $10,000, making them 10-percent stockholders in the new Ford Motor Company.
In 1910, the Dodge brothers built an assembly plant in Hamtramck, which later became known as “Dodge Main,” to build Model Ts for Ford Motor Company because demand far outstripped Ford’s capacity. However, as Henry Ford expanded his capacity in the Highland Park plant, John Dodge, recognizing their exclusive contract with Ford was unwise, declined to renew their contract with Ford Motor Company in 1913 and stepped down as the company’s vice president. The brothers began planning production of their own Dodge automobile and established Dodge Brothers Motor Car Company with stock profits made from Ford.
By this time, the Dodge brothers had become such well-known and respected manufacturers that 22,000 people applied for dealerships before any details about the Dodge automobile had been released. It was November 14, 1914 that the first car rolled off the assembly line and in just three years Dodge became the fourth largest American automobile manufacturer.