More on the Dodge Brothers . . . .

Recent events related to the coronavirus pandemic have put me in mind of the Dodge Brothers, two of the most talented, and historically under-appreciated, car manufacturers of America’s early automobile industry.

John Dodge
Horace Dodge

2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of the Dodge Brothers, Horace and John, from complications related to another pandemic, the Spanish Flu that caused at least 50 million deaths worldwide.  In January of 1920, the brothers attended an auto show in New York.  While there, they both contracted influenza, and it developed into pneumonia.  John died in his hotel room at only 55 years of age.  Horace, only 52, struggled with health complications until dying in December with cirrhosis of the liver listed as the official cause.

 After the death of his brother, Horace wrote a letter to dealers in which he said, “The passing of my dear brother, Mr. John F. Dodge, is to me personally a great loss, so great that I hesitate to look forward to the years without his companionship, our lives having been, as you all know, practically inseparable since our childhood.” The brothers were very close and supportive of each other and, unlike many family members that go into business together, they stayed that way until the end.

Short articles sprinkled throughout the early newspapers give additional insight into what type of people the Dodge Brothers were.  One story from 1916 relates how John Dodge, now a very wealthy and successful automobile manufacturer, was visiting the Port Huron Engine & Thresher Co. plant when he recognized a man, Otto Thrun, that he had worked with years previously.  Dodge greeted the man and shook his hand, whereupon the man addressed him as “Mr. Dodge”.  Dodge replied, “You can’t call me Mr. Dodge any more than you did when we worked side by side.”

1917 Dodge Brothers Closed Car

The brothers were civic-minded and, unlike many of their peers, were active in the community.  John served as water commissioner and as a member of Detroit’s Board of Street Railway Commissioners.  Horace Dodge served as under-sheriff.  At Christmas time, 1917, he was touring the jail with the mayor and sheriff. A man named Dubbs, who was a former patrolman, was being held on manslaughter charges.  When Dodge found out that Dubbs was a former employee at the Dodge Brothers plant, he immediately bonded him out so that he could go home for Christmas.  A story from the next year, 1918, describes how Dodge personally shook every prisoner’s hand (there were about 200 of them) and wished them each a Merry Christmas.  The handshake was particularly welcome as Dodge had a dollar bill concealed in his palm which was pressed into the hand of each man as Dodge left for the next cell.

1918 tourists climbing Sonora Pass in a Dodge Brothers car.

Both John and Horace were very philanthropic, making large donations to a variety of causes such as the Salvation Army, The Detroit Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the engineering college at the University of Michigan and the Protestant Orphan Asylum.  They also donated to many churches.  According to Charles K. Hyde in his book titled The Dodge Brothers:  The Men, the Motor Cars and the Legacy, the brothers also donated to the churches that their employees attended such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Hamtramck Polish Catholic Church. 

Unlike many of their contemporaries, the Dodges very astutely maintained complete ownership of their business so that they never had a board or stockholders to answer to, and they also never borrowed money from banks.  They weren’t just smart businessmen however, they were also just plain smart, and the genius of the Dodge Brothers is effectively illustrated by their contribution to the war effort during World War I. 

Weapons using spring recoils were used during the first part of the war but were constantly out of commission due to broken springs, so the US Government adopted French heavy artillery including the 155 mm howitzer (the Schneider) and the 155 mm gun (the French Filloux).  These weapons utilized a fine, intricate hydro-pneumatic recoil mechanism that was more reliable but very difficult to produce. 

It was reported at the time that the Germans had captured many of the French guns but had been unable to replicate the recoil mechanism.  The French factories had only been able to produce five per day.  It was also reported that two large American manufacturers had tried and failed to produce the intricate parts.  It was suggested that, if anyone could succeed, it would be the Dodge Brothers. 

The War Department contacted the brothers in the fall of 1917, and John and Horace accepted the challenge. According to author Charles K. Hyde, John met with Secretary of War Newton D. Baker and a group of French manufacturers.  When they offered to send French machinists to Detroit to teach the Dodge brothers how to manufacture the mechanisms, John responded that he and his brother needed only the blueprints (which consisted of 42 and 71 pages, respectively, for the howitzer and gun mechanisms).  Within 24 hours of reaching an agreement, the Dodges began working on the new plant. It was designed to house 11 acres under its roof and the first section was ready for use by January.  The plant was valued at $10,000,000 and employed 8,000 people. 

The Dodge Brothers also designed and built much of the machinery including 62 new machines for drilling and reaming the borings.  The industry practice had been to revolve the gun barrel while the cutting tool was held stationary.  The Dodges’ design revolved the tools and used six drills at one time. Before long the Dodges were completing 35 recoil mechanisms per day, seven times what the French had been able to produce. Just think how quickly the brothers would be cranking out ventilators, if only they were here today!

1916 Dodge Brothers Car

Read more: The Dodge Brothers and Henry Ford


Advertisement. Kopac Brothers. Schuyler Sun, 6 March 1919, p. 8.

Advertisement. Hooper Motor Co. Selma Times, 25 July 1916, p. 6.

“County Prisoners’ Christmas Merry.” Detroit Free Press, 26 December 1918, p. 3.

“Dodge Bros. Aid Niles.” St. Joseph Herald Press, 10 February 1919, p. 5.

“Dodge Brothers Have Big Part in Winning the War.” Oregon Sunday Journal, 12 January 1919, p. 49.

“Dodge Brothers Will Continue Same Policies”. Austin American Statesman, 8 February 1920, p. 8.

“Dubbs Out of Jail for Christmas.” Detroit Free Press, 25 December 1917, p. 5.

Hyde, Charles K. The Dodge Brothers: The Men, the Motor Cars, and the Legacy. Detroit. Wayne State University Press, 2005. Print.

John F. Dodge Dies; Horace Improving.” Arkansas City Daily News, 28 January 1920, p. 6.

Kerby, Frederick M. “America Solves Recoil Problem.” Knoxville Sentinel, 25 October 1918, p. 5.

“Mackay Bill Voted Down.” Detroit Free Press, 10 May 1905, p. 11.

“Men Who Aided Dodge to Rise Grieve at Bier.” Detroit Free Press, 14 December 1920, p. 1.

“Michigan News Brevities.” Lansing State Journal, 19 October 1915, p. 7.

“Performing the Seemingly Impossible to Win War.” Miami Herald, 14 January 1919, p. 10.

“Remembers Old Friend.” Fort Huron Times-Herald, 29 May 1916, p. 5.

“U.S. Industry Solves Problem of Making Recoils for Big Guns.” Bismark Daily Tribune, 7 September 1918, p. 8.

“Vision, Genius of Brothers Made Dodge Name Famous.” Detroit Free Press, 12 December 1920, p. 2.

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