Active since the early days of the automotive industry, Dodge got its start as one of the first suppliers to auto manufacturers. Two of its biggest clients were Ford and Oldsmobile. Ultimately though, the hugely successful Dodge brothers, Horace and John, decided to put their name on a car of their own.
The story of Dodge automobiles goes all the way back to 1900, when the brothers built bicycles in addition to automotive parts under the auspices of the Dodge Brothers Company. In 1914 Horace and John offered their first car, the Dodge Model 30. Positioned as a nicer Ford Model T, the Model 30 featured all-steel construction (most of its contemporaries used wood frames), a more robust 12-volt electrical system, 35 horsepower (to the Model T’s 20), and a sliding gear transmission (rather than the dated planetary design favored by Ford).
As the Dodge boys already had a reputation for precise engineering, the Model 30 was well received and the Dodge automobiles were off and running. By 1916, they were running second only to Ford (who had a huge head start in the industry over practically everyone else) in terms of sales. Interestingly, Horace and John had acquired a great deal of stock in Ford over the years. When Henry Ford suspended dividend payments to build his gargantuan River Rouge assembly plant, the Dodges lead a lawsuit, which ultimately resulted in Henry Ford being forced to buy out his shareholders. This netted the Dodge brothers a $25 million windfall. That same year, their cars gained renown for durability because of their employment by the U.S. Army.
Sitting on a nice pile of cash, their cars getting great press, and with a legion of satisfied customers, the Dodge brothers had it going pretty good—until January of 1920 when John succumbed to a case of pneumonia. Horace followed 12 months later with a case of cirrhosis.
Their widows inherited the company and elevated Frederick Haynes to the presidency of the company. Unfortunately, without the brothers driving innovation, the momentum was broken and sales started to slip. Model stagnation set in and by 1925, Dodge had slid to number five. Cutting their losses, the Dodge sisters sold the company for $146 million, which at the time was the largest cash transaction in the history of American business.
The investment concern known as Dillon, Read & Co. bought Dodge atomobiles and took it public, netting $160 million. Essentially flipping the company and booking a tidy $14 million profit in the process, they retained control of Dodge vehicles, keeping the company alive with minimal changes to the cars.
Walter P. Chrysler showed up with a bag full of cash in 1928, and Dodge cars became a division of the Chrysler Corporation. He initially slotted the brand into his lineup just above Plymouth and DeSoto—as the medium priced Chrysler Corporation offering—beneath the Chrysler brand (and later Imperial). For 1933 though, after reconsidering the lineup Dodge cars were repositioned to fit in between Plymouth and DeSoto.
Up until 1930, all Dodge automobiles ran six-cylinder engines. This changed that year, when Dodge offered the Dodge eight. However that only lasted for five years. Dodge went back to a six-cylinder only strategy in 1935. That year also saw a major restyling effort take place. Building upon the lessons learned with the streamlined (but ultimately failed) 1934 Chrysler Airflow, the lineup of 1935 Dodge cars featured the “Wind Stream" look. Not as radical as the Airflow, but incorporating a lot of its concepts, this styling language was well received—in contrast to that of the Airflow. A number of safety innovations were also introduced with those Dodge cars, including a flat dashboard, padded front seat backs, and curved-in door handles.
When World War II kicked in, Dodge automobiles were fresh off of a major restyle, but before they could gain traction, civilian manufacturing was put on hold to support the war effort. Dodge trucks, staff cars, and ambulances built a lot of brand awareness and adulation for the company. When the war ended, people remembered and bought Dodge models in earnest. Of course, demand was so pent up, everyone did well in those first few postwar years.
By 1953, a new styling chief was in place and the cars began to develop their own personality by 1955. In the interim, the first of the Dodge V8 vehicles was introduced—the Red Ram Hemi—in 1953. As the highways developed and Dodge automobiles got ever more powerful, the company started to develop a performance-oriented reputation. Moving into the 1960’s and 1970’s when the horsepower wars were in full swing, Dodge’s Charger, Coronet R/T, Super Bee, and Challenger were among the most desirable models on the road.
Then came the 1973 oil crisis.
Great honking V8s fell out of favor and fuel efficiency came to the fore. The Chrysler alliance with Japan’s Mitsubishi Motors proved to be something of a stopgap, bringing Dodge-branded Mitsubishi autos to market. By 1979 though, the Chrysler Corporation was in serious trouble nonetheless. Hat in hand, it petitioned for, and ultimately secured loan guarantees from the U.S. Congress.
With the cash infusion, the Chrysler K Car platform came to be and the Dodge Aries was introduced. However, the real saving grace of the K Car platform was the Dodge Caravan minivan. Awakening a long underserved market niche, the Caravan became a runaway best seller, and is largely responsible for the existence of every minivan you see on the road today. The success of these models eventually got Dodge automobiles back into the performance business and the V10-powered 450-horsepower 1992 Dodge Viper came to fruition.
Eventually however, Dodge’s parent company got in trouble again, made a deal with Daimler-Benz, which turned out to be a sellout to Daimler and Dodge became a German company. The current Dodge Charger, which everyone agrees is a wonderful car, came out of that arrangement, based on an older Mercedes-Benz E Class platform.
Daimler eventually sold Chrysler to a private equity firm called Cerberus, the economic crisis of 2008 hit, Chrysler got bailed out by the federal government again and was ultimately bought by Fiat, which engendered the creation of the first Italian Dodge. Based on the platform underpinning the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, the new Dodge Dart points the way to the foreseeable future of Dodge.