It began with two brothers who really knew how to build a good car. Their name has endured 100 years.
This model year, Dodge celebrates its centennial. This brand has quite a history to capture.
John and Horace Dodge began as an automotive components maker supplying a few of Detroit's burgeoning manufacturers. While they found success supplying Ransom E. Olds and Henry Ford, John and Horace pondered the idea of building their own cars. Soon the Dodge Brothers became automakers and the Model 30 turned out to be a mid-level success. What made the Model 30 special was its high use of steel in its construction, along with innovations such as using a 12-volt electrical system and a sliding-gear transmission. Though priced higher than Ford’s Model T, the Dodge Brothers Model 30 advanced the automobile further to prove its own durability and reliability over its Dearborn rival.
By 1920, the Dodge Brothers were number two behind Ford. That same year, both brothers died of separate ailments months within each other. The company soldiered on, branching into light truck building with the Graham Brothers. By 1928, Walter P. Chrysler bought Dodge and integrated into his former Maxwell car business as its mid-priced line of cars and trucks.
One could say, "The rest is history." It would take a long time after Chrysler's purchase of the Dodge Brothers before we would see the fruits of the brand's success. For the next several decades, Dodge was seen as second to the bottom of Chrysler's pecking order. Plymouth was in direct competition with Chevrolet and Ford in the budget field, while DeSoto faced off against Oldsmobile. Chrysler had Buick, Cadillac and Lincoln to contend with towards the upper end of the scale. Dodge was positioned against the independents, such as Studebaker, Nash and Hudson.
Dodge did miss out on some of Chrysler's innovations due to its position. The Airflow body never made it below DeSoto. Instead, Dodge had its own streamlined design for the 1930s – Wind Stream. The brand managed fifth place amongst automotive marques in the USA by the beginning of World War II.
While its cars were doing well, it would be Dodge's trucks that would enhance the brand's reputations. During World War II, Dodge trucks proved to be sturdy, reliable and strong by carrying troops and ammunition in the heat of battle. These trucks would become civilians at the end of the war proving its worth for businesses large and small. This reputation continues under its own brand today – Ram.
Something happened to Dodge in early 1950s. Between Virgil Exner's design and engineering's tampering with the cylinder head chamber area of their V8 engines, Dodge was no longer seen just a rival to Pontiac, Studebaker, Nash and Hudson. It began to evolve into Chrysler's lower priced performance brand. The Ram Hemi V8, along with Exner's flashy styling, moved Dodge to another level. The Forward Look of 1955 soon found favor with those wanting to explore the highway. The Ram Hemi certainly played a part in this change.
Again, Dodge would have to wait another series of years until it finally found its groove. The compact Dodge Dart of the 1960s started gaining favor by showing off it prowess on both the street and drag strip with Hemi engines under the hood. Add the mid-sized Coronet, the Charger coupe and the Challenger ponycar, and Dodge's reputation help spiral the former mid-priced brand into competition with the other power brands out of Detroit.
Through the tough days – the days leading through Chrysler's near collapse in the 1970s – Dodge stood firm as in its position, as it sold a hodgepodge of vehicles from Mitsubishi-built Colts to big Royal Monacos to keep the brand going. Lee Iaccoca's arrival at Chrysler confirmed the need for Dodge to stay in the lower-middle of the market.
The days of muscle car performance was gone, but Dodge was still seen as Chrysler's sporty division. The front-drive Omni spawned a turbocharged monster called the GLH. The K-Car based Daytona sport coupe had turbo variants. Carroll Shelby took several Dodges under his wing and created a new kind of performance car out of them – from Omni-based Chargers to the Lancer hatchback sedan. All of this helped in the comeback of Chrysler through the 1980s.
Dodge also facilitated a huge part of that comeback. The introduction of the minivan yielded the Dodge Caravan – the sales leader in the class for many years. The Caravan’s success fueled new interest in Dodge's non-car products. The 1990s heralded the introduction of the big-rig looking Ram pickup and the mid-sized Durango SUV.
Today's Dodge may seem a bit different than in years past. It is more focused brand than ever, with an emphasis on sport than pricing category. Yet, its DNA flows from the past – the spirit of the Dart, Charger and Challenger ever so present in its modern day counterparts. A spirit that has been contemporized fitting today's motoring needs without compromising its essence.
Yet, it is a brand that is seeking a more defined path towards it future. Though its sporty image is retained across the line – including the Grand Caravan and Durango – it retains a fit within the scheme of the unified showroom Chrysler Group is currently promoting. As the group under Fiat's guidance heads towards a new wave of products for the mid-decade, Dodge brand models will have to fit within a segment for Chrysler to sell under one retail roof.
That future had been rumored to be in doubt. There were talks about Dodge losing models to other brands – including SRT. Frankly, Chrysler and Fiat needs Dodge as an entry and sporty brand sold at attractive prices. The point being definition and clarity towards Dodge's continued presence in the marketplace.
Still, we do need to look back. We look beyond survival, as several brands under the Pentastar had not. Dodge was swept into the role of the value brand when Chrysler eliminated Plymouth. When DeSoto was shut down, Dodge was seen to expand further upward in the mid-priced field. After the merger with American Motors, the Eagle brand did not last long. Dodge filled in that void with an expanded lineup combining sportiness and a look towards the imports.
As someone who has a fondness and appreciation for Mopar products, I could see why Dodge is often forgotten outside of Pentastar circles. Jeep looms large with its image forged by war and continues through the toughest terrain this continent throws at it. Ram has become a noun in terms of pickup trucks and commercial vehicles, though rooted in Dodge's own history. SRT is now a brand, also forged out of the legacy of Dodge.
These nuances aside, Dodge still stirs the soul a century after the fact. It focuses on nameplates – Dart, Challenger and Charger – to feed the legacy. It spawned other great products now revered today, such as the Viper and the Ram. Though John and Horace lent their name to the brand, Walter P. Chrysler, Lee Iacocca, Bob Lutz, Dr. Dieter Zetsche and Sergio Marchionne were amongst those who touched it and gave it resonance throughout these past 100 years.
This is how you celebrate a centennial. You look back at its best products and towards the future – at the same time.
All photos by Randy Stern