Dodge Brand CentennialPosted on June 30th, 2014
A hundred years of challenges and triumph
By Nina Russin
On a hazy late June morning, several dozen journalists gather at Meadowbrook just outside Auburn Hills, Michigan for a program celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the Dodge brand. In addition to being close to the company’s corporate headquarters, Meadowbrook is the property on which the Dodge brothers built their first automobile in 1915.
Born in nearby Niles, Michigan, the brothers began their careers in the bicycle business before becoming suppliers of engines, transmissions and axles to the burgeoning auto industry. Dodge was the first brand to produce an all-steel car, but is better known to the current generation of automotive enthusiasts for its performance products, particularly the Hemi engines, Scat Packs and Shakers of the muscle car era.
For the media event, the public relations department has assembled a collection of historic models from the museum at Meadowbrook and offered journalists the unusual opportunity to get behind the wheel. I jump into one of the pre-War cars: a 35-horsepower cabriolet built in 1927.
Nineteen twenty-seven was the year my mother was born: the height of the Roaring Twenties, when whiskey flowed freely at speakeasies and buyers sought to build their individual fortunes by buying stocks on the margin. My grandfather was making his own fortune importing Mahjong to the states. He would lose everything two years later when the market crashed.
The 1927 Dodge Cabrio reflects the optimism of the era: simple and robust. From a modern perspective the machine feels crude: non-synchronized gears and no power steering. But in many ways, it is no different than automobiles today. The pistons go up and down, the camshaft goes round and round. Ignition, technically a series of controlled explosions inside the engine cylinders, makes the power to move the car forward.
There is something transcendent about getting behind the wheel of a very old car. This simple open-air Dodge has seen a lot of history, both within its own brand and the world in general.
Although the Dodge brothers died of influenza six short years after founding the company, they had built enough momentum to keep the brand moving forward. Chrysler acquired the company in 1928. Two years later, Dodge began production of an eight-cylinder engine.
During World War II, Dodge produced radar units and Gyro compasses for the government. In 1949, the company that had grown to be the fifth largest automaker in the US produced its first all-new post-War models.
But Dodge’s challenges were far from over. The same company that produced the famed Super Bees, Challengers, Chargers and Coronets of the muscle car era struggled with rising emissions concerns in the 1970s, the 1979 fuel crisis, computerization and government-mandated fuel economy standards, just as its competitors did.
For every Dodge Dart GTS there was an Aries K-car. And it would be years before engineers refined the transverse, front-wheel drive powertrain in the 1978 Omni to rival the ride and handling of its rear-wheel drive counterparts.
Perhaps it was the spirit of its founders that kept the Dodge brand moving forward through those dark times. Men with ingenuity understand the importance of having faith in their personal vision. The greatest laid plans don’t take place in a matter of days or weeks. It can take years, even decades, for them to reach fruition.
In the driving circle in front of the Meadowbrook mansion is a display of Dodge concept cars ranging from the original 1989 Viper show car to the 1994 Venom, Sidewinder roadster, 2003 Magnum, Dodge Hornet and Dodge Demon roadster. I remember these cars on the auto show floors and feeling the adrenaline course through my veins as I imagined them at speed. They embodied everything that has made me love automobiles since I was a young child.
As I drive the 1927 Dodge Cabriolet down the tree-lined entrance to the Meadowbrook mansion, past the display of concept cars and through the stone arch back to the staging area I experience a feeling of transcendence I have had a handful of times in my life.
The immediacy of my surroundings slips away. It is what the philosopher Joseph Campbell explained as the difference between forever and eternity. Eternity has no relationship with manmade timelines. It exists in its own universe. If we are very lucky, we catch the occasional glimpse of it.
I will remember that bright June morning for the rest of my life: a day when a simple little car that symbolized so much earned a permanent place in my heart.
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