Eye Candy: The Dodge Centennial

Photos by Steve Purdy

Dodge chief executive Tim Kuniskis and the first Dodge car
Dodge chief executive Tim Kuniskis and the first Dodge car

Dodge brand’s handsome chief executive, Tim Kuniskis, stood in the shadow of Meadow Brook Hall talking about the Dodge Brothers, John and Horace, who built their first car in November 1914, a touring car just like the black one displayed to Kuniskis’ left. To his right, glowing in the morning sun, a new red Challenger represented just one facet of the current face of Dodge. Between those two cars and spanning 100 years, Dodge built cars and trucks that reflected the trends of their day while surviving against what sometimes seemed insurmountable odds.

John Francis Dodge is quoted in a new Dodge book by veteran auto writer Matt DeLorenzo as saying, “ I am tired of being in Henry Ford’s vest pocket.”

John and his younger brother, Horace, had been one of Ford’s main suppliers while also making the engines for the famous Curved Dash Oldsmobile.

The intense and fun-loving Dodge brothers were very different from their staid colleague and customer Henry Ford. The brothers had no qualms or difficulties ending that relationship and forming their own car company in 1914. They began with a mid-priced car selling for around $750 and not in direct competition with Ford.

Both brothers died young – John at age 55 and Horace at age 52 — of influenza caught while attending the New York Auto Show. The company was sold to Walter P. Chrysler in 1928 and the Dodge brand became an integral part of the rapidly expanding Chrysler Corporation. Throughout the years, Dodge innovated in a variety of ways, becoming known for engineering excellence more than style until the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, when styling became another strength under Virgil Exner, one of the most famous auto designers of all time.

Meadow Brook Hall (yes, the very venue that hosted one of the country’s finest concours d’elegance for many years) is a huge, opulent brick, wood and stone mansion about 25 miles north of Detroit. It was built by the widow of John Dodge and her new husband in the 1920s. It has been in the hands of a foundation for many years and provided a dramatic and beautiful and fitting backdrop for an unusual media event.

Many of Dodge’s current products adorned one half of the circular drive and lush lawns in front of the mansion. Lined up on the other side were 10 concept cars from the company’s collection.

Brandt Rosenbusch is Dodge’s curator and historian. Like a proud father, he introduced us to each car. Among the concepts were ones this reporter remembers well from past auto shows — the 1997 Copperhead V6 rear-wheel drive roadster, the original Viper concept that was not expected to become a real production car, and the cab-forward 1994 Venom precursor to the LH sedans.

Through the brick and stone arch leading to the extensive garages, now elegantly restored with a large brick courtyard, we could barely glimpse the more than two dozen cars we were most excited to encounter – because we would get to drive them. We had to wait for the speeches to finish before we could swarm the old car fleet. Finding an automaker with courage and PR savvy enough to allow 75 journalists to drive this many cars from its heritage collection is more rare than rare than encountering a TSA agent with a sense of humor.

Henny Hemmes and a purple Challenger
Henny Hemmes and a purple Challenger

We spent the morning jumping from one great car to another. I joined up with colleague Henny Hemmes from the Netherlands. She not only is a widely published journalist and knowledgeable car expert, but an accomplished racing driver. Even though our drive route around the Meadow Brook property was limited, there were opportunities to go fast, make noise and chirp the tires so we could experience the race and muscle cars while also savoring the quirkiness of the classics.

At our disposal were some of the best and most iconic Dodge products, including:

  • one of the first Dodge Brothers Touring cars similar to the one in front of the mansion,
  • a 1927 Dodge Cabriolet,
  • a sleek 1939 Dodge Hayes Bodied Coupe (those older ones we could only experience as passengers everything else we got to drive ourselves),
  • a 1941 military command car that later became the long-lived Dodge Power Wagon ¾-ton truck,
  • 1956 Custom Royal Lancer with three-tone paint scheme,
  • 1954 NASCAR racer replica,
  • 1966 “Lawman” Charger drag race car,
  • a Super Bee,
  • a Challenger Convertible,
  • a 1984 Daytona,
  • a 1985 Shelby Charger,
  • a 1986 Omni GLHS (Goes Like Hell S’more),
  • a 2003 Viper,
  • a 2008 Challenger SRT,
  • a the original Dodge Caravan,
  • and lots of others.

It was not long before the garage paddock began to smell lof leaded fuel and the exhaust of carbureted cars running a bit rich. The sun was out with temps in the low 80s and there was not a wisp of breeze.

Our route circled inside the Meadow Brook property with the final leg a tunnel of trees through a wooded area around the mansion and emerging back into the courtyard across a small bridge connected to the circle drive.

Amazingly, we lost the use of only one of these old cars, the powder-blue 1970 Super Bee that began having clutch troubles. The brakes did begin to fade on the Royal Lancer, so one of the staff took over driving.

As journalists we were going around asking each other what was our favorite. While I loved all the muscle cars, the raucous race cars and the more modern cruisers, I’ll cast my vote for the 1941 WWII Command Car.

Without any synchronizers in the three-speed transmission it was a substantial challenge to shift up or down. The oddball challenge, though, was great fun. I learned very young how to double clutch a car without synchronizers in its transmission but I struggled with this one. I repeatedly stopped and started trying to shift without a grind and finally got it. Otherwise that thing drove like what it is, a tough no-nonsense truck.

Henny and I gravitated toward the race cars. First was the replica NASCAR race car. She got the first turn at the wheel and even though she has driven some of the fastest race cars in the world she was grinning ear to ear as it growled to life. This was one of the early applications of the famous push-button shifter and we had to thumb jam the ‘D’ button to clunk her into gear. From there it was a matter of wrestling the large-diameter steering wheel with an amazingly thin grip. It is amazing to think that these cars could be raced in their day with such vague steering and requiring the upper body strength of an athlete.

Next we drove another car that makes us wonder how they did it: the 1968 Charger R/T in which the bad guys chased Steve McQueen around San Francisco in the famous chase scene from Bullitt. With that pencil-thin steering wheel, general-vicinity steering and suspension that nearly allows a belly roll, it must have taken a stunt driver with nerves of steel to drive it so hard and fast.

Though we can only offer ‘riding’ impressions in the older cars, it’s worthwhile to offer a few, like the first Dodge model offered to the public, the 1915 Touring Car. I climbed high into the rear seat as Henny slid in up front with the driver. The chuggy four-cylinder engine vibrates rhythmically, sounding just like a farm tractor with speeds nearly matching. The stiff leaf spring suspension makes for a jouncey ride but you’ll feel no lateral movement since we can barely go fast enough for that.

Another other ride was in the luxurious 1939 Dodge Coupe with ultra soft fabric seats. The young man at the wheel was a master of the column-mounted three-speed shifter. As we climbed the first hill we are reminded of the days when transmissions made such shrill whining sounds and the flathead inline six engine was so quiet we could not hear it run. The back seat is downright cavernous for a coupe.

We ran out of time before we ran out of cars but Henny and I finished up with a classic plum-colored 1970 Challenger convertible with the 426 cubic-inch Hemi. This is one of those cars that collectors are paying big bucks for at the classic car auctions. The rumble and grumble of the mighty motor flows right through the car and into the driver. It’s rather like sitting in a massage chair.

This was one of those assignments that I’ll characterize, with tongue firmly in cheek, as mighty hard work, but someone has to do it. Glad it had to be me.

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