The Dodge brand is celebrating an important milestone. This longstanding Chrysler division joins the century club, turning 100 years old in 2014.
Brothers John and Horace Dodge got their start in the waning days of the 19th century when they began working in the bicycle business. But by 1901 their manufacturing efforts had transformed into something much bigger. Believe it or not, their operation had grown to become the largest machine shop in the city of Detroit. As a supplier company they built precision components for various automakers, notably Oldsmobile.
SEE ALSO: Walter P. Chrysler Museum Closing
By 1910 the Dodges were a major parts provider to Ford Motor Company, which was cranking out the hugely popular Model T. Not satisfied working in the shadow of other companies the brothers dropped their business with Henry and focused on designing and building their own cars. The first Dodge was introduced in November of 1914 and by the end of that year 249 had been manufactured.
Of course the rest is history. The company introduced numerous groundbreaking vehicles over the intervening decades. Products like the Viper performance coupe, Ram pickup truck and LH models helped define Dodge. Of course muscle cars like the Charger and Challenger are always crowd-favorites as are things like the legendary Hemi engine.
To celebrate the brand’s centennial company representatives brought numerous concept cars out of storage along with a bevy of historical models from the Chrysler Museum. Curiously almost all of these past vehicles were available for test drives, which is an unheard of borderline once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The oldest model shown was a 1915 Dodge Brothers touring car, which made for a unique comparison when parked next to the redesigned 2015 Challenger. Its wooden-spoke wheels and open canopy seem more horse-drawn carriage than automobile.
1927 Dodge Cabriolet
The oldest model available for test drives was a ’27 Convertible. Dressed in striking “Armory Green” lacquer paint and contrasting black fenders the car looked like something right out of “The Great Gatsby.”
This cabriolet was powered by a flathead four-cylinder engine that delivered all of 35 hp. A three-speed, sliding-gear transmission routed torque rearward while two-wheel mechanical brakes provide (limited) stopping power. Total production of this body style is not known, though it was a treat to drive.
1929 Dodge Senior Six Roadster
One of the prettiest cars on the driving menu at Dodge’s 100th anniversary party was this jaunty ’29 roadster. With a folding soft top and an open-air rumble seat, the green beauty has classic lines that will never go out of style.
Power-wise this car is a big step up from the ’27. A flathead inline six provided 78 ponies and plenty of low-end torque. A non-synchronized three-speed transmission handled that power.
The engine was surprisingly smooth, humming along like the well-oiled machine it was, but the gearbox was another story. Long throws and vague gates made it a challenge to shift, especially since you had to time each gear change perfectly or soul-crushing sounds would result; double clutching didn’t seem to remedy the grinding.
This car’s gigantic wooden steering wheel is large in diameter and sits unexpectedly close to your chest. In spite of the non-boosted mechanical steering this car is not unduly hard to turn; leverage for the win. Four-wheel hydraulic brakes worked surprisingly well. Base price for this head-turner in 1929 was $1,650; today we suspect it would be a fair bit more than that.
1939 Dodge Hayes Body Coupe
The 1939 coupe on display was a sweetheart of an old lady. Compared to the convertible or roadster this car practically drove like a modern machine.
An 87-hp straight-six motivated this 3,100-pound vehicle and was just as smooth as the engine in Dodge’s ’29 roadster. The column-mounted shifter controlled this car’s three-speed manual transmission. Moving it there from the floor makes the front bench-seat much more hospitable for three. The lever had a satisfying mechanical feel and made gear changes a snap. Synchronizers ensured there was no clashing and transformed the drive into a relaxing experience.
The only real oddity about piloting this car was the clutch take-up. It didn’t engage until almost the top of its travel, which took some getting used to.
1941 Dodge Command Car
Who doesn’t love a military truck? Thanks to its elevated ride height this command center on wheels was one of the most entertaining vehicles to drive.
With 80 hp on tap it moved reasonably well all things considered, though it didn’t like starting after being shut off. To be fair if I were in my mid 70s I wouldn’t like running, either.
Four-wheel drive is practically a requirement for army vehicles like this. The additional driven axle, transfer case and assorted parts added several more levers to the floor of this truck’s cab, which upped the confusion, though I was smart enough to not touch what I didn’t understand.
The four-speed “crashbox” was a treat to drive. Patience and precise timing was required to change gears without terrible noises. Clutch in, shift to neutral, clutch out, wait two seconds, clutch in, change gear – this process worked well for up shifts, though going down was even more complicated and challenging.
This truck’s steering was surprisingly light and direct, though the clutch and brake pedals were polar opposites. The clutch wouldn’t engage until the top of its stroke, the brakes until the very bottom. But other than this odd combination the Command Car was a total hoot to drive.
1968 Dodge Hemi Charger R/T
Jumping ahead almost three decades we land neck-deep in the muscle-car era. Dodge’s Hemi-powered Charger is a beast; dressed in black the car looks positively evil.
Its massive 426 cubic-inch “elephant” engine produces 425 hp along with some of the most glorious automotive noises to ever emanate from an exhaust pipe. It’s a deep, throaty rumble that’s guaranteed to send a shiver down any car person’s spine. Making things even sweeter the powerplant was matched to a four-speed manual transmission. The shifter had a stiff, indestructible feel to it like you could yank it as hard as physically possible and nothing would break (of course we DID NOT abuse it).
Undoubtedly in the interest of safety and vehicular preservation I suspect someone disabled the carburetor’s secondary inlets because the engine would only rev so high, even at wide-open throttle. Oh well, with two arms and a leg tied behind its back the Hemi still performed like a champ.
Despite 7.0 liters of displacement this car was quite soft at low RPM. It was almost tricky to take off in first gear; the clutch required careful manipulation if the revs weren’t high. The Hemi’s massive intake ports and valves were probably to blame; this is an engine that likes to rev.
1970 Dodge Challenger R/T
Rounding out our drive experience is the 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T convertible. Like the Charger above, it too was equipped with a mighty Hemi V8, though it only had two pedals; the transmission was a three-speed TorqueFlite automatic.
But the gearbox is immaterial when an engine responds and sounds as good as Chrysler’s legendary 426. The sounds it makes are almost indescribable, an experience that was enhanced by the animation of a shaker hood.
One curious aspect of this car was the steering. It was way over-boosted with a super-light feel. If you weren’t careful a sneeze could send you flying into oncoming traffic. Also, there were quite a few squeaks and rattles present in the cabin. The reasons for this are likely twofold: it was a convertible and it’s more than four decades old.
Of course there were many more historically important Dodge products available to sample at this event but we simply ran out of time before we could drive them all. Check out the image gallery below for an idea of what was available. Hopefully the company hosts another event like this for the brand’s 200th anniversary… we can hardly wait.
GALLERY: Dodge 100th Anniversary Drive
Discuss this story on our Dodge forum.