One-hundred years ago, John and Horace Dodge decided they were done supplying major components to the notoriously cheap Henry Ford, so they set out to establish their own car company. The brothers, who had first gotten into the car business in 1901 selling engines to the Olds Motor Works and later supplying complete chassis with engines to Ford, announced plans in 1913 to build their own cars.
The Dodges’ first car rolled out of their new assembly plant in Hamtramck, Michigan, on November 14, 1914, and the first Dodge was sold a month later. That means Fiat Chrysler jumped the gun a bit in its recent celebration of Dodge’s centenary. But you don’t want to hand over twenty-six vintage Dodges to auto journalists in the middle of winter. So in late June, we were let loose with the cars on a short route that included the driveway of the Meadowbrook mansion built by John Dodge’s widow, Matilda, and her second husband, at what is now Oakland University in Rochester Hills, Michigan.
There was no room to test quarter-mile times or push handling to the limits, and smoky burnouts were discouraged. None of the cars I drove were notable for their dynamics, anyway; I ended my historical tour with a 1972 model, thus avoiding such classics as the 1984 Daytona and Caravan, the ’95 Neon, and the ’03 Viper.
1927 124 Series Cabriolet
In 1925, a consortium of New York bankers bought the company from the Dodge brothers’ widows, and in 1927, Dodge built its first convertible coupe with an unknown production number spanning just 73 days beginning April 25. With its narrow tires, manual steering and three-speed gearbox, this ’27 Dodge is simple and easy to drive, a sporty value model for the Jazz Age. The following year, Walter P. Chrysler surprised the industry by purchasing Dodge from the bankers, while adding the Plymouth and DeSoto brands to his GM-like lineup.
1941 Command Car
The Command Car’s non-synchronized four-speed manual, with a single transfer case, and the laughably useless rope that serves as a “door” to keep the driver in his or her seat on hard right turns made this a bit intimidating to drive, at first (though the Meadowbrook circuit is all left turns). My first double-clutch upshift to second, on an uphill stretch of road, was so deliberate that I had lost all momentum by the time I got into gear. But this early SUV with its solid front and rear axles is so robust, and the engine is so torquey, that launching uphill in second was no problem. The rear seat has a fold-down table for reading maps and a case for keeping them. Perhaps the Command Car is where Nissan got the idea for its Murano cabriolet.
1956 Custom Royal Lancer
In Orson Welles’ 1957 masterpiece, “Touch of Evil,” Akim Tamiroff drives a ’57 Dodge convertible, and the director uses what must be one of the earliest uses of in-car cameras. Tamiroff has to use so many inputs into the steering wheel that the scenes look like fakey rear-projection scenes in spite of Welles’ efforts. Now I know why; this two-door coupe must have an eighth-turn of play in either direction off-center before anything happens to the front wheels. The 315-cubic-inch Hemi V-8’s 260 hp seems a bit much for this car’s power steering and power drum brakes. Still this Dodge’s wonderfully mid-century Forward Look styling with salmon, black, and white paint; chrome-edged fins and dual rear antennae; a pushbutton two-speed automatic; patterned seats and stainless steel interior trim make this the best Woodward Dream cruiser of the bunch. Roll down the windows, pop the vent wing window, rest your elbow on the door, slip “Brubeck Goes to College” on the Highway Hi-Fi under-dash 16.66 rpm phonograph [a $75 option over the $2650 base price] and steer with the heel of your right hand. That arm will get lots of exercise.
1966 “Lawman” Charger
The original Dodge Charger always struck me as something more than a midsize muscle car. Indeed, this 2+2 looks and feels like a premium car, and with a base price of $3150, it was about the same price as the brand’s top-of-the-line Monaco four-door hardtop. With its 117-inch wheelbase and long, fastback roof, the car feels bigger than the Coronet platform on which it is based. Despite its 425 hp and front disc brakes, I babied the car. There was a lot of play in the steering, and in fact this Charger felt like it was from an earlier time; more mid-century than post-modern like the later Chargers I drove. This Charger was designed to be the production model of the 1964 Chrysler Corporation Turbine, which explains why it came to market in mid-1966 and was redesigned after just one and a half years. Equipped with a TorqueFlite three-speed automatic, drag racer Al Eckstrand used this Hemi Charger to give safe driving demonstrations to U.S. soldiers stationed abroad, according to Chrysler.
1968 Charger Hemi
This car feels much like the ’66, except for the four-speed manual, which requires concentration and diverts you a bit from the drive experience. The steering precision is slightly improved. These cars feel jittery for all that straight-line power. The big doors close with a crashy thud. As a design, these first two Chargers represent the huge leap in styling from Chrysler Corporation’s 1965-67 models to its 1968-70s. The earlier seem caught in the “Mad Men” era, while the latter cars fit in with our nation’s cultural revolution.
1969 Dodge Daytona
With its three-speed TorqueFlite automatic and vague steering, the Daytona doesn’t feel much different than the ’66 and ’68 Chargers. It does have a heavy-duty suspension, but the long wheelbase provides a comfortable ride, and the interior has been designed for value, with a large, unusual clock (its second hand is on a ring outside the minute/hour dial) on the left of the dash, but no tachometer. “You didn’t need one; it’s an automatic,” my drive companion explained. The long, pointed hood seems to end in another state, and the basket-handle rear wing is so tall, you don’t see it in the rearview mirror. This is a big muscle car with an endless hood.
1970 Challenger T/A
This muscle car features the Trans-Am sanctioned, 275-hp, 340-cubic-inch V-8, but with a TorqueFlite automatic. It’s the one car here that I’d most like to open up on a road course, though it doesn’t feel that much smaller than a Charger, except in rear seat space.
Just four years newer than the “Bullitt” ’68 Charger, this one feels like a late-model used car by comparison. Perhaps it’s the relatively tight steering. Perhaps it’s that this car was just two or three years old by the time I got my driver’s license. Perhaps it’s the weathered-looking plastic woodgrain on the dash and doors. It’s very much the Charger of its time, with the handsomely fluid, organic “fuselage” styling that made its debut with the 1971 model, and a standard bench seat and column-mounted gearshift for the TorqueFlite (again, no tachometer). Even with its 280-hp 440-cubic-inch V-8, the Charger was less a muscle car by now, and more of a “personal coupe” in the mold of a Chevy Monte Carlo or Olds Cutlass Supreme. At $3249, its base price was just $99 higher than the ‘66’s, despite the high inflation of the Nixon era.