DEFINING DODGE

After 100 years, Dodge's identity still tough to pin down

The 1968 Dodge Charger R/T, a classic muscle car, was known for the cigar-band stripe around the tail.
DODGE 100TH ANNIVERSARY
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DETROIT — Let’s be honest: For 100 years, Dodge has been spinning its wheels.

During the good times, it has done so literally: delivering performance, power and passion to a domestic audience that hungered for vehicles that stood out in a crowd, with the smell of burning rubber.

But when times were bad, Dodge lost its way. The brand’s history is strewn with vehicles that shouldn’t have worn the Dodge name.

On July 1, Dodge will be 100 years old.

Dodge’s muddled history explains why it’s hard today to say clearly what the brand is all about. Over the years, Dodge has pitched a woman’s car, muscle cars, pickups, family haulers, rebadged Japanese compacts and more.

But the muddle is also why the brand’s current mission — affordable performance — strikes a chord. Unlike the past, the new mission is well-defined and compelling.

The mission was spelled out by the team of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne in May when it unveiled the automaker’s five-year product and business plan.

Dodge’s potential first blossomed 100 years ago in Detroit with its founders, brothers John and Horace Dodge.

The inseparable business partners and tinkerers had made a killing as suppliers for other automakers, including Ford Motor Co. and Oldsmobile. Most would have been happy with the success.

Yet, in 1914, John and Horace Dodge risked everything they had built on the belief that they could make a better car than the competition.

Their first car, an all-steel-bodied sedan, rolled off the assembly line on Nov. 14, 1914, one of 249 built that year.

Six years later, only their former client Ford would sell more cars and trucks in the United States. Those early Dodge cars were more costly than the Ford Model T — $785 compared with $490 — but they were technically more advanced and more powerful, and they had an all-steel chassis.

But since then, Dodge has struggled at timeswith its identity. It has been a part of Chrysler since 1928 when Walter P. Chrysler bought the brand from New York investment bankers.

In the 1950s, Dodge created both the high-performance D-500 and the La Femme, a car for women, whose defining feature was a matching umbrella.

Three decades later, Dodge had helped create an entirely new segment with the Caravan minivan, yet it also sold the strange-looking Rampage, a compact car with a cargo bed mashed on the back.

Still, Dodge produced some exceptional and iconic vehicles over the decades. The Charger and Challenger were favorites during the muscle-car era of the late 1960s and early 1970s. When those nameplates were resurrected in the 2000s, their fans returned.

In 1993, Dodge also redefined what the pickup truck should look like with its “Big Rig”-inspired Ram 1500.

A year earlier, the brand began selling what some consider was the original American supercar, the crude, boorish and absolutely thrilling Dodge Viper.

Today’s Dodge finds itself in the midst of another brand refocusing.

When Italian automaker Fiat took over in 2009, it wanted to make Dodge a multiline competitor to Ford and Chevrolet, only without its pickups or commercial vehicles, which were spun off to create Ram.

But in May, Dodge’s role as Chrysler Group’s Ford and Chevy fighter was transferred to the Chrysler brand.

Under current brand head Tim Kuniskis, Dodge is being restored to its originalplace as an affordable performance brand, much as John and Horace Dodge had envisioned. It’s dropping some models — the lackluster Avenger sedan and the Caravan minivan — and adding high-performance versions of the rest of its lineup.

Other than SRT versions of existing nameplates, Dodge isn’t scheduled to expand its lineup until early 2018. So, under the brand’s plan, it will take at least four years for the brand’s sales to return to the 596,000 units it hit in 2013.

But now, Dodge has a clear identity. We’re not talking BMW-like refined performance. This is the domestic variety — loud, brash, bold.  Fun.

It’s a risky plan — one that would make John and Horace Dodge proud.

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com.


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