Pandemics, Elections & Automotive History

Pandemics, Elections & Automotive History

Dodge introduced automotive test facilities, an industry first, a their factory in 1916. Photo Detroit Public Library

Horace and John Dodge epitomized the American dream of rising from humble beginnings to vast wealth. They were rough and tumble, hard drinking blue-collar men from Niles, Michigan. John Francis was born in 1864, Horace Elgin in 1868. Their grandfathers, father and uncles were machinists. Both were mechanically inclined. John was somewhat reserved; Horace developed a reputation for a hair trigger temper. Together the redheaded Dodge boys were an inseparable team. They started with the manufacture of bicycles and then together they built an automotive empire, and played an integral role in the success of companies such as Olds Motor Works and Ford Company.

The Spanish Flu pandemic that began its relentless march around the world in 1918, much like COVID 19 today, had far reaching implications. It was while at the January 1920 National Automobile Show in New York City in that both John and Horace Dodge became sick. There is still some debate over their illness but at the time the consensus was that they had been infected with the last wave of the devastating Spanish flu pandemic that killed over 50 million. As with many victims of COVID 19, on January 14, mere days after becoming ill, John was afflicted with pneumonia and died in his hotel room at the age of 55. Even though he suffered from cirrhosis of the liver, the official cause of death, Horace recovered from influenza and pneumonia but was nearly bedridden for most of a year at his home in Florida before dying on December 10 at the age of 52.

President Wilson contracted influenza shortly after arriving in Paris in April 1919 for peace talks aimed at mapping the reconstruction of a post-World War I Europe. White House doctor Cary T. Grayson wrote  the diagnosis arrived at a decidedly inopportune moment: “The president was suddenly taken violently sick with the influenza at a time when the whole of civilization seemed to be in the balance.” Plagued by fever Wilson began hallucinating and issuing odd orders. On several occasions he argued about missing furniture, and even displayed paranoia in conversations in which he expressed concerns that he was surrounded by French spies. As a result, he was to play a minimal role in the development of policies pertaining to German reparations, creation of the League of Nations, and the

By Theodor Horydczak – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division

negotiation of agreements pertaining to American factories, including automobile manufacturers, being established in Europe.

Roy Dikeman Chapin Sr. was born in Lansing Michigan on February 23, 1880. His automotive career was launched by working for Ransom E. Olds of the Olds Motor Works. For the princely sum of $35 a month he took publicity photographs and performed other tasks. In 1901, he drove one of the new Curved Dash Oldsmobiles to New York City for a display at the second annual Auto Show in 1901. The 820-mile trip took seven days to complete and was a promotional boon for the pioneering automobile manufacturer. As a result of the deplorable road conditions, Chapin became an ardent supporter of the good roads movement. Chapin, along with Henry B. Joy of the Packard Motor Car Company, spearheaded efforts to build the Lincoln Highway.

Chapin was a gifted salesman and helped propel Olds Motor Works sales to record levels. He left the company in April 1906 and played key roles in establishment of Thomas-Detroit Company, Chalmers-Detroit Company, and several others. In 1908, Chapin facilitated a partnership of automotive engineers from Chalmers, and leading businessmen and founded the Hudson Motor Car Company in 1908. He served as the company’s president for several years. In this position he was able to establish the Essex Motors Company in 1918.

On August 8, 1932, President Herbert Hoover appointed Chapin to succeed Robert Lamont as secretary of commerce, a position he held until the end of Hoover’s term in 1933. It was in this position that he developed a series of controversial measures to stem an escalation of bank failures that threatened to surpass those of the post WWI recession. His initiative centered on evaluating which banks were to big to fail, creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and then facilitating cooperative partnerships to bail them out.

As he was associated with Detroit banks through Hudson, efforts to protect several of the largest financial institutions stirred a great deal of political controversy. In mid 1930, a run began on Detroit’s largest banks. Prior to February, 1933, more than $250,000,000 was withdrawn from the First National Bank of Detroit, the Union Guardian Trust Company and the Guardian National Bank of Commerce. The situation became so serious that the First National Bank was forced to liquidate most liquid and unpledged assets, and the Union Guardian Trust Company was compelled to borrow from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC).  Edsel Ford was Chairman of the Board of the Union Guardian Group, a banking consortium that was a part of Chapin’s investment portfolio. The group was also linked with Hudson.

A last ditch series of negotiations that centered on Henry Ford’s bailout of the Guardian Group was initiated. Ford’s refusal to assist and avert a financial failure led to the Michigan Bank Holiday, the first in a series of bank holidays. This ultimately led to the passage of Roosevelt administration’s Emergency Banking Act 1933.

The formative years of the American auto industry were not just steered by innovation, technological advancements, and an unbridled entrepreneurial spirt. It was also guided by politics, natural and man made disasters, sudden death and pandemics.