Car of the Week: 1922 Dodge Brothers roadster

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By Brian Earnest

A little more than nine years ago, Jim Scharf jumped in his car and went to get a haircut. He came back with an old car, a new hobby, and a new lease on life for both he and his wife Laura.

Actually, Jim didn’t come home immediately with the first Dodge Brothers car he had ever laid eyes on. It took a couple weeks, but it was love at first sight and fate seemed to have selected the Scharfs to have the car.

“I wonder sometimes what would have happened if I had waited a week to get that haircut,” Jim laughs. “And I’m bald! What was I even doing getting a haircut?”

The car that started things for the Scharfs was a 1921 Dodge Brothers touring car that was sitting alone in a front yard with a “for sale” sign on it. “It really caught my eye,” Jim said. “I wrote down the phone number and went home and told Laura that I saw this really old car and it was about the neatest thing I’ve ever seen. She said, ‘Really? That’s interesting.’ I said, ‘It’s for sale, but it had no price on it or anything. I could call the guy, but it’s probably more than I can afford.’ She said it sounded cool and she’d like to go see it.”

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At the time, the Granite Falls, Wash., couple was open to a new hobby. They had been into competitive pistol shooting for a decade or so, then turned to four-wheeling on quads, which took them on adventures all around the country. Laura had run into some serious health problems, however, and playing around with an old car seemed like it could be a good diversion. “We had been saving up for another quad for Laura … but when the guy was showing us the car we thought, ‘Wow, this is just the coolest thing,’” Jim recalled. “He told us the price was $11,000. I thought, ‘Are you kidding me. I thought something like that would be at least $50,000’ … I told Laura, ‘We’re saving money for a new quad for you, but she interrupted me and she said, ‘I don’t need a quad, I want this!’ She totally fell head over heels for the car.”

The seller took the couple for a ride in the touring, but the engine began to stall and sputter. “It was not running right,” Scharf recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong. I’ve never had any problems like this before.’” The man had no room for the car at his home, and didn’t have a good place to take it and work on it, either. The Scharfs volunteered their garage, under the promise from Jim that “if you can get it running right and teach me how to drive it, I will buy it from you.”

Not long after, the Scharfs were the owners of the touring, but that was only the beginning of their love affair with old cars, and Dodge Brothers models in particular. Jim is a homicide cold case detective by trade and admits to being a bit of a research addict, so he naturally began tracing the history of his touring. That led to the purchase just two months later of another Dodge Brothers — a sweet 1922 roadster, which has become his favorite.

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“The roadster just ran so much better than the touring car,” he laughed. “You didn’t have to pull the choke out or anything. It ran like a top. I was thinking that for the price, and as nice a car as it was, there was no way I could pass it up. I figured I could always get my money back out of it because it was so nice.”

The roadster had previously belonged to founding Dodge Brothers Club member Chuck Seese. Prior to that, the little two-seater had belonged to millionaire aircraft industry magnate Dean Spencer, who had a spectacular collection of automobiles over the years. “I think he had like three Duesenbergs, and Stutzes and Stanley steamers …. He had all kinds of cars, and this was one of them,” Jim said.

Scharf hasn’t been able to trace the history of the roadster back before Spencer owned it, but it’s unlikely it ever endured anything more eventful than the overseas adventure it took with Spencer and a bunch of other Washington state car buffs. “In 1969 he and several friends of his from Seattle wanted to have an antique car tour across the continent of Australia, so they had their cars all shipped down there and drove them across the continent,” Jim said. “I guess they got lost in a sandstorm with it at one point and I don’t know what all …. When they shipped it to Australia, the Australian government said, ‘You cannot drive it down here unless it has tail lights and seat belts, so if you fish around under the seats you can still find the seatbelts … I have a picture of it from when Chuck Seese owned it when it still had the tail lights mounted on it.”

Sometime after its return to the U.S., the roadster was apparently driven off an embankment, cracking two of its wooden wheel spokes. The damage is still visible, but it’s only cosmetic. Still later, the ’22 was saved from a storage building that had caught fire.

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At some point in its past, the 1922 roadster had been restored, and the Scharfs have had to do very little to the car in the years they have owned it. There wasn’t a ton of things that could go wrong with such a simple machine to begin with, and it was the roadster’s bare bones personality that really appealed to the couple.

“Both the [’21 and ’22] are open cars, and that’s what so nice about driving them,” Jim says. “You smell all the smells of the freshly cut grass or the bakery cooking … It’s just a whole different experience driving one of these cars than it is driving a modern car.”

“The roadster has always been in great shape since I got it. I found an old bumper that I had powdercoated and I put that on. I think the only things we’ve ever done is the bumper and we put a ‘Fat Man’ steering wheel in it.”

There were two series of 1922 Dodges. The First Series models were considered the “low hoods.” A roadster, four-door touring, two-door coupe and four-door sedan were all on the “low hood” menu, with prices ranging from $935 for the roadster up to $1,785 for the five-passenger sedan.

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The Second Series “high hood” models had an altered radiator, hood and a cowl line that was raised 3.5 inches. Other changes included outside door handles, fluted headlamp lenses, a slanted instrument panel, windshield visors and buttonless upholstery.

All the 1922 Dodges shared an L-head four-cylinder that displaced 212.3 cubic inches, generated about 25 hp and shifted through a three-speed, shaft-drive power train. There were 114 inches between the 32-inch wooden-spoked wheels in the front and back.

The Scharfs’ roadster has a combination starter/generator and can also be cranked. The windshield wipers are manual. A horn is attached to the outside window frame to the left side of the steering wheel. The floorboards carry luggage racks on either side. A “dog bone” MotoMeter sits atop the radiator.

Other available options included bumpers, a spare tire and spare tire cover, Budd-Michelin steel disc wheels, “Fat Man” steering wheel, heater, wind wings on open cars, side curtains and spotlights.

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The couple’s 1922 roadster was born two years after the death of both Horace and John Dodge, who had teamed up to run a successful Detroit engine and transmission building venture before turning to car building in 1914. The new company almost immediately established a reputation for building solid, sturdy machines that were reliable and built to last. The company was the first to mass produce cars with steel bodies, and helped pioneer the use of 12-volt electrical systems.

In 1920, Dodge Brothers had risen to second among U.S. car makers. With the founding brothers gone, however, the company began to lose ground to its competition, and in 1925, the operation was sold to a New York banking firm. Just three years later, Walter P. Chrysler bought out the company and soon began turning the company’s fortunes around for the better. By the time the 1930s arrived, the “Brothers” part of the name was dropped.

The fact that Dodge Brothers cars were never as plentiful as the Ford Model T and are considerably scarcer today made them even more appealing to the Scharfs. The idea that they didn’t have their own unique driving protocol and demands like the Model T’s also made Jim happy. “It was easy to drive. You didn’t need four arms and three legs, and the only thing to adjust really was the timing,” he says.

These days, when the weather is decent, the Scharfs spend nearly every weekend at a car show somewhere, showing off their roadster, touring, or the 1924 Dodge Brothers sedan they have also acquired. Laura designed a special radiator script that the couple had made up to give the cars a little personalized flair.

The more the cars get noticed and the more people want to be around them, the more fun the couple has.

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“The thing we do with it the most is take it to car shows. Laura likes to educate the young people about what the old cars are like,” Jim notes. “She is much more into the cars than even I am, if you can believe it. We go to car shows every weekend if we can. Sometimes we go Saturday and Sunday. We let the kids sit in the car and get their picture taken in the car. We really like to let everybody get a feel for what these old cars are like.”

A lament of many in the hobby is how seldom some owners of pre-war cars get their cars out and drive them, and how scarce they are at many shows. Muscle cars and other post-war offerings dominate many events. The Scharfs have taken the opposite approach. They will drive anywhere in their trio of Dodge Brothers machines, but they treat Laura’s 1967 Camaro SS with kid gloves. “She had that car when I first met her,” Jim chuckled. “We eventually got around to having it restored, and it turned out so much better than we ever expected, we just decided we better try to keep it that way.”

On a good day, the roadster can top out about about 40 mph on the back roads around Granite Falls. That’s about 5 mph better than the touring car, according to Jim. “That touring car is geared a little lower, I think,” he says. “The roadster will go down the road at 40 and it just handles exceptionally well. It’s really a lot of fun to drive.”

The couple hasn’t limited their collecting interests to just Dodge Brothers cars, either. Automobile collectibles, petroliana and all kinds of car-related goodies have begun to make their way into the couple’s home. “I have a couple of gas pumps and lots of other memorabilia,” Jim says. “When I retire I’m going to have a mock gas station with a store front. We’ll park one of the cars in there.”

It’s not the cars and toys that the couple is most grateful to have, however. Their appreciation for the old car hobby and all the good things that can come with it runs much deeper. It isn’t a stretch to say their lives were permanently changed — and maybe even saved — by their adoption of a couple of rolling relics.

“My wife had cancer, and the chemotherapy just beat her down so bad,” Jim says. “She was bedridden and really didn’t want to do anything. But taking her out and getting her polishing on that touring car really got her motivated to get her body back into shape enough to start doing things again … The three old cars have been a blessing that way. She might not even be alive now if they hadn’t been there to get her going and encourage her.

“I wonder sometimes, what if I had waited a week to get my hair cut? It’s totally changed our lives.”

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If you’ve got an old car you love, we want to hear about it. Email us at oldcars@krause.com

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