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Dodge 100 Years: The Ride And Drive Of A Heritage Collection +VIDEO

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Dodge 100 Years Celebration

For a small number of automotive journalists, including myself, the 100th anniversary of Dodge started at the Meadow Brook Hall, with a ride and drive of a selection of historic models.

By Henny Hemmes
Senior European Editor

August 24, 2014: The mansion is located on Meadow Brook Farms, not far from Chrysler’s headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan. The grounds and the farmhouse originally belonged to John Dodge. The mansion was built by John’s widow Matilda and her second husband in the mid twenties. They lived there until 1957, when they donated the entire estate to the State of Michigan in order to found what is now Oakland University.

Between 1979 and 2010, the grounds hosted the Meadow Brooks Concours d’Elegance. A yearly event, that soon became one of the largest and most prestigious collector car shows in the world.

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Copperhead Concept

The historic estate, close to Chrysler’s headquarters, hosted the very special media event to celebrate the Dodge Centennial. The brand’s CEO, Tim Kuniskis started the event in front of the Hall, standing in between one of the first cars the Dodge brothers had built in 1914 and a new Challenger SRT. After the speeches we were toured along the cars on display at either side of the garden: high performance models and a collection of ten concept cars, including the unrivalled orange Copperhead (that I had the chance to actually drive at Willow Springs Raceway in 1997). I fell in love with the gorgeous design of ‘the small Viper’ that was just the right size for Europe!

Another surprise was positioned on the brick courtyard, next to Meadow Brooks Hall. There were 27 cars from Dodge’s heritage collection, ready to be driven! I teamed up with Steve Purdy, colleague at The Auto Channel, and Michigan Business Radio host. When we walked over to the courtyard, Steve said it was more rare to drive so many cars from a heritage collection than to meet a TSA agent with sense of humor… Indeed, I know of no other company that lets you drive their heritage!

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NASCAR Replicar

Which car would we take first?... I suggested we start with the 1956 NASCAR replica race car and was granted the first drive by my colleague. The lovely growling sound of the Red Ram Hemi engine made me feel even more happy than I already was. But I had to clench my teeth when the push button shifter needed to be jammed into Drive to get going. I tried to imagine how Lee Petty had been turning the large and thin steering wheel when he raced such a car for the team of Carl Keikhaefer, the owner of Mercury Outboard Engines.

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WWII Command Car

Steve’s jumped into the 1941 WWII Command Car and I climbed on the passenger seat. The gearbox was not synchronized and he had to double clutch when shifting up or down. “I learned to do so when I was very young, but this one….” He had to stop several times to shift properly, but nevertheless he choose the no-nonsense truck as his favorite among the cruisers, muscle cars and race cars that he also loved. The car was built for senior US army officers to be mobile in bad terrain and stay in touch with his troops.

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Henny driving a 1968 Dodge Charger R-T

Of course we had to drive the 1968 Dodge Charger R/T that became famous thanks to is role in ‘Bullitt’. Most car aficionados have seen the movie that stars Steve McQueen as lieutenant Bullitt. In his Ford Mustang he chased the Mob in their 425 hp strong Dodge Charger. The high speed chase through the hilly streets of San Francisco ended in a gas station along the highway, when the Chargers is forced off the road and explodes. Imagine the stunt drivers having fun during their wild drives, that is if they did not mind the body roll and vague steering.

We could fully understand that the eldest cars in the heritage collection were only available for a ride. Never mind, even at low speed, the lap around the Meadow Brook Farm estate in the 1915 Dodge Brothers Touring Car was fun. The view from the high seat of the nearly 100 year old car, the humming 4-cylinder and the stiff suspension, it all added to the feeling of being privileged to attend the event.

Next we chose the 1970 Dodge Challenger T/A (Trans-America) 340 Six-Pak. It was the street version of the Plymouth AAR ‘Cuda, (All-American Racers). In the mid seventies my husband owned a Barracuda, but only briefly as we drifted involuntarily through practically every corner. Not a good idea on the narrow Dutch roads! The 275 hp strong 340 cubic-inch V8 engine of the Challenger was mated to a close-ration 4-speed gearbox. The famous 340 Six-Pak option included an Edelbrock intake manifold with three Holley two-barrel carburetors.

We were also attracted to the sporty looking 1966 Charger. It was used by drag racer Al Eckstrand for driving demonstrations to American soldiers stationed around the world. All Chargers were equipped with a 318 V8, but this car had the optional 326 Hemi with 425 hp. It felt nice to give it some welly during our lap and I also liked the bucket seat that gave ample support.

To me, the three-tone body paint of the 1956 Custom Royal Lancer reflects the times of the ‘wing flappers,’ as I called the American cars when I was a kid. Steve and I offered a ride to Lisa Barrow, Chrysler’s spokesperson for the East coast. We all agreed that the seats interior was lovely with the seats covered with silver and black cloth and white vinyl. Lisa's bright hat was a good match to the vehicle's decor. It was not hard to drive the Lancer with its pushbutton transmission.

Pre-war and completely different was the 1939 Deluxe Town Coupe. Dodge celebrated its 25th anniversary with new, elegant styling and a luxury interior with comfortable seats to evoke the glamour of ocean travel. When it debuted 75 years ago, the new model, designed by Chrysler’s Dean Clark, changed the styling of the American coupes. The car also had foldable seats to create more cargo space!

Dodge created the 1969 Charger Daytona to win NASCAR races and indeed, it did not disappoint. The Charger won its first race, the Talladega 500. Half a year later, in March 1970, Buddy Baker was the first driver in NASCAR history to break the 200 mph mark. Thanks to aerodynamic testing the nose got its weird design, and the huge spoiler at the rear that was soon called ‘basket-handle’. To match the regulations, Chrysler had to build 500 road cars for homologation.

The event was finished before we realized. But we could not leave without a last drive, in the purple 1970 Challenger Hemi R/T Convertible with its 426 cubic-inch Hemi. Steve told me that this model is most coveted at classic car auctions. Only nine were built. With the V8 rumble still in my ears, I left the event and hopped into my loan car, a Fiat 500 L. What a difference one hundred years can make: a sister brand from Italy. What would the Dodge brothers have thought of that!