Convoy of Expedition Vehicles. Folding Panorama from 'New Conquest of Central Asia'.
“ The Dodge Bros. cars climbed like mountain goats, and later, in our enthusiasm, Colgate and I agreed that we should be willing to attempt the ascent of Mount Everest with them if the snow could be eliminated.”
- Roy Chapman Andrews, 1926 -
Never before had the Dodge Brothers’ motto - “Reliable, Dependable, Sound” - been so vigorously challenged. Despite critics who said they might as well search the bottom of the ocean, an intrepid group of scientists gambled their lives, and a fortune to explore one of the Earth’s last unmapped regions - the Gobi Desert - using Dodges.
Conceived and led by explorer Roy Chapman Andrews and sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History, the Central Asiatic Expeditions [C.A.E.] consisted of five separate thrusts into remote Outer Mongolia and Northern China between 1922 and 1930.
The C.A.E. heralded a new type of multidisciplinary exploration, with representatives from eight fields of investigation that included geology, palaeontology, and archaeology.
With funds from financial giants like John D. Rockefeller, and public lectures, Andrews raised more than $300,000 U.S. [equivalent to twenty times that today], an enormous expenditure for a scientific expedition even during the heady 1920’s.
Mongolia, which occupies an area larger than Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy combined, is still a difficult country to explore. Poorly maintained dangerously-pot-holed asphalt roads run for a few hundred kilometers east and west of the capital. Communities outside this paved-zone are serviced by rugged trails that meander over steep mountain valleys, lush unfenced grasslands, and arid deserts.
In 1918 when Andrews first visited Mongolia, there were a few motor cars running infrequently between China and the old capital of Mongolia, Urga. The ancient caravan route was difficult, and the Ford motor cars that were used had proved unable to meet the severe demands made upon them. Accidents were frequent and many people had been killed.
However two Dodge Brothers cars had made it through in 1916. This achievement gave Andrews the inspiration for conducting explorations of Mongolia using automobiles. He was convinced that a properly equipped motor expedition supported by a camel caravan could do ten years’ work in five months. Scientists in motor cars would conduct the actual exploration, while a caravan of camels sent out months in advance would transport food, gasoline and oil to prearranged locations.
Expedition camel and Vehicle Tyres at Flaming Cliff Camp.
Returning to New York, Andrews began looking for a light car with high clearance, great durability, flexible chassis, and an engine with sufficient power to pull through sand.
“When it came to choice of cars opinion was strongly in favor of several well known Italian and French makes,” wrote Andrews, although he personally had a poor opinion of Citroën all-terrain vehicles. Asked to adopt it for the expedition, Andrews found the car to be absolutely impractical for rough work. “It is a nice little French Toy,” wrote Andrews to a friend.
Fulton 1 ton truck, used in early years of the Expedition. Photographed at the American Museum prior to shipment to China. Ca. 1920
Dodge had an advantage - it had already proven itself capable of the arduous journey to Mongolia. Additionally, a Dodge had climbed the Twin Peaks of San Francisco higher than any other car, and was the first automobile to reach the floor of the Grand Canyon and climb back out under its own power.
After careful investigation, and despite Dodge’s polite refusal to donate vehicles, Andrews chose five Dodge Brothers’ cars: medium priced, no frills workhorses that were plain looking, utilitarian and rugged. “Those which we used were stock cars with no especial equipment.”
These vehicles were expected to operate under extremely harsh conditions including: freezing nights, and + 40° C. days, and choking sand storms. Every imaginable situation was contemplated. Eventually, Andrews noted, “We carried hundreds of nuts and bolts, almost every conceivable part and the very best tools...short of actual wrecking of the chassis or engine, we were prepared for any emergencies.”
“Motoring on the Gobi is not quite like rolling down Fifth Avenue. If anything happens to your car there are no garages around the corner....to be alone on the desert when something is wrong with the digestion of your automobile can have its serious aspects.”
As scientists were expected to be conducting research, not tinkering with engines, Andrews hired Bayard Colgate. A motor enthusiast since his youth, Colgate, already an accomplished mechanic, underwent further intensive training at the Dodge factory in Detroit before sailing for China.
Andrews purchased new Dodges in Peking at the regular price, but was unable to secure insurance. Despite arguing, “the moral risk was good because we certainly would not abandon a machine...in view of the fact that the success of the expedition, if not our actual lives, depended upon [them],” Andrews was refused coverage. The insurers said the risk was too great, he was lucky to have a supporting caravan for he would be returning on camels, if he ever returned at all.
Despite this opinion, in March of 1922, five weeks ahead of the scientists in their cars, a caravan of seventy-five camels was sent out across the border of China into Mongolia. They were instructed to drop twelve cases of gasoline at a telegraph station along the road to Urga, and then rendezvous with the automobiles 150 miles from Urga. The success or failure of Andrews’ novel plan rested on the caravan’s ability to cross the Gobi Desert.
Pushing Expedition vehicles through sand.
Thirty-five days later, the scientists and overloaded Dodges slowly climbed westward toward the Great Wall, passed through a stone gate, and rolled into Mongolia.
“It makes me shudder even to write about the places through which we took the cars and trucks during the next four hours” recalled Andrews, “There were ravines, ditches, walls, rocks and washouts. Only Colgates’s good driving and resourcefulness got us through without a disastrous smash.”
That day’s progress was excellent, until a rain storm caused the ground to become thick clinging gumbo. The lead car suddenly sank up to the running boards in mud, followed by each of the cars in turn. They were so badly stuck that they could only be retrieved with block and tackle.
Four days later the expedition reached the first supply drop at the telegraph station. The caravan had been there two weeks before, leaving cans of gasoline as planned.
After pitching camp near the telegraph station, palaeontologist Walter Granger set off to explore the surrounding hills, but was soon back in camp. “Well, Roy,” Granger burst out, “we’ve done it. The stuff is here. We picked up fifty pounds of [fossil] bones in an hour.” The expedition members were jubilant.