In The Edsel: Part I, we examined the context and environment in which the Edsel was conceived. Here, we will look at the story of how the Edsel was developed, named and designed.
Positioning the Edsel: Calling All Contortionists
In February 1955, Ford Motor Company announced the formation of the Special Products Division. The new entity was tasked with creating America’s first new make of automobile in more than a dozen years. Special Products’ new car was referred to internally as the E-Car. The “E” stood then for Experimental, not Edsel. That ill-fated name would come later.
The easiest path for the E-car might have been to simply dust off the Monterey-Lincoln project of 1953, the proposed up-scale brand slotted between Mercury and Lincoln. Unfortunately, by 1955 that slot had been taken…by the very man who killed it two years earlier.
By now it should be clear to the reader that Robert McNamara had an agenda very different from that of Ernie Breech and Lewis Crusoe. Whereas the latter two Ford executives were product men and thought in terms of cars and markets, McNamara was a number cruncher extraordinaire. He saw the auto industry in terms of volume and profits. Cars held no particular passion for him. A good car was one that made money. Crusoe’s 2-seat Thunderbird was a lovely car. It brought attention to the Ford brand and traffic to its dealers. But like the Chevrolet Corvette against which it competed, sales were limited by its 2-seat configuration. Low volume meant low or no profits. With McNamara now heading the division, unless sales volume could achieve a profitable level, Thunderbird’s days were numbered.
At the same time McNamara was assessing the viability of Thunderbird’s future, Ford’s chief engineer, Earl McPherson, was looking for a way to make Ford stand out as an engineering pioneer. Part of Henry Ford’s legacy of resisting change was that the company had acquired a reputation for being a technological laggard. In the 1930s Ford had used mechanical brakes long after the competition had switched to hydraulics. They didn’t offer independent front suspension until 1949. McPherson wanted to change long-held perceptions. Unit-body construction - where chassis and frame are a single unit - was seen as the way of the future. It reduced flex making cars quieter. It also allowed the floor of the cabin to be dropped down in the frame, allowing a car to have a lower profile for sleeker styling. McPherson was seeing good results in the development of Ford’s first unit-body car, the virtually hand-built Continental Mark II. He wanted to expand its use across higher volume. The Continental was sold through Lincoln dealers. So it made sense to expand the technology to the upcoming next generation Lincoln, that was due out around the same time as the E-Car.
McPherson’s problem was that unit-bodies could not be built on the same assembly line as a traditional body-on-frame car. An entire plant had to be dedicated to the process. Lincoln’s volume of well under 50,000 cars would use only a fraction of the capacity of the Wixom, Michigan plant where it was to be made. For the Lincoln to be profitable, McPherson had to find a way to spread development and production costs over greater volume. When he came to McNamara with his dilemma, the latter was presented an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone…or in this case, save two birds. An underutilized factory made Lincoln a money loser. At the same time, there were not enough customers out there to make a 2-seat Thunderbird profitable either. A 4-seat luxury sport coupe based on a shortened Lincoln frame could not only double Thunderbird sales, but also bring Wixom’s output to more efficient levels. That could put a smile on the face of even the sourest bean-counter.
The 1958 Thunderbird would bow 4 months after the Edsel. It did indeed more than double the tally of the 1957 two-seater, and each one was hugely profitable. Thunderbird had by far the largest sales gain of any car that year. Such overwhelming success cast a harsh light on its much less successful sibling, striking another nail in Edsel’s coffin.
Thunderbird wasn’t the only Ford Motor Company product going uptown. Since its inception in 1939, Mercury had been seen as a kind of a super-Ford: A little heavier, a little more powerful, but at its core just a fancier, faster Ford. The next Mercury, bowing in late 1956, would break this mold. It would get its own larger chassis and become more of a Buick fighter. At the same time, the E-Car’s projected sales of 150,000-200,000 did not justify the cost of its own unique platform. With McNamara snatching for the Thunderbird Lincoln’s unit-body underpinnings, along with Wixom’s excess capacity, the E-Car team was forced into sharing its basic body with Mercury. That meant that rather than simply slotting the E-Car into the upper mid-range - as had been the original Monterey-Lincoln plan - it would have to elbow its way into the space between Ford and Mercury.
In order to give the E-Car the best chance at success, Crusoe’s team needed to carve out a bigger market. They decided that not only would Special Products build an E-Car on the Mercury chassis, but it would also market a lesser version based on the smaller Ford platform. With two different models - referred to internally as the E-M and E-F - the division felt they could carve out a nice niche.
That was the thinking anyway. It seems almost quaint that two years earlier the Monterey-Lincoln project was cancelled for being “too ambitious.” Now, instead of one new brand, the Ford Motor Company was essentially trying to make four: The junior and senior versions of the E-Car, the personal luxury Thunderbird, and a completely repositioned Mercury. It also didn’t seem to bother the product men that the cheapest E-F models would cost less than the nicest Fords, while the top of the line E-Ms were more expensive than the cheapest Mercurys. This meant that the E-Car would be in direct completion with both the Ford and Mercury divisions, both of which were run by Whiz Kids.
What could possibly go wrong with that?
A Car in Search of a Market
In the mid 1950s, as work was beginning on the E-Car, a new field of pseudo-science called motivational research was gaining converts. One of those was David Wallace, Special Products Division’s product marketing specialist. In order to best position the E-Car, Mr. Wallace set out to discover why people choose one brand of car over another. What is it, he wanted to know, that made a certain type of person pass up a Chevrolet or a Ford and spend one, two, three thousand dollars more on an Oldsmobile, a Buick or a Cadillac, which under the skin where essentially very little different from one another?
Mr. Wallace commissioned Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Social Research, a leader in this new field, to help answer the question. Researchers conducted interviews with 1,600 residents of Peoria, IL and San Bernardino, CA in order to determine what kind of person buys what kind of car and why. It took nearly a year to complete, but Wallace thought he had his answers, all wrapped in a bound 200-page report called The Market and Personality Objectives of the E-Car. Its conclusion could be summed up thus: The E-Car must be “a smart car for the younger executive or professional family on its way up.” Wallace’s final recommendation was that the E-Car should be marketed as a prestige car but at a mid-range price.
Today, this sort of research is standard practice with any major consumer product launch. In the 1950s it was heady stuff. Later, when Edsel went down in flames, the effort and resources that went into studying the car and its market would become yet another source of ridicule. Justly so. When conceived in 1955, the E-Car was aimed at the large and thriving mid-priced sector. By the time Edsel was launched three years later, the sweet spot in the market had had moved and Edsel missed it by a mile. Perhaps it is telling that Mr. Wallace’s report was actually delivered two months after the go ahead was given for the car’s final design.
That Edsel Look
At about the time David Wallace was tackling car buyer’s wants and needs, designer Roy A. Brown got the job that every man in his field dreams about. He was asked to create a look, not just for a new car but an entirely new make of car. Brown would be unbound by family language or legacy themes. His marching orders were to make this car distinctive from every angle and instantly recognizable from a block away. He was essentially told to “go wild.”
It seems that even without the early benefit of David Wallace’s research findings, Brown still sought a prestige marque for his inspiration. By far the Edsel’s most memorable feature - that vertical grill - had not been seen on a car since pre-war Packards and LaSalles roamed America’s fine avenues and country lanes. Brown previously worked at the Cadillac studios that produced the LaSalle. He also admits he was influenced by the stunning Packard Predictor show car of 1956. The Predictor sought to reconnect to Packard’s heritage in a modern design. The Predictor's grill was a graceful blending of vertical and horizontal elements. Browns’ early E-Car mock ups had a similarly slim vertical grill that worked in harmony with the horizontal elements of the car’s overall face.
Ah, that grill. Right from the beginning it was a bone of contention. Ernie Breech reportedly saw Brown’s early work and deemed the grill too slim and too low. He ordered it raised and widened, making it far less visually appealing.
But it sure was visible. Marketing materials referred to the vertical element as an “impact ring.” Critics, on the other hand, would call it a “horse collar”, the less charitable, a “toilet seat” or worse, a “vagina with teeth.” Long time movie partners Bob Hope and Bing Crosby seemed to be at odds on the Edsel. While Crosby hosted a TV special called “The Edsel Show”, Hope, in a different venue, was referring to his old buddy’s sponsor as “an Oldsmobile sucking on a lemon.” This last jab was especially unfair. The look of the ’58 Oldsmobile might well have been improved by a pucker.
The Edsel’s rather unusual look is often cited as reason for its failure. Certainly its styling lapses were heartily criticized. But while the car indeed lacked a certain visual harmony, many of the individual elements were superb. The horizontal wrap-around grills were, by themselves, quite handsome and original. The soaring winged taillights were and still are magnificent. Even that much maligned vertical nose, meant to evoke the elegance of a pre-war Packard - perhaps mixed with a bit of period jet fighter - really is quite striking. When combined, however, they created a kind of chaos of shape and direction that jarred the senses.
One cannot help feel for poor Roy Brown, whose name was tarred with the most celebrated styling lapse in the history of the automobile. Before the Edsel, Brown created the beautiful Lincoln Futura show car that a decade later would be tricked out with rockets and ejector seat and become TV’s iconic Batmobile. After the Edsel debacle, Brown was packed off to Europe under cover of darkness, where he would go on to pen the wildly successful and simply lovely 1962 Ford Cortina. Suitably vindicated, Brown returned to America to do the utilitarian-chic 1968 Ford Econoline that changed the way vans looked and drove for the next 40 years. The man knew something about design. How unfair that that grill, the signature feature for which he will be forever be linked, was Ernie Breech’s idea.
The E-Car was envisioned as being revolutionary not only for its styling but its feel. It was to be a technological wonder that offered an early peak at the next decade. But that vision became muted as the realities of cost set in. The original concept gave the car an advanced ergonomically designed cockpit. All the major controls would be operated without the driver having to take his off hands off the wheel. Later, forced to conform to existing Ford and Mercury platforms, E-Car designers were now limited in how far they could go with the unique interior. Only two of their innovations survived.
One was Teletouch, an electronically controlled automatic transmission with pushbutton operation mounted on the steering wheel hub. The tranny produced a satisfying click of mechanical engagement, a big improvement over the distant “clank” of the more famous Chrysler push-button TorqueFlites. The problem with Teletouch was that its control unit was mounted down low on the side of the transmission. There it was exposed to water and road salt, making it prone to failure. When it worked, Teletouch did at least have an ergonomic benefit of being directly in front of the driver and within easy reach. The other E-Car ergonomic innovation was the Rotunda, a speedometer that rotated like a ship’s compass. It was pure gimmick.
The E-Car’s only advance of real significance was in the engine bay. Its V-8 engine had the first ever three-stage, dual thermostat cooling system. It offered faster warmup, improved fuel economy and longer engine life…when it worked. That, too, was less often that one might have hoped.
When an existing brand delivers a new technology, it can perhaps be forgiven if the technology fails to deliver, as long as they get it right next time. With a new brand, there is no next time. Potential customers began to wonder if the Edsel didn’t just look like it was sucking on a lemon, but that maybe it was one.
What’s in a Name?
Edsel, E-Car? By now it can be forgiven if the reader is occasionally confused. Be assured, it is nothing compared to the convoluted path to this unfortunate car had to travel to find its moniker. When word got out that Ford was working on a new car, enticingly referred to as the “E-Car”, many inside the company and in the motoring press just assumed that the E stood for Edsel. Richard Krafve, the new division’s first general manager (and its last) had suggested the name right from the start. The Ford family was firmly opposed to the idea. Henry II didn’t like it, while his mother, Edsel Ford’s widow, was said to be aghast. Ford’s sales chief, Larry Doyle, complained that the name had no meaning to anyone outside the company. And so the many-months journey that would lead back to Edsel began.