In The Edsel: Part I, we took a look at the turmultuous environment that birthed the Edsel. In The Edsel: Part II, we had fun with its design, development and naming. Today, we relive the Edsel's rollout and its unfortunate aftermath.
With just six months to go before its official introduction to the public, the Edsel had been designed, positioned and finally, named. Running prototypes were going through testing. Dealers were being signed up at a frantic pace, soon reaching 1,200 outlets. Now would commence what would be the most expensive promotional campaign at the time ever waged.
By this point, everyone in the auto industry had heard about the E-Car. Everyone in the business media was reporting that the Ford Motor Company would launch a new car division in the fall. It was the worst kept secret in Detroit. But no one knew much about the car itself. People had heard things. They’d heard about elaborate consumer research being conducted, an ergonomic interior, the latest technology, radical styling. There was already a buzz surrounding what would soon be called the Edsel. So the campaign’s job was not so much to build awareness of Edsel, but to channel it, keep it stoked to a fever pitch until the car was launched.
The campaign kicked off with division manager, Richard Krafve, and sales manage,r Larry Doyle, leading a team of Edsel executives on a coast-to-coast tour. They organized multi-media extravaganzas for dealers and the press at every stop. It was later termed a “strip tease” by the New York Times because each successive announcement revealed just a little more about the car. Teaser ads came in enticing intervals, appearing in major magazines like Look and Life. They focused not on the car or its features but the event: Edsel is coming to a dealer near you. The veil, they proclaimed, would be lifted on “E-Day.”
E-Day arrived on September 4, 1957. It started out well. Nearly 3 million people reportedly visited showrooms that first weekend to see for themselves this exciting new car they’d been hearing about for months. So hyped was the Edsel as something radically different and revolutionary that some people actually thought it might fly. Flights of fancy aside, would-be customers at least expected to see more than what actually greeted them on the showroom floor. One look and it was pretty clear that the “All-New!” Edsels were not much more than a clad and coifed Ford or Mercury. Most went home disappointed.
This writer wasn’t around in late 1957, but he cannot help thinking of an event in the mid-80s that must have born some resemblance to the Edsel introduction. Shock journalist, Heraldo Rivera, had claimed to have found some long-lost vault, said to contain treasures beyond imagination… or Jimmy Hoffa’s remains, or some such mysterious wonder. For what seemed like months he promoted the one-hour live special where the contents would be revealed. When the time arrived, on national television with millions watching, the lid was unsealed to reveal... a bunch of cobwebs and not much else. The audience’s momentary disappointment was soon replaced with amusement watching the recently cocksure host scramble to make something out of nothing. The Germans have a word for this; schadenfreude, deriving pleasure at the misfortune of others. The Edsel’s short life would provide schadenfreude in spades.
You Only Get One Chance to Make a First Impression
The late 1950s were never going to go down as a golden age of automotive quality. The mentality at that time, both in Detroit’s executive suites and its factory floors, seemed to be one of, move it out, fix it later. Edsel was by no means alone in its assembly gaffs, but the spotlight on it was brighter. The new brand needed to get it right on quality and get that all-important word of mouth going. The first Edsels got customers talking alright, but it wasn’t the kind of talk executives wanted to hear.
The quality difficulties stemmed mainly from the fact that unlike Ford’s other divisions, Edsel did no have its own production facilities. Having models based on both the smaller Ford and larger Mercury platforms, it seemed to make sense to build Edsels on existing Ford and Mercury assembly lines. This this might have been fine, except that Robert McNamara ran the Ford Division and one of his allies headed Mercury. Neither would permit Edsel Division’s QA personnel to set foot in their plants. Unbelievable as it sounds, as new Edsels were being assembled, there was no one was on hand to make sure it was being done properly. Ten, 20, 30 Mercurys or Fords might roll down the line, then along comes an Edsel to disrupt worker’s routines. Parts were often poorly affixed, mismatched, or even left off entirely. Cars routinely showed up at dealers with their bumper tied on with rope or with parts in the trunk and a note explaining to dealers how to properly attach them.
To highlight how bad things were on the factory floor, a 1958 Edsel Citation was to be presented to President Dwight D. Eisenhower for his birthday. A worker at the Wayne, Michigan plant that produced the car told the story of the post-assembly work that went in to making the president’s car perfect. In addition to the show car polishing the black convertible received, he also told of the dozens of man-hours spent tightening and straightening ill-fitting body panels. If only ordinary customers had gotten the presidential treatment.
The Edsel arrived on the scene just as the U.S. economy was veering into the worst recession in more than two decades. Auto sales would sink by more than 22% on the year. Only two cars showed a year-over-year gain for 1958. One was the aforementioned Thunderbird, which introduced an exciting new category called the personal luxury car. The other was little American Motor’s utilitarian Rambler, a car that made humility a bragging point.
For the mid-range makes it was truly ugly. Sales for the 8 mass-class brands collectively plunged by over 35%. Almost overnight it seemed, the public turned on this once hot segment. They saw these big shinny beasts as epitomizing Detroit’s cynical reliance on flash and bling in place of genuine engineering advancement. Some said the hostility may have been exasperated by the successful orbit of Sputnik just a month after E-Day. The Russians can go into space and all you guys can do is make tail fins? The Edsel’s grill seemed to mock consumers like a chromed funny nose and glasses.
Not helping the situation was the decision to debut the Edsel in early September, a full month before the traditional start of the new model year. The thinking in Dearborn was that giving Edsel a jump on the competition would give it the stage all to itself. The thinking backfired. What customers there were during a recession, felt inclined to wait to see the new ‘58s from other manufacturers before making any decision, all the while being dazzled and tempted by close-out deals on the remaining ‘57s. Sales in the first few months for a new product are crucial in building momentum. Edsel’s first months were abysmal. Internal forecasts called for selling 200,000 cars in the first year. It was clear early on that Edsel would fall far short of its goals.
Before long the sharks were circling. News stories came out lambasting Edsel as an expensive flop. Then the late night comedy circuit piled on. The Edsel’s look was polarizing from the start. Some folks hated it while others loved it. But now, those who liked the car were frightened away by the prospect of having the butt of jokes parked in their driveway.
Perhaps the final blow came during a state visit to Peru by then Vice President Richard Nixon. His car had been pelted with eggs by protesters. Nixon later quipped that he was riding in an Edsel and, “They weren’t egging me. It was the car.”
The knives were out it the executive suite as well. Three months before E-Day, Edsel’s most powerful backer resigned after surviving a heart attack. With the departure of Lewis Crusoe, Robert McNamara took over as head of Ford’s car and truck operations, which included Edsel. While the deck was stacked against it for the host of reasons already discussed, McNamara’s elevation effectively spelled the end of the Edsel before the first car was ever sold.
In its first year a little over 62,000 Edsels were sold, barely 30% of expectations. Only the pride and resources of a giant multi-national corporation allowed the nameplate to linger a little longer.
For 1959, the Edsel look was toned down some. The resulting car was quite handsome… except now it looked even more like a Mercury. Less than 45,000 found buyers.
Edsel’s final model year was quietly introduced on October 15, 1959. They were not bad looking cars because the newly redesigned Fords they were based on was quite handsome. But the few bits of chrome that identified these cars as Edsels, especially rather awkward vertical tail lights, suggested the designers had their minds on other things. It is likely that the only reason anyone bothered with these very soon to be orphans was that the few remaining Edsel dealers needed some reason to keep their doors open as they searched for other options. Five weeks later came the official announcement that the brand was being shut down. The last Edsel rolled off the line on November 20th, 1959. Just 2846 of the 1960 cars were sold.