What do you get when you cross a concept with an afterthought? You get the Edsel, a name synonymous with failure.
Edsel was a story of calamity, intrigue, ineptitude and plain bad timing. It was the answer to a post-industrial age riddle that no one ever asked. Six decades have past since the Edsel’s made its brief appearance on the automotive stage, but people still know of it. The 22-year old, guitar-playing, non-car guy barista at our local Starbucks has heard of the Edsel. “That old car that flopped because it was funny looking?” The unfortunate Edsel even earned recognition in Webster’s New Colligate Dictionary, “a product, project, etc., that fails to gain public acceptance despite high expectations, costly promotional efforts”
How did the pathetically proud, lovably odd Edsel earn a spot alongside New Coke, the Susan B. Anthony dollar and Betamax atop the pantheon of product blunders, a universal symbol for failure? Let’s find out.
Timing Is Everything…Especially When its Bad
When work began on the Edsel in the early days of 1955, America was at an apex of optimism. The post war decade that proceeded had brought tremendous expansion. Job opportunities were aplenty. Incomes were soaring. An affluent new middle class had emerged to power the nation on a quantum leap in consumerism. The Baby Boom was in full swing. As cities overflowed with growing families. New suburbs sprouted, as “sprawl” entered the nation’s lexicon. And the exodus to the hinterlands was made smooth by a new interstate highway system, painless by dirt cheap gasoline.
The automobile was at the epicenter of this new suburban society. Between 1940 and 1955, car registrations more than doubled. The rapidly expanding American middle class had money to burn and 2-car garages to fill. For these newly affluent consumers, the bigger and shinier the better. And in mid-1950s America, no one did big and shiny better than General Motors.
The General’s motto since the 1920s was “A make for every purpose and purse.” That meant that when a customer was ready to trade in his plain-Jane Chevy, he could trade up to a more powerful Pontiac, a larger fancier Oldsmobile, or the professional man’s car, a Buick, and never leave the GM family. This strategy was alive and strong in 1955. Sales of GM’s mid-range brands were up over 150% since 1940.
The Chrysler Corporation also had a trio of brands fancier than their basic Plymouth. The Dodge, DeSoto and Chrysler marques roughly matched in size and price their competitors from GM.
The Ford Motor Company had its own Mercury brand to compete in this profitable niche. The stylish Mercury did well, but its share of the mid-priced market was dwarfed by GM’s triple powerhouses. Ford management – a number of whom had been recently hired away from GM – was determined to close the gap. The Edsel, would lead the charge.
Not only would Edsel be the first new make of automobile in more than a dozen years, it was also the first car ever to be created, not by engineers or entrepreneurs but by marketers, a new type of management that had arisen during these heady days. Prior to Edsel, a car was designed, built and then offered to the public. Price, performance and features determined how customers would perceive it. With the Edsel, that perception was created first. The car that followed was designed to reflect an image laid out by the research. This new way of creating a product wasn’t cheap. More was spent on Edsel’s development and promotion than any consumer product in history to that point – nearly $3 billion in today’s dollars.
With a booming market in front of it and massive resources behind it, the stars seemed aligned for Edsel’s resplendent success.
But the stars… they can be mesmerizing. Gazing at that those shinning twinkling lights one can forget that they emanate from millions or even billions of years in the past.
A product as complex as an automobile needed about 3 years to get from the drawing board to the showroom. During that time the stars do not remain the same place. The Edsel was conceived with 1955’s animating spirit of abundance. But by the time the 1958 Edsel was unveiled, the market for which it was so painstakingly created had past by. Literally days before the car was introduced to America’s upwardly mobile middle class, the roaring U.S. economy that paid their salaries had lurched into a deep and painful recession.
Selling cars in a recession is hard. Selling an unproven car that was designed for good times aplenty is doubly so. But with the resources of one of the world’s largest companies behind it, Edsel might have been able to ride out the storm…had that been its only handicap.
Born of a House Divided
As the light began to show on the horizon of a world at war, darkness descended on the Ford Motor Company. For decades Henry Ford had ruled his company and his world with an iron fist. But in 1943, the passing of Edsel Bryant Ford, Henry’s only son and second in command at Ford, engulfed the Old Man in a cloud of guilt and grief. The younger Ford had spent nearly his whole adult life pushing to modernize the company that carried his name. At each corner he was battled with, belittled by and undermined by his tyranical father. The constant conflict gave the refined Edsel ulsers, which lead to stomach cancer and his untimely death. Soon after Herny Ford fell into senility. The relationship between Henry and his son had been a difficult one to say the least. But together they made the Ford Motor Company go. Now it was rudderless.
That was a problem for the U.S government. For while the end of WWII was in sight, it wasn’t over yet. Ford was still one of the nation’s most important military suppliers. The Ford Motor could not be allowed to falter. After some deliberations, the Pentagon released Edsel’s eldest son, 27-year old Henry Ford II, from his naval service several months before VE-Day to take the helm of the company that bore his name. Think of it as a 1945 equivalent of To Big to Fail.
Growing up, Henry II had always seemed more interested in sports and women than running the family business. Now he faced a daunting task. The Ford Motor Company was estimated to be losing $10 million a week. The management team he’d inherited had been decimated over the years from purges by his vindictive and arbitrary grandfather. Young, untested and suddenly thrust into the head chair, Henry II possessed the sense and good instincts to know that he needed help.
The most pressing problem facing Henry II was restoring order to the company’s finances. For that he hired a group of MBA-trained officers from the Army Air Force’s Office of Statistical Control. They came as a team and billed themselves as efficiency experts. After securing key positions throughout the company, these executives gained the nickname, Whiz Kids, for their youth and all the questions they asked of the old school Ford managers. The group came to be led by the brilliant and ambitious Robert McNamara.
With the Whiz Kids at work repairing Ford’s finances, Henry's next set out to invigorate the product side of the company. McNamara and his finance men were smart but they were not familiar with the ways of the car business. For this task the young CEO hired Ernest R. Breech, chairman of Bendix Corporation and a former top General Motors executive, to be Ford’s chief of operations. Breech in turn placed his right-hand man, Lewis Crusoe, and other former GM men in key positions throughout the company. They set about to recast Ford’s product structure.
The car guys and the bean counters; these two camps represented very different visions for the future of the Ford Motor Company. Breech and his team sought to emulate their former employer, General Motors. That meant having multiple automotive divisions, each staking claims to different price and status segments of the market. McNamara’s Whiz Kids were focused on the bottom line. Ford was in the business of generating profits. Selling cars were the means to that end. The name on the fender was irrelevant. They looked to maximize sales while keeping overhead to a minimum.
All the while, Henry Ford II seemed content to let the two factions duke it out to see which could plot the best course for his company, while he concentrated on learning how to run a major corporation. What ensued resembled a professional wrestling cage match, only with suits and briefcases.
With the 1950s under way, the U.S. car market had divided into four roughly equal quarters. The popular-priced Ford, Chevrolet and Plymouth brands together split a bit more than half of all new car sales. General Motor’s mass class brands, Buick-Oldsmobile-Pontiac, combined for another 25%. That left a dozen other makes, including Ford Motor’s own Mercury, to scramble for the remaining quarter. It was clear to the product men that any significant growth for Ford would have to come at the expense of the General’s B-O-P brands.
Hot to beat their former employer at its own game, the former GM-, anywayers first foray down the brand expansion path was the Monterey-Lincoln Program. M-L was centered around a handsome and substantial concept car built on a lightened Lincoln platform. Ford’s Mercury brand was competing at the lower end of the mid-range - primarily with Pontiac, Dodge and the Olds 88. With a bigger Lincoln-derived body, the M-L was meant to fill the gap in Fords’ lineup between Mercury and Lincoln, putting it in competition with Buick, Chrysler and the bigger Olds 98.
The project quickly ran into difficulties. The number-crunching Whiz Kids argued that the focus should be on expanding offerings in the volume Ford brand. They contended that the M-L was unnecessary. Henry II’s younger brother, Benson Ford, was currently developing a new ultra-luxury Continental line that would stand at the top of Ford’s brand structure. Lincoln had never had much success against Cadillac. With the Continental soon to be plying the upper status-sphere, they argued, why not bring Lincoln down a notch and let it compete with the upper-middle class brands? Ford Motor could then cover the same markets without incurring the millions in overhead needed to field another automotive division. The bean-counters won the day. The Monterey-Lincoln project was shelved.
Thus was registered the first casualty in the battle for power between the Whiz Kids and the Product Men. Clashes occurred with regularity. Some produced casualties. The Edsel would be the biggest.
Money in the Middle
As the year 1955 approached, the product men had increased their clout in the corporate suites of Dearborn. Ernie Breech’s most trusted lieutenant, Lewis Crusoe, had been running the high volume Ford Division since 1950. In those five years the disposable income of America’s middle class expanded rapidly. Under Crusoe’s direction, his division won an outsized piece of that pie. He approved a fancier version of the basic Ford called the Crestline. The car did well and added incremental volume at fat profit margins. Crusoe also championed the 2-seat Thunderbird, which debuted at the end of 1954. The stylish roadster did not add many sales…nor any profits at all. It did however, cast a halo of coolness over the once stodgy brand. Ford sales rose from 800,000 cars in 1949 to 1.4 million in 1954, earning Crusoe a promotion to head up Ford Motor’s car and truck operations, the #3 spot in the company behind Henry II and Ernie Breech.
With the Breech faction in the ascendency, the time was at hand to again push for that second mid-range car line and begin to match General Motors across the brand spectrum. In a presentation to the Board late in 1954, Crusoe’s team showed research that 87% of the owners of GM’s mainstream Chevy traded up to a Pontiac, Olds or Buick. Over at the Chrysler Corporation, 77% of Plymouth owners moved on to Dodge, DeSoto or Chrysler. Only 26% of Ford owners, however, later bought a Mercury. Ford Motor, with its lone entry in this lucrative category, was losing substantial sales to both its cross town rivals. They argued that Ford had to have another brand in order to fully share in the spoils of this booming mid-range market. It didn’t hurt their cause that 3 months into the 1955 model year, the mid-priced market was off to a red hot start. Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick were collectively selling 45% ahead of 1954, while the striking new Chrysler/ DeSoto/ Dodge trio was surging 60%. The facelifted Mercury brand was up by a decent but lagging 38%. Ford needed to up its ante.
Seeing a groundswell of support - Henry II was said to have stood in applause after the presentation - Robert McNamara, who had just taken Crusoe’s place as head of the powerful Ford Division, did not give voice to his opposition. There were more effective means at his disposal.
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 Breech and Crusoe. Whereas the latter two 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 that 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 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 and 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 models. 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 would make Lincoln a money loser. At the same time, there were not enough customers out there for a 2-seat Thunderbird to be profitable. 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.
So it was that a man often criticized in the industry for his lack of passion for cars, Robert McNamara ended up saving one of America’s most passionate cars. The 1958 Thunderbird would bow 4 months after the Edsel. It did indeed more than double the tally of the 1957 two-seater, with each one hugely profitable. Thunderbird had by far the largest sales gain of any American car that year. Such overwhelming success cast a harsh light on its much less successful sibling, striking another nail in Edsel’s coffin. There would be more.
Thunderbird wasn’t the only Ford Motor 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, 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 having snatched Lincoln’s unit-body underpinnings, along with Wixom’s excess capacity, for the Thunderbird, 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. It was decided then 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 could carve out a nice niche for itself.
That was the thinking anyway.
It seems almost quaint that two years ago 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 loyal to McNamara. 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, Buick or 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 the new field, to help answer this 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 the 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 roamed America’s fine avenues and country lanes. Brown 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. Its 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 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 lapses were heartily criticized. But while the car indeed lacked a certain visual harmony, many of the individual styling elements were superb. The horizontal wrap-around grills were, by themselves, quite handsome and original. The soaring winged taillights and scalloped rear fenders were and still are magnificent. Even that 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 the signature feature for which he will be forever be linked, was Ernie Breech’s idea.
The product men envisioned the E-Car as 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 was muted as the realities of cost set in. The original concept gave the car an advanced ergonomically designed cockpit. All 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 TorqueFlite. 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.
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, the Rotunda speedometer that rotated like a ship’s compass, 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 get its name.
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 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.
Henry Ford’s Model T brought the automobile to the common man, and in doing so sparked America’s love affair with the automobile. While Henry is often thought of as the Father of Personal Mobility, he was also the father of his only son, Edsel B. Ford. The name of Edsel comes from the Hebrew, meaning “from the wealthy man’s hall.” Ford was not yet a wealthy man when Edsel was born. Nor did this avowed anti-Semite likely take much interest in the Hebrew texts. So it is fairly unlikely that Henry Ford’s sought the Torah for inspiration. More likely the name’s origin was Edsel Ruddiman of Greenfield, Michigan who was Henry Ford’s boyhood friend. Poor Mr. Ruddiman, poor Edsel; their name forever linked to calamitous failure.
Edsel Ford loved beautiful automobiles. He was the driving force behind not only Mercury, but the streamlined Lincoln Zephyr, the iconic Ford ‘Duce Coupe’, and the 1939 Continental, which was honored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to one of the 8 most beautiful cars ever made. What sad irony that his name is best known for the archetype of automotive ugliness, a car he had no role in creating.
Fresh off his Market and Personality Objectives report, marketing specialist David Wallace was called in again, this time to apply his consumer expertize to name calling. First he devised a list of parameters. The name must be short, so as to display well on dealer signage. It must be distinctly American in nature. It shall have two syllables to give it cadence, and be clear and distinct for easy radio and TV identification. It should not be prone to obscene double-entendres or jokes, nor translate into anything objectionable. That “Edsel” would meet these parameters, and yet in the end so completely violate their intent, remain among the Edsel’s many ironies.
Nonetheless, with his guidelines in hand, Mr. Wallace first set about surveying fellow employees for their opinions. These in-house guinea pigs were gathered in conference rooms where potential names were flashed on a screen. Responses were then discussed and dissected. This continued over several weeks until the respondents, upon seeing a new name on the screen, just lapsed into blank stares and silence. There were no further sessions.
Moving on, Wallace brought the project to newly chosen advertising agency, Foote, Cone & Belding, hoping they could do better. The ad men took a more exciting approach. They instituted a company-wide contest. Any number of names could be entered, with the prize for the winner being a brand new E-Car. There were Eighteen-thousand submissions comprising over 4,000 unique names. They ranged from Altair to Zipcar. After tossing out the obvious non-starters, an Ann Arbor, Michigan market research firm, was hired to test consumer response on the remaining hundreds. They set about in three U.S. cities querying train station travelers and shopping mall visitors as to their opinions. Many more names were ruled out.
But not enough. At one point it was decide that perhaps a fresh, non-automotive, more purely creative perspective was needed. David Wallace discovered that the wife of one of his assistants was friends with the renowned American poet Marianne Moore. He sought her input. As it turned out, Ms. Moore took up the challenge with gusto. But in her eagerness to proceed, she may not have thoroughly read Wallace’s naming parameters. Among her many submissions were Andante Con Moto, Utopian Turtletop and Bullet Cloisonne.
After months of back and forth and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent, there was nothing to show but a binder full of names. Time was running out. Wallace and Edsel general manager Richard Krafve selected four names to be presented to an executive committee for final decision. Ernie Breech didn’t like any of them. A helpful soul pulled out the binder and the group began tossing out other names. Finally, in exasperation, Breech is reported to have cried out, “Let’s just call it Edsel.” None of the Ford family happened to be at this meeting. When reminded of their previous disapproval, Breech supposedly answered, “Let me handle Henry.”
And thus, the E-Car became the Edsel. Breech later denied that it had been his suggestion. He blamed Krafve and Lewis Crusoe, for the name. Success, as the saying goes, has many fathers, but failure is a bastard child.
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 to that day 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 the E-Car. 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 Krafve and sales manager 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 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 bore some resemblance to the public response to the Edsel's 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.
Edsel’s quality difficulties stemmed mainly from the fact that unlike Ford’s other divisions, it did not 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 a quarter century. 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 eight 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, weeks 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 recession-raveged customers there were, 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.
Internal forecasts called for selling 200,000 Edsels in the first year. As early figures came in, it was clear the new brand was going to fall far short of that. News of those quality issues began to emerge. 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.” We're guessing he didn't get a new Edsel for his birthday.
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 company 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.
There was one more model year left for Edsel. That was really only because dealers needed some reason to keep their doors open while they searched for other options. They sold just 2846 of the 1960 cars before the brand was mercifully euthanized. The last Edsel rolled off the line on November 20th, 1959.
It is often said that Edsel flopped because it was the wrong car at the wrong time. A more precise statement might be that it was the right car, but for a time that had just passed. As the Ford Motor Company was expanding its range of makes with Edsel, as well as Continental, the automobile industry was undergoing a brand contraction not seen since the Great Depression. Between Edsel’s conception in late 1954 and its unveiling three years later, storied makes like Willys, Kaiser, Nash and Hudson faded into history. Packard and DeSoto were right on their heels. There were 20 American makes in 1954. A decade later a third of them had disappeared.
It appears that Robert McNamara, Edsel’s long-time nemesis, was correct. The future of the industry lay not in new brands, but radically new models sold under existing brand umbrellas. To demonstrate this, in the fall of 1959, just weeks before Edsel’s official cancelation, the company introduced the Ford Falcon, a good looking, minimally styled compact car McNamara had championed. Falcon became the most successful new model launch in automotive history. Four and a half years later that record was smashed when Ford unveiled its 5th distinct car line, the Mustang. There would be no major new make of car for another 30 years.
No new American make, that is. On October 31, 1957, less than 2 months after the Edsel was unveiled, a little known Japanese company called Toyota introduced its first car for sale in America. Toyota and Edsel were an ocean apart in not only origin, but in size, appearance, and target audience. It was that little Toyota gave us a glimpse of the automobile’s future, while the Edsel turned off the lights on a time gone by.
Copyright@2017 by Mal Pearson
Bonsell, Thomas. Disaster in Dearborn: The Story of the Edsel. Stanford University Press, 2002
Bak, Richard. Henry and Edsel: The Creation of the Ford Empire. John Wiley & Sons, 2003
Lacy, Robert. Ford: The Men and the Machine. Little, Brown & Co, 1986
Warnock, C. Gayle. The Edsel Affair. Pro West, 1980
Automobile, February 2013, Eric Tingwall If Looks Could Kill: 1959 Edsel Corsair
AutoWeek, 12/24/07, John Katz Not What Your Think: 1958 Edsel Pacer
Hemmings Classic Car, October 2008, Jim Donnelly Edsel: A History
Hemmings Classic Car, July 2011, Jeff Koch Soft Sell
Hemmings Classic Car, July 2014, Terry Shea Saving the Best for Last: 1960 Edsel Ranger Convertible
Old Cars Weekly, 3/24/11, Bob Tomaine Excellent Edsel: 1958 Edsel Citation
www.LATimes.com Elaine Woo Roy Brown dies at 96: designer of Ford’s Edsel.
www.AutomotiveNews.com Edsel Designer Roy Brown: Car is still nifty at fifty
www.FoundationforEconomicEducation.com Anthony Young Ride and Fall of the Edsel
www.HooverMotorCompany.com A look at the history of the infamous Edsel
EDSELS in the MOVIES
Used Cars (1980) Columbia Pictures Edsel lightens up a dark comedy
Blacktop (2000) HBO Films A ‘59 Edsel turns in one of this clunker’s best performances
Killing Cars (1993) Impex Femme fatal serial killer drives an Edsel
Peggie Sue Got Married (1986) TriStar “Dad, you bought and Edsel?”
Gas-s-s-s (1971) Post-apocalyptic road trip in an Edsel