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The Edsel

1958 Edsel Pacer
1958 Edsel Pacer, 4-door sedan (courtesy:

Late 1957, the public caught the first glimpses of the Edsel, the new and revolutionary car in a series of flashy TV commercials. In one, the narrator spoke off-screen as different individuals drove up in each of the four new 1958 Edsel series for everyone to drool over. The occupants were smiling and carefree. There was the Citation, the Corsair, the Pacer, and the Ranger. In another commercial, the narrator was in the Edsel, pointing out the many new features of the car, such as the self-adjusting brakes, and the Teletouch Drive push-buttons on the steering wheel--where the horn normally is--that operated the automatic transmission. We also saw the space-age, rolling-dome speedometer, and, of course, the unique never-before grill design. Still another commercial spoke of the 3 different station wagons, the Bermuda, the Roundup, and the Villager. Other commercials bragged on about how the mere flick of a switch on the dash could open the trunk. Another switch opened the hood. Dash lights would flash on when certain fluid levels were low. And the transmission would lock in “Park” until the ignition was turned. As part of the different Edsel series were 18 models, with 90 different colors to pick from.

Edsel sponsored the show, Wagon Train, a popular western in the late 1950s. In one of the commercials, the show’s star Ward Bond drove an Edsel and with the camera position in the front seat talked about its handling and toughness over the dirt road he was driving on. Many slogans came from all the above TV spots. “Driving an Edsel is an experience no man should miss…YOU can afford an Edsel.” How about, “Owning an Edsel is like falling in love,” according to one attractive woman. And, “Edsel gives you more of everything,” stated one narrator, very boldly.

The Edsel hype started two years before in 1955, when Ford Motor Company decided they needed another line to compete with Chrysler and General Motors. Ford especially wanted parity with GM. “Beat GM” was Ford’s new in-house slogan. This car would be in the mid-range. It was designated the E-Car at first, which stood for Experimental Car. It would be a completely new division, as Lincoln and Mercury were, with its own retail organization, its own staff and its own dealers...over 1,000 dealers in all, bringing the total number of Ford dealers to about 10,000. GM at the time had about 16,000 dealers.

The Edsel is coming! The Edsel is coming!” The Detroit press and others across the country picked it up. It looked like this car of the future was going to be the greatest achievement since sliced bread…or the splitting of the atom! No one was allowed to see this new mystery car that everyone was talking about. People at Ford were sworn to secrecy. Dealers were told to keep the cars covered up until the national unveiling, or they would face losing their dealerships.

Then, finally, came E-Day on 4 September 1957 for the car that Ford spent $400 million on development costs. The public came out in record numbers—about 3 million--to the showrooms around North America to see what the excitement was all about. They went…they saw…but they didn’t buy. The public just didn’t want it. For one thing, the Edsel was too expensive for the mid-range line. While many press members were moderate at best with their printed opinions, others weren’t so accommodating. One reporter wrote that the Edsel (with its vertical grill design that resembled a horse collar) looked like “an Oldsmobile sucking on a lemon.” Another said it was a “Pontiac pushing a toilet seat.” Jokes were out, many of them crude. For example, to some people, the grill looked like a giant vulva. No need to elaborate on that, except that one writer did say that Ford should call the car the “Ethel.” Another one said that Edsel stood for every-day-something-else-leaks. It was only the beginning of the Edsel fiasco that some called “the flop heard round the world.”

Thinking of a Yogi Berra-style phrase…Ford made too many wrong mistakes with the Edsel. To start off, the name Edsel should never have been used. Edsel B Ford, CEO of the Ford Motor Company from 1919-1943, was the only son of Henry Ford, who named his boy after a high-school friend named Edsel Ruddimen. Groomed to take over the family business, Edsel Ford did so at the age of 25. He was a brilliant man with a keen mind. Cars were not only his vocation, but also his hobby. Designing, in particular, greatly appealed to him. Under his leadership, Ford purchased Lincoln, a car company going bankrupt in the early 1920s. Edsel turned it into his greatest achievement where it became a Ford division of prominence. While Henry made the Model T the most popular vehicle on the road, Edsel made the Lincoln the best car on the road. Edsel later purchased Mercury, plus helped design the Model A, a roaring success when it came out in 1927 to replace the Model T. But his overbearing father who hated anything new never appreciated his talents and often embarrassed him in front of Ford associates. Henry wanted to stick to manufacturing one car and one car only, an old-fashioned idea that he took to his grave in 1947, while leaving his company losing almost $1 million a day and bordering on bankruptcy. Henry ran the show and Edsel was president in name only. “I have the responsibility,” he once said to friends. “But no power.” Due to company and family pressures that were co-related, Edsel developed cancerous ulcers. He died in 1943 at age 49, way too early for a man of his talents.

When the name of Edsel was decided for this new car, Edsel’s family was dead set against it. His widowed wife, Eleanor, wouldn’t hear of it. One son, Bill, said no way. His brother, Benson, said, “Over my dead body.” Henry Ford II, the Ford Company president from 1945-1960, who turned the firm around after his grandfather’s death, hated the idea of his father’s name attached to this new car too because he did not want his father’s good and decent name spinning around on thousands of hubcaps. That’s one story. Another is that Henry II said no at first, but eventually agreed by stating it was a great way to honor his father. Nevertheless, the name may have been familiar within the family and inside the company, but the public knew nothing of the man, Edsel Ford. Another executive added that by putting the name Edsel to the vehicle, “we just lost ourselves 200,000 in sales.”

By the time the Edsel was unveiled and put on the market in 1957, a serious recession hit North America. In the midst of this, Ford first released their more-expensive 1958 Edsel models in that mid-price range, while other car makers were discounting their unsold 1957 models in the same range. There were better buys around, 2 in particular. The compact Nash Rambler came out the year before and had sold 100,000 units in 1957, then double that in 1958. The Ford Fairlane was already on the market in 1956. There were also rumors within Ford that executive Robert McNamara, one of Henry II’s Whiz Kids brought in after the war to save the company after Henry’s death, cared only for the Ford line and ignored the other divisions of Lincoln, Mercury, and Edsel.

Other stories came out. In some cases, hood ornaments flew off at 70 miles per hour. Oil pans fell off, trunks and hoods stuck, and doors wouldn’t close. On many occasions, when a driver wanted to use the horn, he’d panic and forget that the steering hub had the automatic transmission buttons and would hit one, sometimes the reverse button. By the way, the Edsel horn was a button on the dash. Ford technicians designed special V-8 engines for the Edsel…the E-400 which had 361 cubic inches and 303 horsepower at 4600 RPM, and the bigger E-475 which had 410 cubic inches and 345 horsepower at 4600 RPM. (Note: the “E” in the engine designation stood for foot-pounds of torque.) They were powerful engines, but awful gas guzzlers in city traffic. In the Edsel’s second year, a 223 cubic-inch, six-cylinder option was made available, a motor so gutless that with all that weight it couldn’t tear the peel off a grape.

Above all, the Edsel was hit by bad workmanship. Edsel may have been a new division, but it did not have its own manufacturing plant, as any division should have. Every 61st car on the Ford and Mercury assembly lines had to be an Edsel, forcing the workers to suddenly switch and reach for separate parts in separate bins. Workers soon became annoyed with having to change to an Edsel in mid-stream during the day after building several Fords or Mercurys, then switching back to the vehicles they were more use to. To them, there was no pride in assembling “someone else’s car,” almost as if it was a Chevy or a Chrysler. Sometimes there were not enough Edsel parts. In other cases, they weren’t attached and sent to the dealers with the parts in the trunk, along with instructions for the local mechanics on how to put them on. Some dealers didn’t even get the parts. The result was pissed off dealers and equally-pissed off buyers.

Early 1958 marked the beginning of the end, when only 63,000 Edsels sold in the US, and almost 5,000 in Canada, far below the 200,000 North American expectations. The next year, even worse…45,000 in the US and 2,500 in Canada. By 1960, sales didn’t even reach 3,000 vehicles. Ford decided half-way through production that 1960 would be the last year. All told, these 110,000-plus sales in the Edsel’s 3-year existence was less than half of the financial break-even point. When they did the math, Ford lost $350 million (over 2.5 billion in today’s dollars) on the project. The name Edsel soon became synonymous with failure. Contrary to some stories, Ford did not face bankruptcy when the Edsel failed. In fact, Ford stock stayed strong, helped along by the inexpensive and compact Falcon coming out in 1959, then later the Galaxy 500 LTD and super-popular Mustang in the mid-1960s, all in the Ford division line. The company had the right ideas then. These cars were not only affordable, but stylish and dependable.

Edsel was back in the news this past February 2013, when Roy Brown Jr, the chief designer of the Edsel, died in Michigan at the age of 96. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, he moved with his parents as a teenager to Detroit where his father worked for Chrysler as an engineer. After the Edsel flop, Brown was banished to England, where he helped create one of Ford’s greatest successes, the Cortina, in 1962. He returned to Detroit in the late 1960s, where he designed Thunderbirds and Econoline vans until his retirement in 1979. To his dying day, he loved the Edsel, and drove one into his 90s.

As a kid in the 1960s, I remember seeing the occasional Edsel, a couple or so in Regina, and one particular gold-and-white one when we visited family in Lethbridge, Alberta. They stood out, like you wouldn’t believe. Back then, an Edsel owner was laughed around the block. In addition, my friends and I used to make fun of Ford products. To us, Ford stood for fix-or-repair-daily. But, here I am all these years later having driven 2 Taurus wagons back-to-back since 1997, simply because they have been the most dependable cars I’ve ever owned. My son drives an Escape, and my wife a Fusion. They like them too. All have superior styling and are nice handling.

There’s another side to the Edsel story. Since researching for this article, I did find stories on the internet about a few owners who were quite happy with their 1960 Edsel purchases. The car no longer had the toilet-bowl grill or the Teletouch Drive, and it looked more like a Pontiac. It appeared that Ford was building a pretty decent Edsel by then, but the damage had been done years before. One owner bought a new 1960 model in the fall of 1959 and drove it for 12 years! He said it was one of the best cars he had ever owned.

Today, about 2,000 Edsels are road-worthy, with another 5,000 or so waiting restoration. They’re collectible items now. It’s not unheard of to see a mint Edsel ragtop fetching at least $100,000 at an auction…toilet-bowl grill and all.


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