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Was the Ford Edsel the most disappointing car of all time?

The 1958 Edsel Ranger (©Brian Snelson via creative commons) The 1958 Edsel Ranger (©Brian Snelson via creative commons)
By Jack Nerad
It has been nearly 50 years since the first Edsel was shown to the salivating American public on September 4, 1957, yet even though nearly five decades have passed and young children who were present that day in Edsel dealerships have grown to middle age, nothing has diminished the car's desperate, dubious legend. "Edsel" has become a synonym for abject, hopeless failure, and that is a shame because the man after whom the car was named, Henry Ford's son Edsel, was anything but a failure. In the case of the car that was named in his honor long after his untimely death, though, all the planets seemed to align to produce the worst possible result. So, in the panoply of the Greatest Cars of All Time, the Edsel checks in as the greatest failure, a car line that didn't live up to its over-optimistic expectations on a colossal scale.

First, a word about Edsel Ford: He was, by all accounts, a thoroughly decent man, unlikely his often-pigheaded father, and in the vernacular, he was a "car guy" in the best sense, because it is obvious that he loved cars. It is very doubtful that his very demanding, very autocratic father loved cars nearly as much. A man who was responsible for millions of cars, Henry actually loved only one, the Model T, and would gladly have built copies of it to his dying day. His son knew better.

Edsel once wrote, "Father makes the most popular car in the world. I would like to make the best car in the world." And to that end he persuaded his father to buy the failing Lincoln marque and breathe new life into it. Edsel also loved fast, attractive automobiles, and he commissioned Ford employees and designers to build several of them for him, the most famous, of course, the inspiration for the Lincoln Continental. 

When he was in his mid-twenties, Edsel was promoted to president of Ford Motor Company, but with his father constantly looking over his shoulder the post held little power, and Edsel could only look on in disgust as General Motors whizzed past Ford to become the biggest car company in the world. Edsel did spearhead a revival of Ford fortunes, beginning with the Model A and continuing through many well-received Fords and Lincolns of the Thirties, but by 1943 the son of the founder was spent. He succumbed to cancer on May 26 of that year at the age of just 49. A little over 10 years later, Ford embarked on a project that could have benefited from his visionary spirit.

By the early 1950s, Ford Motor Company, then under the leadership of Henry Ford II, had decided to get very aggressive about competing with the other domestic manufacturers -- General Motors, Chrysler Corporation, Hudson, Nash, and Studebaker to name the most prominent among them. He went on a hiring binge, raiding General Motors for talent, and among the GM personnel he brought over were Ernest R. Breech, who became chairman of the Ford Motor Company executive committee. And it was that executive committee that became convinced Ford was losing sales to GM because it didn't have the broad range of brands that GM did. Specifically, Ford lacked a mid-priced, Buick-level marque, while General Motors could offer Chevrolet buyers the chance to move up to Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, and even Cadillac.

Once the committee members began thinking about it, they couldn't resist acting on it. Informal efforts to investigate mid-level models began in the early Fifties, and on April 15, 1955, the Ford Motor Company executive committee officially voted to create a separate, medium-priced car division, and it dubbed the new car line "E-car" with the "E" standing for experimental. In just a few months, designers unveiled the first full-size clay of the "E-car," which soon would be labeled ugly by car critics and consumers alike, and astonishingly enough, it received a healthy round of applause from the normally reticent Ford planning committee. Henry Ford II and J.C. (Larry) Doyle, who was general sales and marketing manager of the Special Products ("E-car") Division, thought they had a winner on their hands.

Believing they had great, unique styling and figuring the car's mechanicals, based largely on Ford and Mercury components, would take care of themselves, the Ford brass grew very concerned about what they should call the new division. In fact, they grew so concerned that they solicited opinions from some unexpected sources, including well-known poet Marianne Moore. Her offerings were nothing if not unique. Among them were "Resilient Bullet," "Ford Silver Sword," "Mongoose Civique," "Varsity Stroke," "Pastelogram" and "Andante con Moto." When Ford turned thumbs-down on these suggestions she returned with her piece de resistance, "Utopian Turtletop." Perhaps after viewing these suggestions, the proposal of an anonymous Ford employee -- "Edsel" -- didn't sound all that bad. 

Advertising legend Fairfax Cone and his Foote, Cone and Belding advertising agency were signed on to advise and advertise the new brand, and even as a groundswell at Ford began to rise up in favor of the name Edsel, he privately admitted the name would be the kiss of death. Instead, he, like many within Ford, favored more active, involving names like Ranger, Corsair, Citation, and Pacer, but the Edsel name won out and the alternative suggestions became the names of the various Edsel models.

By early 1957 with launch of the new Edsel Division less than nine months away, Ford execs really began to feel confident in their new vehicle program. Richard E. Krafve, general manager of the division and a Ford Motor Company vice president, predicted that the new brand would sell more than 200,000 cars in its first year. Market research was on his side. Through the first half of the 1950s mid-priced cars did well, and Ford executives believed their radical new division with its wildly styled models would take the country by storm.

In anticipation of the September 4, 1957, launch, Ford Motor Company pumped up its hype to unprecedented levels. Multi-page teaser ads with the Edsel intentionally in soft-focus ran in major national magazines, and an estimated 2.5 million Americans poured into Edsel dealerships on "E-Day." But it quickly became obvious that the public would have preferred the soft-focus teasers to the odd-looking car with the stand-up "horse-collar" grille that stood before them. In fact, much like the fabled "rocks-and-trees" campaign that gave the Infiniti brand a stumbling launch three decades later, the attention-getting Ford promotions only served to make the real thing seem pale -- or positively weird -- in comparison.
While Ford execs thought that the radical Edsel was just the ticket, buyers seemed to shy away from its interesting but oddball features. One of the oddest was the fact that the automatic transmission was controlled by pushbuttons in the hub of the steering wheel. A series of ingeniously deployed planetary gears kept the buttons straight while the wheel turned, but many potential buyers were turned off by that and other innovations like the "floating" speedometer that glowed when a pre-set speed was achieved.

Besides the out-there exterior styling and the convenience oddities, the '58 Edsels (one series built on a shorter wheelbase Ford chassis; the other on a longer Mercury chassis) were very typical American cars. The Ranger, Pacer, Villager, Bermuda and Roundup models each featured a 361 cubic inch, 303 horsepower V-8, which, oddly enough, was identified on the car by its peak torque number -- 400. The larger Citation and Corsair series were powered by the mammoth E-475 engine, a 410 cubic inch, 345 horsepower exercise in cast iron. While these engines were powerful, the Edsels were powerful-heavy, to use the Southern phrase, and acceleration to 60 miles per hour came in a leisurely 10 seconds or longer... with the automatic much longer. 

Still, Edsels were on par with their mid-priced brethren among Fifties American vehicles in performance, so that didn't do the brand in. More than anything Edsel seemed star-crossed. When Ford paid big bucks to pre-empt The Ed Sullivan Show with a one-hour special called The Edsel Show, ratings were huge, but as Frank Sinatra tried to open a shiny Edsel's huge front door on the show the handle came off in his hand. Sadly, it wasn't a fluke. The Edsel program had been thrown together very rapidly and the build quality of the early Edsels was often abysmal. It is said that factory workers, confused by the complications of building Fords, Edsels and Mercurys on the same assembly lines, frequently left parts off the Edsels or didn't attach them properly.

The other star-crossed aspect of the Edsel was its timing to market. It was planned while the American auto industry and the mid-sized segment was booming, but by the time the cars got into the hastily arranged Edsel dealerships the nation was in a deep recession. Middle-priced brands took a huge hit in the '58 model year. Mercury tumbled 48 percent; Buick was down 33 percent; Dodge was off 47 percent and De Soto dipped 54 percent. So sales of the new brand "stiffed." Instead of 200,000 new Edsels, Ford only peddled 63,110. For the '59 model year, even after a quickly executed re-style that toned down the car's weird front end, sales dipped lower to just under 45,000. Many expected Ford execs to throw in the towel prior to the 1960 model year, but instead they charged bravely ahead only to precipitate the final embarrassment of pulling the plug on the car -- and the division -- scarcely one month after the '60 models were introduced. Characteristically, Edsel went out as it had come in -- amidst a hail of confusion -- the classic failure of the American auto industry.

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