|This article or section contains weasel words, vague phrasing that often accompanies biased or unverifiable information. Such statements should be clarified or removed.|
The Edsel was a marque of the Ford Motor Company during the 1958, 1959, and 1960 model years. The brand is known best as one of the biggest commercial failures in the history of American business.
|Headquarters||Dearborn, Michigan |
Citation, Corsair, Pacer, Ranger
|Parent||Ford Motor Company|
In the early 1950s, the Ford Motor Co. became a publicly traded corporation that was no longer entirely owned by members of the Ford family. They were then able to sell cars according to then-current market trends following the sellers' market of the postwar years. The new management compared the roster of Ford makes with that of General Motors, and noted that Lincoln competed not with Cadillac, but with Oldsmobile. Since Ford had an excess of money on hand from the success of the Ford Thunderbird, a plan was developed to move Lincoln upmarket, with the Continental at the top, and to add another make to the intermediate slot vacated by Lincoln. Research and development had begun in 1955 under the name "E-car," which stood for "experimental car." This represented a new division of the firm alongside that of Ford itself and the Lincoln-Mercury division, whose cars at the time shared the same body.
The Edsel was introduced amidst considerable publicity on "E Day"—September 4, 1957. It was promoted by a top-rated television special, The Edsel Show, on October 13, but it was not enough to counter the adverse public reaction to the car's styling and conventional build. For months, Ford had been circulating rumours that led consumers to expect an entirely new kind of car, when in reality, the Edsel shared its bodywork with other Ford models.
The Edsel was to be sold through a new Ford division. It existed from November 1956 until January 1958, after which Edsels were made by the Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln division (referred to as M-E-L). Edsel was sold through a new network of 1,500 dealers. This briefly brought total dealers of all Ford products to 10,000. Ford saw this as a way to come closer to parity with the other two companies of the Big Three: Chrysler had 10,000 dealers and General Motors had 16,000. As soon as it became apparent that the Edsels were not selling, many of these dealers added Lincoln-Mercury, Ford of Britain, or Ford of Germany franchises to their dealerships with the encouragement of Ford Motor Company. Some dealers, however, closed.
For the 1958 model year, Edsel produced four models, including the larger Mercury-based Citation and Corsair, and the smaller Ford-based Pacer and Ranger. The Citation came in two-door and four-door hardtop and two-door convertible versions. The Corsair came in two-door and four-door hardtop versions. The Pacer was available as a two-door or four-door hardtop, four-door sedan, or two-door convertible. The Ranger came in two-door and four-door hardtop or sedan versions. The four-door Bermuda and Villager wagons and the two-door Roundup wagon were based on the 116″-wheelbase Ford station wagon platform and shared the trim and features of the Ranger and Pacer models. It included several innovative features, among which were its "rolling dome" speedometer and its Teletouch transmission shifting system in the center of the steering wheel. Other design innovations included ergonomically designed controls for the driver and self-adjusting brakes (often claimed as a first for the industry, even though Studebaker had pioneered them earlier in the decade).
In the first year, 63,110 Edsels were sold in the U.S., with another 4,935 sold in Canada. Though below expectations, it was still the second-largest car launch for any brand to date, exceeded only by the Plymouth introduction in 1928.
For the 1959 model year, there were only two Edsels, the Ranger and the Corsair; the two larger cars were not produced. The new Corsair came in two-door and four-door hardtop, four-door sedan, and two-door convertible. The Ranger came in two-door and four-door hardtop, two-door and four-door sedan, and the Villager station wagon. In the 1959 model year, 44,891 cars were sold in the U.S., with an additional 2,505 sold in Canada.
For the 1960 model year, Edsel's last, only the Ranger and Villager were produced. The 1960 Edsel, in its final model year, emerged as a Ford. Its grille, hood, and four taillights, along with its side sweep spears, were the only real differences separating the Edsel from the Ford.
End of the Edsel
Ford announced the end of the Edsel program on Thursday, November 19, 1959. However, cars continued being produced until late in November, with the final tally at 2,846 1960 models. Total sales were approximately 84,000, less than half McNamara's projected break-even point. The company lost $350 million on the venture.
On Friday, November 20, United Press International's (UPI) wire service reported that book values for used Edsels had decreased by as much as $400 [approximately $2800 in 2006 dollars] (based on condition and age) immediately following the Ford press release. In some newspaper markets, dealers scrambled to renegotiate newspaper advertising contracts involving the 1960 Edsel models, while others dropped the name from their dealership's advertising "slugs." Ford issued a statement that it would distribute coupons to consumers who purchased 1960 models (and carryover 1959 models) prior to the announcement, valued at $300 to $400 towards the purchase of new Ford products to offset the decreased values. The company also issued credits to dealers for stock unsold or received following the announcement.
Edsel and its failures
There is no single reason why the Edsel failed, and failed so spectacularly. Popular culture often faults the car’s styling. Consumer Reports cited poor workmanship. Marketing experts hold the Edsel up as a supreme example of corporate America’s failure to understand the nature of the American consumer. Business analysts cite the weak internal support for the product inside Ford’s executive offices. According to author and Edsel scholar Jan Deutsch, the Edsel was "the wrong car at the wrong time."
"The aim was right, but the target moved"
One popular misconception was that the Edsel was an engineering failure, or a lemon, although it shared the same general reliability of its sister Mercury and Ford models that were built in the same factories. The Edsel is most famous for being a marketing disaster. Indeed, the name Edsel came to be synonymous with commercial failure, and similar ill-fated products have often been colloquially referred to as Edsels. Since it was such a debacle, it provided a case study for marketers on how not to market a product. The main reason the Edsel's failure is so famous was that it flopped despite Ford’s investment of $400,000,000 in its development.
The prerelease advertising campaign touted the car as having "more YOU ideas," and the teaser advertisements in magazines only revealed glimpses of the car through a highly blurred lens or wrapped in paper or under tarps. Edsels were shipped to the dealerships undercover and remained wrapped on the dealer lots.
But the public also had a hard time understanding what the Edsel was, mostly because Ford made the mistake of pricing the Edsel within Mercury’s market price segment. Theoretically, the Edsel was conceived to fit into Ford’s marketing plans as the brand slotted in between Ford and Mercury. However, when the car arrived in 1958, its least expensive model—the Ranger—was priced within $73 of the most expensive and best-trimmed Ford sedan and $63 less than Mercury’s base Medalist model. In its midrange pricing, Edsel's Pacer and Corsair models were more expensive than their Mercury counterparts. Edsel's top-of-the-line Citation four-door hardtop model was the only model priced to correctly compete with Mercury’s midrange Montclair Turnpike Cruiser model, as illustrated in the chart below.
|1958 Ford Motor Company Pricing (FOB) Structure|
|Park Lane $4,280–$4,405|
|Citation $3,500–$3,766||Montclair $3,236–$3,597|
|Pacer $2,700–$2,993||Monterey $2,652–$3,081|
|Fairlane 500 $2,410–$3,138||Ranger $2,484–$2,643||Medalist $2,547–$2,617|
|Custom 300 $1,977–$2,119|
Not only was the Edsel competing against its own sister divisions, but model for model, consumers did not understand what the car was supposed to be—a step up or a step below the Mercury.
After its introduction to the public, the Edsel did not live up to its overblown hype, even though it did have many new features, such as self-adjusting rear brakes and automatic lubrication. While consumer focus groups had said these and other features would make the "E" car attractive to them as car buyers, the cost of the cars outstripped what the public was willing to pay. When many potential buyers saw the base price tag, they simply left the dealership, and others were frightened by the price for a fully loaded top-of-the-line model.
The wrong car at the wrong time
One of the external forces working against the Edsel was the onset of the recession in late 1957.
When the Edsel was in its planning stages in the early and mid-1950s, the American economy was robust and growing. However, in the years that spanned the planning to its introduction, an economic recession hit, and American consumers shifted their idea of what an ideal car should be. In prior economic downturns, buyers flocked to the lower-price marques like Plymouth, Chevrolet, and Ford; but in 1958, even these cars were perceived by some as unnecessarily large. And while the compact Rambler saw itself shoot to the third-best-selling make, none of the Big Three had anything compact to sell except their European cars built by Vauxhall, Simca, and Opel. The compacts introduced by the Big Three in 1960 were the direct result of the recession of 1958.
Compounding Edsel's problems was that the car had to appeal to buyers of other well-established nameplates from the Big Three, such as Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Dodge, DeSoto, and even its internal sister division, Mercury—itself never a stellar sales success.
Even if the 1958 recession hadn't hit when it did, the Edsel was entering into a shrinking marketplace. While Ernest Breech convinced Ford management that this market segment offered great untapped opportunity in the early 1950s, when the "E" car was in its earliest stages, by 1957, independent manufacturers in the midprice field were drifting towards insolvency. Hoping to turn around their losses, Packard acquired Studebaker, yet the venerable Packard was no longer produced after 1958. On the other hand, American Motors changed its focus to the compact Rambler models, while their premerger brands (Nash and Hudson) were discontinued after the 1957 model year. Even Chrysler saw sales of its DeSoto marque drop dramatically from its 1957 high by over 50% in 1958. Following a disastrous 1959 model year, plans were made in Highland Park to discontinue DeSoto during its 1961 model year run.
Thus, the large, expensive Edsel, planned to be all things to all people, suddenly stood for excess instead of progress.
Edsel, a difficult name to place
The name of the car, Edsel, is also often cited as a further reason for its unpopularity. Naming the vehicle after Edsel Ford was proposed early in its development. However, the Ford family strongly opposed its use; Henry Ford II stated that he didn't want his father's good name spinning around on thousands of hubcaps. Ford also ran internal studies to decide on a name and even dispatched employees to stand outside movie theaters to poll audiences as to what their feelings were on several ideas. They reached no conclusions.
Ford hired the advertising firm Foote, Cone and Belding to come up with a name. However, when the advertising agency issued its report, citing over 6,000 possibilities, Ford's Ernest Breech commented that they had been hired to develop a name, not 6,000. Early favorites for the name brand included Citation, Corsair, Pacer, and Ranger, which were ultimately chosen for the vehicle's series names.
David Wallace, manager of marketing research, and coworker Bob Young unofficially invited poet Marianne Moore for input and suggestions. Moore's unorthodox contributions (among them "Utopian Turtletop," "Pastelogram," and "Mongoose Civique") were meant to stir creative thought and were not officially authorized or contractual in nature. History has greatly exaggerated her relationship to the project.
At the behest of Ernest Breech, who was chairing a meeting in the absence of Henry Ford II, the car was finally called "Edsel" in honor of Edsel Ford, former company president and son of Henry Ford. Marketing surveys later found the name was thought to sound like the name of a tractor (Edson) and therefore was unpopular with the public. Moreover, several consumer studies showed that people associated the name "Edsel" with "weasel" and "dead cell" (dead battery), drawing further unattractive comparisons.
Too big when small was in
Perhaps the most important factor in the Edsel's failure, however, was that when the car was introduced, the U.S. was entering a period of recession. Sales for all car manufacturers, even those not introducing new models, were down; consumers entered a period of preferring less expensive, more fuel-efficient automobiles, particularly Volkswagen Beetles, which were selling at rates exceeding 50,000 a year in the U.S. from 1957 onward.
Edsels were fast, but required premium gas and did not have the fuel economy desired during a recession. Mechanics disliked the bigger engine because of its unique design. The cylinder head had no combustion chamber and was perfectly flat, with the head set at an angle and "roof" pistons forming both a squish zone on one side and a combustion chamber on the other, meaning that the combustion took place entirely within the cylinder bore. This design reduced the cost of manufacture and possibly carbon buildup, but appeared strange to mechanics.
There were also reports of mechanical flaws in the models originating in the factory, due to lack of quality control and confusion of parts with other Ford models. Edsels in their first (1958) model year were made in both Mercury and Ford factories; the longer-wheelbase models, Citation and Corsair, were produced alongside the Mercury products, and the shorter-wheelbase models, Pacer and Ranger, were produced alongside the Ford products. There was never a standalone Edsel factory devoted solely to Edsel model production; workers making Fords and Mercurys literally had to change parts bins and tools to assemble extra Edsels once their hourly quota of regular Fords and Mercurys was achieved. As such, the desired quality control of the different Edsel models was difficult to attain for the new make of car. Many Edsels left the line unfinished, with the extra parts having been put into the trunks, with assembly instructions for the mechanics at the dealerships.
The Edsel is best remembered for its trademark "horsecollar" grille, distinct from other cars of the period. A widely circulated wisecrack at the time was that "It looked like an Oldsmobile sucking on a lemon." Men often referred to the horsecollar grille as being akin to a woman’s genitalia. In fact, Robin Jones, a Ford designer at the time, later recalled that someone in the design studio—presumably as a cruel joke—actually taped hair to the inside of the grille area on one of the clay models during the design process; the result, according to Jones, "looked like a hormonally-disturbed cow after giving birth."
Jokes aside, the front of the original Edsel turned out nothing like what was originally intended. Roy Brown, the original chief designer on the project, wanted a slender, almost delicate opening in the center; engineers, fearing engine cooling problems, vetoed the intended design, which led to the "horsecollar." The vertical grille theme, while improved for the 1959 models, was discontinued for the 1960 models, which were almost indistinguishable from Ford models of the same year, although the new front-end design bore no small resemblance to that of the 1959 Pontiac.
Many drivers disliked having the automatic transmission selector as pushbuttons mounted on the steering wheel hub: this was the traditional location of the horn, and drivers ended up shifting gears instead of honking the horn. While the Edsel was fast, the location of the transmission pushbuttons was not conducive to street racing. There were jokes about stoplight dragsters and the buttons: D for Drag, L for Leap, and R for Race (instead of Drive, Low and Reverse).
There were also complaints about the taillights on 1958-model Edsel station wagons, which were boomerang-shaped and placed in a reverse fashion; at a distance, they appeared as arrows pointed in the opposite direction of the turn being made. While the left turn signal blinked, its arrow shape pointed right, and vice versa. However, there was little that could be done to give the Ford-based station wagons a unique appearance from the rear; corporate management insisted that no sheetmetal could be changed. Only the taillights and trim could be touched.
The role of Robert McNamara
While the car and Ford’s planning of the car are the most often cited reasons for its failure, internal politics within the executive offices at Ford are as much to blame for the failure of the Edsel. Following World War II, Henry Ford II brought on Robert McNamara as one of the "whiz kids" to help turn Ford around. McNamara’s cost cutting and cost containment skills helped Ford emerge from its near collapse after the war. As such, McNamara eventually assumed a great deal of power at Ford. In many ways, McNamara was very much like Henry Ford: both men were committed to Ford above all other things and had little use for the Continental, Lincoln, Mercury, and Edsel brand cars made by the company.
McNamara was against the formation of the separate divisions for Continental, Lincoln, Mercury, and Edsel cars, and moved to consolidate Lincoln, Mercury, and Edsel into the M-E-L division. McNamara saw to it that the Continental program was canceled and that the model was merged into the Lincoln range for 1958. He next set his sights on Edsel by maneuvering for elimination of the dual wheelbases and separate bodies used in 1958; instead, the Edsel would share the Ford platform and use Ford’s inner body structure for 1959. In 1960, the Edsel emerged as a Ford with different trim. McNamara also moved to reduce Edsel’s advertising budget for 1959, and for 1960, he virtually eliminated it. The final blow came in the fall of 1959, when McNamara convinced Henry Ford II and the management structure that the Edsel was doomed and that it was time to end production before the Edsel bled the company dry. (Note: McNamara also attempted to end the Lincoln nameplate; however, that effort ended with Elwood Engel's now classic redesign of 1961.) McNamara left Ford when he was named Secretary of Defense by President John F. Kennedy.
During the 1964 presidential election, Republican nominee Barry Goldwater blamed McNamara, then Secretary of Defense, for the Edsel's failure. Eventually, Ford's former executive vice president (and financial contributor to Goldwater's campaign) Ernest R. Breech wrote the Senator's campaign, explaining that "Mr. McNamara… had nothing to do with the plans for the Edsel car or any part of the program." However, the charge continued to be leveled against McNamara for years. During his time as head of the World Bank, he instructed his public affairs officer to distribute copies of Breech's letter to the press whenever the accusation was made.
The Edsel Comet
The scheduled 1960 Edsel Comet compact car was hastily rebranded the Comet and assigned to Mercury dealerships. The Comet was an instant success, selling more cars in its first year than all models of Edsel produced during its three-year run. Styling touches seen in the Comets sold to the public that allude to being part of the Edsel family of models included the instrument cluster, rear tailfins (though canted diagonally), and the taillight shape (the lens is visually similar to that used on the 1960 Edsel, and even retained the embossed "E" code). The Comet's keys were even shaped like Edsel keys, with the center bar removed from the "E" to form a "C." For 1962, Ford officially assigned the Comet to the Mercury brand.
- As the Edsel was a large commercial failure, the name became a popular joke in various media. A backronym, "Every Day Something Else Leaks," was inspired by the car's failure. Television programs, cartoons, video games, and films have all used the Edsel as humor, usually as a quick joke or as a sight gag.
- In May 1958, then-Vice President Richard Nixon was on a trip to Peru, riding in an Edsel convertible, when he was pelted with eggs and tomatoes by demonstrators. Nixon later joked: "They were throwing eggs at the car, not me."
- In American Graffiti, Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams) drives boyfriend Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) around Modesto, California in her family's Edsel, after he trusts his own car to friend "Terry the Toad" (Charles Martin Smith).
- In the 1986 film Peggy Sue Got Married, time traveling Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) laughs out loud as her father shows off his newly bought Edsel.
- In Justice League Unlimited, The Question drives a blue Edsel.
- In The Simpsons' episode "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?", the car Homer designed, named The Homer, was inspired by the Edsel.
- In the Billy Joel song We Didn't Start the Fire, Edsel is mentioned as being a "no go."
- In a 1966 episode of The Munsters, Hermon acquires a cursed ring belonging to the Fregosi family. He takes the ring to Henry J. Fregosi, an executive automobile manufacturer, to have it removed under occult ritual means. Grandpa, impressed by Henry Fregosi's occult knowledge, inquires if he had ever used it in improving his business. Henry Fregosi replies with a reference to the Edsel, a model he presumably cursed, thus causing its epic failure.
Fifty years after its spectacular failure, Edsel has become a highly collectible item amongst vintage car hobbyists. Fewer than 6,000 Edsels survive and are considered collectors’ items. A mint 1958 Citation convertible sometimes sells for over $100,000, while rare models, like the 1960 convertible, may bring up to $200,000. While the design was considered "ugly" fifty years ago, many other car manufacturers, such as Pontiac and Alfa Romeo, have employed similar vertical grilles successfully in their car designs.
Many of the Edsel's features, such as transmission lock on ignition, self-adjusting brakes, gear selection by steering wheel buttons, etc., which were considered "too impractical" in the late 1950s, are today standard features of sports cars.
- Collier and Horowitz, Fords: An American Family, 1987, Simon & Schuster, p. 263
- Robert McNamara. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. Random House. 1995. p. 150.
- To Ford, a Disaster. To Edsel Owners, Love.
- Bonsall, Thomas E. (2002). Disaster in Dearborn: The Story of the Edsel. Stanford University Press.
- Duetsch, Jan (1976). The Edsel and Corporate Responsibility. Yale University Press.
- Wallace, David (Second Quarter 1975). "Naming the Edsel". Automotive Quarterly Magazine XIII (2): 182–191.
- Barron, James (2007-08-01). "To Ford, a Disaster. To Edsel Owners, Love.". The New York Times.
- Edsel.com History, specifications, resources for owners.
- Smith Motor Company Virtual Edsel Dealer
- The International Edsel Club
- Famous Ford Flops http://www.failuremag.com/arch_history_edsel.html "Auto Biography" Failure Magazine examines the history of the Edsel (March, 2002)
- Edsels in the Media Listing of Edsel references in popular culture.
- Edsel Promo Time A Web site devoted to plastic dealer promotional models of Edsels.
- Washington Post article about the Edsel