Edsel Hits 50

Some of you reading the title of this piece might be saying to yourself, "I didn't know that old slug could go that fast." (Actually, it could...eventually.) But that kind of comment is emblematic of the lack of respect accorded to the Edsel -- the automotive brand that has become an American synonym for failure.

Just why it has reached that status is a bit strange, because there are other cars -- from the General Motors EV-1 to the Tucker Torpedo -- that have not been nearly as successful as the Edsel was in the marketplace, yet those cars and others like them don't wear the heavy burden of abject failure the way the Edsel does. Perhaps it was because the Edsel was launched with such fanfare and hype and then fell on its face in such a colossally dismal fashion. 

Now, however, hard on the 50th anniversary of this automotive equivalent of a rocket crashing to Earth on the launching pad, the Edsel is getting more respect than ever. In fact, the prices of the Edsels that remain with us are increasing, and those in the know in the collector car hobby say that Edsels could increase still further as the years go by. One reason is that -- love 'em or hate 'em -- pretty much everybody from the baby boom generation has heard of Edsel and the Edsel legend, and it is the baby boomers that are driving the collector car hobby these days.

It has been half a century since the first Edsel was shown to the American public on September 4, 1957. It was named after Henry Ford's son Edsel, who was anything but a failure, so it is both sad and ironic that "Edsel" has become a associated with dismal defeat. Edsel spearheaded 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 he succumbed to cancer at the age of just 49. A little over 10 years later, Ford embarked on a project that could have benefited from his vision.

In the early 1950s, Ford Motor Company, which hard warded off bankruptcy with its 1949 line of Ford cars, decided to get aggressive about competing with the other domestic manufacturers -- General Motors, Chrysler Corporation, Hudson, Nash and Studebaker. Ford went on a hiring binge, raiding General Motors for talent, and among the GM personnel added was Ernest R. Breech, who became chairman of the Ford Motor Company executive committee. Based on his experience, he believed Ford was losing sales to GM because it didn't have as broad a range of brands as GM did. Specifically, Ford lacked a mid-priced, Buick-level marque, while General Motors could offer Chevrolet buyers the chance to move up through its brands -- Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac.

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. 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, but astonishingly enough, it received emphatic thumbs-ups from the executives within Ford Motor Company.

But what to name this new, exciting car? That, clearly, was an important item to settle on.  Realizing its importance, Ford 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 all of these suggestions, she returned with her piece de r‚sistance, "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 both 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.

When 1957 dawned, Ford execs were confident in their new vehicle program. Richard E. Krafve, general manager of the Edsel 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 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 when they saw the actual car, you could almost see the consumers' collective jaw drop. The odd-looking car with the stand-up "horse-collar" grille was just plain ugly.

Potential buyers hated the car's front end and they seemed to shy away from its interesting but oddball features, too. 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. The V-8 engines were powerful, but the Edsels were heavy and acceleration to 60 miles per hour came in a leisurely 10 seconds or longer ... with the automatic much longer.

But beyond odd styling, weird features and so-so performance, 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.

The other star-crossed aspect of the Edsel was its timing. It was planned while the American auto industry and the mid-sized segment were 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 and Edsel couldn't get out of the blocks. Instead of 200,000 new Edsels, Ford only peddled 63,110.

The Edsel was going down in flames. For the '59 model year, even after a quickly executed re-style that toned down the car's weird front end, sales dipped even lower to just under 45,000. The death spiral was in full swing and many expected Ford execs to throw in the towel prior to the 1960 model year. But instead, they announced 1960 models, pulling the plug a month later -- the final ill-starred move of an ill-starred brand.

Surprisingly, 50 years later, the ugly duckling has new life in the collector market. A 1958 Edsel is certainly no swan, but if you were to buy one today, it will probably gain in value, if not in respect.

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad is also the co-host of "America on the Road," the most-listened to automotive show on commercial radio, and the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Hybrid and Alternative Fuel Vehicles.

Putting Rust to Sleep

When it comes to your car, winter sucks. Its extremes of temperature, combined with snow, ice and road salt, can have devastating effects on a vehicle's exterior and suspension. As car aficionados begin to prepare their collector cars for winter storage, many are seeking better ways than simply putting their cherished wheels under a fabric car cover. Now there is a portable, controlled-environment storage system that is available in America after extensive use in Britain. Its goal is to protect the vehicle and keep rust at bay, and while traditional covers can do the former, they are often not too good at the latter.

"Rust starts when iron and oxygen combine in the presence of water," said Graham Horder, managing director of Airflow, the parent company of Air Chamber USA. "When water comes in contact with iron, it combines with the oxygen in the air to form a weak acid called ferrous oxide or that reddish brown rust. And because rust's molecules are larger than those of steel, it grows inwardly, eventually pervading the thickness of a vehicle, degrading its structural integrity and flaking into rust."

To prevent rust from forming, it is critical to eliminate a vehicle's exposure to water, which is not that easy. From washings to exposure to the natural elements, water is all around. More insidiously, water occurs in normal air as water vapor. The rate of transformation of vapor to liquid water depends on the temperature of the air.

"The amount of water vapor that air can contain at 90øF is twice that at 70øF," noted Horder. "When air cools, water turns into condensation. That moisture will form on any car in a garage, unless it (the garage) is permanently heated to the same temperature as the air outside. And condensation occurs in every cranny."

A heated, well sealed-garage is often considered to be the safest method of preventing condensation, but they're expensive to build, maintain and operate. And garages can actually promote condensation.

"Imagine a perfect winter's day with dry roads and crisp, blue skies," Horder said. "While enjoying a brisk drive, the engine compartment and most of the interior will heat up; the rest of the chassis and sheet metal will cool to air temperature. However, shortly after returning to a warm garage, condensation will set in and rust begins its destructive process."

The solution is to create a sealed environment and draw out the moisture as well as dust. Air Chamber, a cross between a tent, a transparent car cover and a portable garage, is based on that principle. It is a significant departure from traditional auto covers that lie on top of vehicles, potentially leaving scratches and marring paint finishes. An inner semi-rigid frame allows the chamber to stand up, and, once in place, a collector car can enter and exit with ease. No portion of the Air Chamber touches the car and small fans blow ambient air into it, which supplies a constantly moving airflow. In addition to guarding against rust, this also prevents other types of winter storage damage like mildew, which can form when fabric and leather get damp in stagnant air. An Air Chamber typically operates for only around $50 per year.

"It's tempting to put your head in the snow and think that winter can't get your vehicle because the last restoration was so good that rust can't happen," Horder said. "Body shops will love you for it. After all, they know those delicate snowflakes can eventually lead to a new kind of flaking on your collector car."

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the auto industry, bad weather and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.

Tokyo Motor Show 2007

There was a time when the Tokyo Motor Show was the most interesting, frenetic, visceral, downright wild auto show in the world. Oh yes, some would have told you then that the Frankfurt (Germany) auto show had more depth, but no one could have said the Frankfurt show topped Tokyo for sheer color and range. The oddities of the Tokyo show were surely the best in the world. (And I'll quit calling you Shirley.) But how that has changed! The general feeling about this 40th Tokyo Motor Show was that it lacked sparkle and depth. In fact, some were even saying that the Tokyo show could well be on its way to minor league status.

It seems the sluggish Japanese economy was more to blame for the Tokyo Motor Show's low-key nature than the Japanese industry. Apparently, the unofficial but very real protective cocoon that surrounds domestic auto makers in the Japanese market has persuaded non-Japanese manufacturers that other auto shows, most notably in China, might be more fertile ground for their most interesting introductions.  Certainly a wide variety of vehicle manufacturers were in attendance in Tokyo, but the list was far less complete than in Frankfurt a month earlier and what we can expect to see in Detroit in January. In fact, on a press event-versus-event basis the upcoming Los Angeles Auto Show might prove significantly more interesting than Tokyo.

So what was the pervading theme in Tokyo? As you might expect, the show featured a wide variety of urban vehicles, some little more than highly stylized motorized wheelchairs, others with more than a passing resemblance to "The Brave Little Toaster."  Both Toyota and Suzuki strutted personal transportation devices, aka wheelchairs. The Toyota i-REAL is the latest in a series of one-person vehicles from the manufacturer that gained a lot of attention and more than a little head-scratching from observers who wondered, "Is this what cars are coming to?" Suzuki's answer to the i-REAL was the Pixie, which was slightly more "car-like" than the i-REAL in that it runs on four wheels, not three, and has a windscreen-cum-roof to protect its lone occupant from the weather. In another bow to the conventional car, Suzuki showed the SSC in conjunction with the Pixie. The SSC is kind of a push-me, pull-me oblong motive device that accepts two Pixies by ramps at each end. The larger, two-person vehicle can then travel at something more like normal road speed with two passengers, each in a Pixie, aboard. 

Going up one notch in size and several notches in actual practicality were the nearly boggling collection of city car concepts -- among them the Honda Puyo, Nissan Pivo 2 and R.D.: B.X (or "Round Box"), Toyota Hi-CT and Mitsubishi i MiEV. Volkswagen even got in the act with its Space Up! mini-minivan concept. Of these, all but the Mitsubishi I MiEV seemed to channel the same sort of industrial design that might go into a Cuisinart appliance. The Puyo featured silicone-infused body panels that made it the most huggable of the Tokyo Motor Show concept cars. The I MiEV, meanwhile, looked like a cross between George Jetson's car and Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion.

While "sustainable mobility" is a laudable goal, one has to wonder if cars like these will really stoke the buying fires of the consumer-at-large. Certainly the auto industry must keep a weather eye on the environment and, perhaps even more importantly, consumers' views about the environment. But vehicles designed strictly for efficiency are dull, and sadly, this edition of the Tokyo Motor Show was a reflection of that.

Fall into a Tire Maintenance Routine

If you are buying a new car this fall, newly mandated devices that are required on every vehicle will help monitor your vehicle's tire pressure. That's great, and it should save both fuel and lives, but a national tire industry group cautions that new tire pressure monitoring systems are not a replacement for an old-fashioned tire gauge. If you rely too much on the automated systems, it could cost you money or -- worst case -- your life.

Federal law requires every new 2008 model year vehicle to come equipped with a tire pressure monitoring system that will warn a driver when tire pressure drops 25 percent. But the Rubber Manufacturers Association, which represents tire manufacturers, says that is no reason to throw away your tire gauge.

"Motorists risk tire damage if they wait to check tires until they see a dashboard warning light after a 25 percent loss of tire pressure," said Dan Zielinski, RMA vice president, communications. "For many vehicles, a pressure loss of less than 25 percent increases risk. That's why motorists must check tire pressure every month with a tire gauge."

The industry group has expressed its concern that the newly required tire pressure monitoring systems might prompt consumers to become even more blas

What Makes a Used Car "Certified"?

Used cars were once the province of the somewhat shady lot on the corner lit with the bare electric bulbs, populated by guys in bad suits. Consumers who bought from such locations knew they were taking a risk and, for better or worse, they lived with it.

But that was then. These days, used vehicles are big business, and giant, publicly traded corporations and the vehicle manufacturers themselves are playing in what has become a much larger, more competitive game. One of the many results of this intense competitive pressure is the phenomenon known as the Certified Pre-Owned vehicle or CPO car. Some have heralded the Certified Pre-Owned vehicle as a boon for the consumer. After all, such vehicles most often feature a lengthy service contract to accompany the fact that they have been heavily inspected by reputable mechanics. But lately there has been some question over the term "certified." Far from a boon, some consumer advocates claim that buyers are often being overcharged for otherwise ordinary used cars simply because they bear the largely nebulous title "certified."

You've heard of the old phrase: "Figures can't lie, but liars can figure." Well, these days, that might be accompanied by the phrase "Certifications can't lie, but liars can certify." There is no standard, government-accepted definition of the word "certified" like there is for, say, the word "peanut butter," and thus anybody who can fog a mirror or print a page off his computer can "certify" a vehicle. That certification is only as good as the person or entity certifying it. For instance, the courts have seen actions against Ford and Chrysler that take to task their certification rules and, in particular, the administration of those rules by individual dealerships that represent their respective brands. Suits against some manufacturers have claimed that, through their dealers, they are selling used rental cars, which presumably get harder service than privately owned cars --and even crash-damaged cars -- as "certified." This, so the reasoning of the lawsuits goes, dupes the consumer who feels he or she is getting a "pick-of-the-litter" used vehicle when purchasing a "certified" car.  

It is easy to grasp the issue when one realizes that the typical "certified" used vehicle frequently commands $1,000 more than its non-certified near-twin. Buyers presume that the certified vehicles have passed a rigorous inspection, have lower-than-average miles on them and are backed by new-car-like warranty coverage, but questions have been raised about all three aspects of this assumption. First, there are nagging questions about how thorough the inspection actually is, since the ability to certify the car might mean an additional $1,000 in revenue to the inspecting organization. Second, there are no strict industry standards for what constitutes low-mileage. And finally, the actual warranty coverage varies widely. Some auto manufacturers provide warranty coverage that virtually mimics their new-car coverage, while others offer significantly less protection. Then there are individual dealerships who "certify" vehicles themselves. As you might guess, this represents a mixed bag of good and bad.

So should you pay more for a CPO vehicle? Yes, you should, if you are satisfied that the value and peace of mind provided by the added benefits of such a vehicle are worth the added cost. Don't think every CPO program is created equal because there are wide discrepancies between them. Be sure to do your research on the exact criteria for determining which vehicles qualify for certified status, then read the fine print on the warranty coverage to determine what is covered and what isn't. Certified used vehicles can be excellent values, but the word "certified" is not a silver bullet that can prevent all downside risk.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the international auto industry and the universal human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.