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.