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Ford Edsel History - Misunderstood
The plight of the Edsel, 1958-1960
It has come to epitomize failure in the minds of many, but is that fair? After all, "failure" is a relative term. It can only be applied when put up against another quantitative word, "success." What happens when the level that determines "success" is unfairly high? Anything short of that becomes a "failure."
If that is the lone consideration for a failure, yes, the Edsel meets that criterion, but it is certainly not alone in that regard. The biggest obstacle for the Edsel was not the unique styling, the mechanical bugaboos (all cars had them), or anything of the sort. The biggest factor in determining the Edsel to be a failure was a misinterpretation of the car-buying public. It was the exact opposite of Henry Ford's anticipation of the Model T and its buying public. Perhaps this false sense of what America wants made the Edsel the automotive scapegoat of the 20th century.
Now that the denial is starting to wear down (until recently, Edsels were not welcome in some Ford-related activities), the car is beginning to establish its rightful place in automotive history. The car fanatics of today are more respectful in their observation than perhaps those of the same ilk 30 years or so ago. Granted, it's not a car for everyone, but we've seen battle lines drawn in automotive circles for what seems like forever. If you've got a type you're passionate about, no one is going to get you to warm up to something else. It's the nature of the beast.
History tells us there were plenty of mistakes made in the creation, marketing, and promotion of the Edsel. No one aspect can claim less of a role in the ultimate outcome, though the designers seem to catch most of the heat. The competition, then and now, was fierce in the automotive production world. Major companies were trying to control markets, keeping an eye on what the competitor was doing. General Motors, with several brands targeting different segments, was a force. Chrysler Corporation was up and down, but it offered more lines than Ford, which sent out Lincoln and Mercury to fill some niches. Ford's development of an "E-Car" was seen as a way to fill a void.
E-Car, by the way, stood for Experimental Car and was a generic term for the new project. Designers had dubbed the car "Ventura" and that name would come up in conversation on several occasions. There's plenty of intrigue as to how the Edsel name finally came to light. Ford family members were opposed from day one. It was suggested to honor the former company leader, but the family wanted no part of it. Henry Ford II said he did not desire to see the name of his father spinning on millions of hubcaps. Benson Ford was more adamant, saying it would be "over my dead body."
The task of finding the name fell to Special Products Division public relations man Gayle Warnock (who has written a comprehensive book about his Edsel experiences). The goal was to have a short name, one that would display well on the signs of dealers. It needed cadence with a maximum of three syllables. It needed to be clearly distinguishable from other names and it should be American. Starting letter choices were C, S, J, and F, with worst-case scenarios of M, E, and K, based on calligraphy images.
The first name search yielded 6,000 possibilities. Company officials were stunned and told the searchers to narrow it down to 10. Two separate lists of 10 names were culled from the originals and four names appeared on both lists--Citation, Corsair, Pacer, and Ranger. Ernest Breech, who had come to the company as an executive vice president in 1946 from General Motors, didn't like any and looked through the list of rejected names. He stopped on "Edsel."
The decision could not be cemented without the Ford family approval, so Breech wrangled the reluctant go-ahead for the name. The Citation, Corsair, Pacer, and Ranger became series names for the new line.
The plan for the Edsel involved the creation of its own dealership network. It also resulted in a separate division within the company, so the designation "Ford Edsel" is not historically accurate. An aggressive campaign to warrant the dealer's faith and obligation was underway with district sales offices opened. Existing dealers were encouraged to switch brands to the new offering, sometimes offered a glimpse at the car they would be selling. Of course, they could see it only after committing to the program. The goal was to have 1,200 dealers in place by September 4, 1957, the day the car would be offered for public sale.
Meanwhile, there were plenty of internal politics going on at Ford Motor Company. Factions with differing agendas were at work and power-play struggles were not uncommon. The company had been weathering the internal dissention, but it was about to have long range effects on corporate success.
After World War II, Henry Ford II had hired en masse a group of 10 former Army Air Force officers. This group had advised the military on matters of statistical analysis, cost control measures, and efficiency. In the quest to keep up with the competition, Ford felt this group, known as the "Whiz Kids," would help keep the company going forward.
It became a clash of ideals. The Whiz Kids were interested in the bottom line while designers and stylists were interested in creating quality products. Clashes with middle management were not uncommon and the power struggle saw the Whiz Kids gaining a strong foothold. One of the Whiz Kids, Robert S. McNamara, was a vehement opponent of the Edsel program. At a company function to launch the car, McNamara reportedly told an advertising executive "We've decided to discontinue the Edsel." The scene was taking a decided negative turn.
On the day the car was offered to the public, thousands jammed the dealerships to see what the new machine had to offer. It was a '58 model year car, but the "regular" '58 cars were not due for sale until a few months later. Here's where some of the strategy started to fail the company.
1. With the release of the car before the standard '58 model, potential buyers were confused as to whether it was a '57 or a '58 (and they had no previous year model to compare).
2. Since the car reflected 1958 prices, some buyers wanted to wait and see how much these new cars were going to be before committing to an unknown.
3. Ford was upsizing the Thunderbird from a two-seater to a four-seater. The new Thunderbird offered promise of a family sedan, a McNamara decision.
4. The hoopla about the car brought out the "just looking" crowd that had no intention of buying.
The new car had four lines with 18 body styles, and 3 station wagon lines with 5 body styles. Variety was not a concern. As for styling, well, you loved it or you didn't. It was new and different, but many could not grasp the horse-collar grille (called other unkind names in automotive reviews).
There was no shortage of power in the cars, as the V-8 engine was stout. The Tele-Touch transmission buttons on the steering-wheel hub were a unique attraction. There were self-adjusting brakes that were standard and a long list of options to create your Edsel to your tastes.
When the doors closed on the first day at the dealerships, an estimated 2.8 million people had seen the car. But, for any of the reasons listed, they weren't buying them, at least not in the numbers the company wanted.
Before the Edsel hit the showroom, officials had devised a target sales figure. That figure was 200,000 units per year. Ambitious? Yes. Realistic? That's a judgment call based on the perception that the American buying public was looking for a medium-size car. In reality, the medium-price market was shrinking and shrinking drastically. This trend came to light well after the Edsel had reached the point of no return in development.
The troubled times for the Edsel were accentuated by the first year problems. The Tele-Touch transmission was a source of headache, and discontinued after 1958. Styling efforts to downplay the grillework without homogenizing the car were underway. Dealers were teetering on financial panic, casting their fate with this wonderful new car.
As McNamara gained power in the latter part of 1957, the bean counters put the Edsel under the financial microscope. Since the initial results were lower than anticipated, the corporate answer was to cut the number of models for the '59 lineup. Edsel was folded in with Mercury and Lincoln on January 14, 1958, creating the "M-E-L" division, resulting in unemployment for Edsel workers. The company would not commit significant funding for new product development beyond 1960. McNamara became president at that time and the proponents of the Edsel were silenced or relieved of duty. It was now just a matter of time.
The story of the Edsel winds its way to the point where it was to be replaced by a compact car after 1960. So, the '60 lines were introduced on October 15, 1959, and the last Edsel came off the assembly line on November 19, 1959. There were fewer than 3,000 units produced for 1960. Dealers offered rebates and incentives to move the product. The dealers had paired up with Ford or Lincoln-Mercury, so their fates were better than the product they had supported.
The new car, the Comet, was once designated as "Edsel B" or the original small "E-Car" on the drawing board in the mid-'50s. The Comet did eventually appear as a Mercury product.
Disaster In Dearborn -The Story Of The Edsel
Noted automotive writer Thomas Bonsall has put together a comprehensive work on the Edsel. This work includes numerous photographs, style drawings, and illustrations, some never seen in print. The extensively researched volume takes the car from the history of its namesake through the final days and a post-mortem on the demise.
Published by Stanford University Press, Disaster In Dearborn--The Story Of The Edsel has received favorable reviews from Edsel owners and car enthusiasts. To obtain a copy, check your local bookstore or contact Stanford University Press at its Web site, www.sup.org.
INTERNATIONAL EDSEL CLUB
It takes a special person to own an Edsel. "You've got to have a sense of humor," says International Edsel Club President Mike Brogan of West Falls, New York. There are apparently quite a few special people with a good sense of humor, because the club has over 850 members in 23 countries.
The club membership is likely as diverse as opinions about the car. Some are original owners. Some are relatively new to the world of Edsels. All have their ideas as to why they like a particular year or style of car. Brogan, for example, is strictly a '58 man. "I have a '58 small-series model, a Ranger four-door hardtop that I've driven for 10 years. I have a Bermuda station wagon that's getting new upholstery and I bought a '58 convertible in 1988."
Brogan says the car got a bum rap from the start. "At first, nobody had anything but praise for the car," he says. "Then, when it wasn't selling, they jumped on the bandwagon to put it down. They blamed the grille or something else, but it did sell 64,000 cars the first year. They just wanted it to sell more.
"We heard a talk from Roy Brown, the designer of the car. There was a lot of neat stuff on these cars that set the standard. The concave bumpers, the wraparound parking lights, and the high taillights were some of the things you'd see on an Edsel that became popular." The International Edsel Club conducts member rallies each year. It's a chance for owners and enthusiasts to get together and share stories and ideas. There is a kindred spirit here, especially for those restoring a car.
"You've got to have a little bit of money to be involved with these cars. They're kind of a poor man's car, but they're not cheap to keep going. Among the hardest parts are the metal and lights. There's not that much N.O.S. out there and the market is kinda small. In the past, we reproduced lenses and did what we could. There was a need so we tried to fill it," says Brogan.
The 2002 rally was held in Columbus, Indiana, with next year's event planned for Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
The unique nature of the Edsel draws plenty of attention. Brogan's wedding ceremony drew seven '58 Edsels and that brought the media. Club members have been asked to provide cars for television commercials and the club roster can address specific needs.
No one really likes the car's name, sharing the emotion of the Ford family over 45 years ago. "Brutal," says Brogan about the name's effect on the reputation. He also pointed out that all four names considered to be finalists have gone on to other automotive chapters (Ranger became a Ford truck, Pacer an AMC product forgettable in its own right, Citation as a small Chevy, and Corsair with the Corvair).
Bound by a common love of these cars, this club has heard it all before. They gather to have fun and share the good times. They weather the indignity offered by those who don't know the real story, but rely on the opinion of others. And even when Ford wouldn't acknowledge them in 1988, they kept going.
The company may have stopped the car's life, but it has taken on a better fate in the hands of the International Edsel Club.
For more information, visit the International Edsel Club at http://clubs.hemmings.com/iec.