1959Production Continued Until 1960
|Headquarters||Dearborn, Michigan, U.S|
Citation, Corsair, Pacer, Ranger
Bermuda, Villager, Roundup
|Parent||Ford Motor Company|
The Edsel was an automobile manufactured by the Ford Motor Company during the 1958, 1959, and 1960 model years. The Edsel never gained popularity with contemporary American car buyers and sold poorly. Consequently, the Ford Motor Company lost millions of dollars on the Edsel's development, manufacture, and marketing. The name "Edsel" has since become synonymous with failure.
- 1 History
- 2 End of the Edsel
- 3 Edsel and its failures
- 4 The Edsel Comet
- 5 Today
- 6 References
- 7 Further reading
- 8 External links
In the early 1950s, the Ford Motor Company became a publicly traded corporation that was no longer entirely owned by members of the Ford family. The company was now able to sell cars according to 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 concluded that Lincoln was competing 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 broken out as a separate make at the top of Ford's product line, and to add another make to the intermediate slot vacated by Lincoln.
Research and development for the new intermediate line had begun in 1955 under the name "E car", which stood for "experimental car." Ford Motor Company eventually decided on the name "Edsel", in honor of Edsel B. Ford, son of the company's founder, Henry Ford. 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 bodies.
The Edsel was introduced amid considerable publicity on "E Day"—September 4, 1957. It was also promoted by a top-rated television special, The Edsel Show, on October 13, but the promotional effort was not enough to counter the adverse public reaction to the car's styling and conventional build. For months, Ford had been circulating rumors that led people to expect an entirely new kind of car, when in reality, the Edsel shared its engineering and bodywork with other Ford models.
The Edsel was to be sold through a newly formed division of the Ford Motor Company, as a companion to the Ford Division, Mercury Division, Lincoln Division and (newly formed but also short-lived) Continental Division. Each division had its own retail organization and dealer network. The free-standing Edsel Division existed from November 1956 until January 1958, after which Edsel sales and marketing operations were integrated into the Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln division (referred to as M-E-L). Initially Edsel was sold through a new network of approximately 1,187 dealers. This briefly brought the total number of dealers of all Ford products to 10,000. Ford saw this as a way to come closer to parity with Chrysler, which had 10,000 dealers, and General Motors, which 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: The larger Mercury-based Citation and Corsair, and the smaller Ford-based Pacer and Ranger. The Citation was offered in two-door and four-door hardtop and two-door convertible versions. The Corsair was available 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 was sold 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.
The Edsel offered several innovative features, among which were its "rolling dome" speedometer and its Push-button Teletouch transmission shifting system in the center of the steering wheel. Other Edsel design innovations included ergonomically designed controls for the driver and self-adjusting brakes (which Edsel claimed as a first for the industry, even though Studebaker had pioneered them earlier in the decade).
Unlike Ford and Mercury, the Edsel Division never had any dedicated manufacturing plants. All Edsels were built in Ford or Mercury plants on a contract basis.
In the first year, 63,110 Edsels were sold in the United States; an additional 4,935 units were sold in Canada. Though below expectations, this nevertheless represented the second-largest launch for any new car brand to date, exceeded only by the Plymouth introduction in 1928.
For the 1959 model year, Edsel fielded only two series, the Ford-based Ranger and Corsair. The larger Mercury-based Edsels were discontinued. Replacing the Pacer as the top-line Ford-based Edsel, the new Corsair was offered as a two-door and four-door hardtop, four-door sedan, and two-door convertible. The Ranger was sold as a two-door and four-door hardtop, two-door and four-door sedan, and the Villager station wagon. In the 1959 model year, 44,891 Edsels were sold in the U.S. An additional 2,505 units were sold in Canada.
For the 1960 model year, Edsel's last, only 2,846 vehicles were produced. All but the pilot cars were assembled at the Louisville, Kentucky, assembly plant. The marque was reduced to the Ranger series of sedans, hardtops, and convertibles and the Villager station wagons. The Edsel shared a basic chassis, glass, and major sheet metal with the 1960 Ford Galaxie and Fairlane models that were built on the Louisville assembly line with it. But the Edsel had its own unique grille, hood, and four upright oblong taillights, along with its side sweep spears. The Edsel's front and rear bumpers were also unique. The Edsel also rode on a longer wheelbase than the concurrent Ford and used a different rear suspension. The cars did, however, share engines and transmissions.
The 1960 Edsel Ranger four-door hardtop model used the thin-pillar Ford Fairlane four-door sedan roofline, as opposed to the "square" roofline used on the corresponding Ford four-door hardtop, which was exclusive to the Galaxie line. The Galaxie four-door hardtop's rear door trim panel, however, was fitted to the Ranger. This gave the Edsel four-door hardtop a unique body style that was never offered on any 1960 Ford.
End of the Edsel
Ford announced the end of the Edsel program on Thursday, November 19, 1959. However, production continued until late in November, with the final tally at 2,846 1960 models. Total sales were approximately 84,000, less than half the company's projected break-even point. The company lost $350 million ($2.45 billion in 2009 values) on the venture. Only 118,287 Edsels were built, including 7,440 produced in Ontario, Canada. By Detroit standards, these production figures were dismal, particularly when spread across a run of three model years.
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 $2,800 in 2006 values) 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 dealerships' advertising "slugs." Ford issued a statement that it would distribute coupons to customers who purchased 1960 models (and carryover 1959 models) prior to the announcement, valued at $300 to $400 toward 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
Historians have advanced several theories in an effort to explain the Edsel's failure. Popular culture often faults the car’s styling. Consumer Reports has alleged that poor workmanship was the Edsel's chief problem. Marketing experts hold the Edsel up as a supreme example of the corporate culture’s failure to understand American consumers. 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 is that the Edsel was an engineering failure, or a lemon, even though it shared the basic technology and overall reliability of the concurrent 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" became synonymous with commercial failure, and similar ill-fated products have often been colloquially referred to as "Edsels". Since the Edsel program was such a debacle, it gave marketers a vivid illustration of how not to market a product. The principal reason the Edsel's failure is so famous is that it failed 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.
The public also had difficulty understanding what the Edsel was, primarily 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 debuted 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 mid-range 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 mid-range 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, buyers did not understand what the car was supposed to be—a step above the Mercury, or a step below it.
After its introduction to the public, the Edsel did not live up to its preproduction publicity, even though it did offer many new features, such as self-adjusting rear brakes and automatic lubrication. While consumer focus groups had indicated that these and other features would make the "E" car attractive to them as car buyers, the Edsel's selling prices exceeded what buyers were willing to pay. Upon seeing the price for a base model, many potential buyers simply left the dealerships. Other buyers were frightened by the price for a fully equipped 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 an economic recession in late 1957.
Compounding Edsel's problems was the fact that the car had to compete with well-established nameplates from the Big Three, such as Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, Dodge and DeSoto, as well as with its internal sister division Mercury, which itself had never been a stellar sales success. To make matters worse, as a new make, Edsel had established no brand loyalty with buyers, as its competing makes had.
Even if the 1957–1958 recession had not occurred, the Edsel would have been entering a shrinking marketplace. In the early 1950s, when the "E" car was in its earliest stages of development, Ernest Breech had successfully convinced Ford management that the medium-priced market segment offered great untapped opportunity. At the time, Breech's assessment was basically correct; in 1955, Pontiac, Buick and Dodge had sold a combined two million units. But by 1957, when the Edsel was introduced, the market had changed drastically. Independent manufacturers in the medium-priced field were drifting toward insolvency. Hoping to reverse its losses, Studebaker acquired Packard, yet it stopped producing under the venerable Packard badge after 1958. American Motors shifted its focus to its compact Rambler models and discontinued its pre-merger brands, Nash and Hudson, after the 1957 model year. Even Chrysler saw sales of its DeSoto marque drop dramatically from its 1957 high by over 50% in 1958. When DeSoto sales failed to rebound during the 1959 model year, plans were made in Highland Park to discontinue the nameplate during its 1961 model year run.
Indeed, sales for all car manufacturers, even those not introducing new models, were down. Consumers started buying 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 equipped with powerful engines and offered brisk acceleration, but they also required premium fuel, and their fuel economy, especially in city driving, was poor even by late-1950s standards.
Ford Motor Company had conducted the right marketing study, but it came up with the wrong product to fill the gap between Ford and Mercury. By 1958, consumers had become fascinated with economy cars, and a large car like the Edsel was seen as too expensive to buy and own. When Ford introduced the Falcon in 1960, it sold over 400,000 units in its first year. In a little-noted irony, Ford's investment in expanded plant capacity and additional tooling for the Edsel helped make the company's subsequent success with the Falcon possible.
By 1965, the market for medium-priced cars had recovered, and this time, Ford had the right car: The Galaxie 500 LTD. The LTD's success led Chevrolet to introduce the Caprice as a mid-1965 upscale trim option on its top-of-the-line Impala four-door hardtop.
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 declared 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 retained 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 freethinker poet Marianne Moore for input and suggestions. Moore's unorthodox contributions (among them "Utopian Turtletop", "Pastelogram", "Turcotinga" and "Mongoose Civique") were meant to stir creative thought and were not officially authorized or contractual in nature.
At the behest of Ernest Breech, who was chairing a board 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.
Reports of mechanical flaws in the models originating in the factory surfaced, due to lack of quality control and confusion of parts with other Ford models. The first-year (1958) Edsels were assembled in both Mercury and Ford factories. The longer-wheelbase models, Citation and Corsair, were produced alongside the Mercury products, while the shorter-wheelbase models, Pacer and Ranger, were produced alongside the Ford products. There was never a stand-alone factory dedicated solely to Edsel model production. Workers assembling Fords and Mercurys literally had to change parts bins and tools to assemble extra Edsels once they had assembled their hourly quota of regular Fords and Mercurys. Consequently, the desired quality control of the different Edsel models proved difficult to achieve. In fact, many Edsels actually left the assembly lines unfinished. Uninstalled parts were placed in the trunks along with installation instructions for dealership mechanics, some of whom never installed the additional parts at all.
The Edsel is best remembered for its trademark "horsecollar" or toilet seat grille, which was quite distinct from other cars of the period. According to a popular joke at the time, the Edsel "resembled an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon".
The Edsel's front-end ensemble as it eventually appeared bore little resemblance, if any, to the original concept. Roy Brown, the original chief designer on the Edsel project, had envisioned a slender, almost delicate opening in the center. Engineers, fearing engine cooling problems, vetoed the intended design, which led to the now-infamous "horsecollar." Some have speculated that the car's failure was because the grille resembled a vagina. The vertical grille theme, while improved for the 1959 models, was discontinued for the 1960 models, which were similar to Ford models of the same year, although coincidentally, the new front-end design bore no small resemblance to that of the 1959 Pontiac.
The Teletouch pushbutton automatic transmission selector proved problematic, in part because the steering wheel hub, where the pushbuttons were located, was the traditional location of the horn button. Drivers often ended up shifting gears instead of sounding the horn. While the Edsel was fast, the location of the transmission pushbuttons was not conducive to street racing. There were also jokes among stoplight drag racers about the buttons: D for Drag, L for Leap, and R for Race (instead of Drive, Low and Reverse).
Complaints also surfaced about the taillights on 1958-model Edsel station wagons. The lenses 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. There was room for separate turn signals in addition to the boomerangs, but the U.S. industry had never supplied them up to that point, and they were probably never seriously considered.
Mechanics of the time were wary of the 410-cubic-inch Edsel "E-475" engine because its perfectly-flat cylinder heads lacked distinct combustion chambers. The heads were set at an angle, with "roof" pistons forming both a squish zone on one side and a combustion chamber on the other. Combustion thus took place entirely within the cylinder bore. This design was similar to Chevrolet's 348-cubic-inch "W" engine, which was also introduced in 1958. While the design reduced the cost of manufacture and may also have helped minimize carbon buildup, it was also unfamiliar to many mechanics.
Company politics and the role of Robert McNamara
The most intriguing aspect of the Edsel story may be that it provides a case study in how company politics can kill an idea. While the car and Ford’s planning of the car are the most often cited reasons for its failure, internal Ford Motor Company memoranda indicate that the Edsel may actually have been a victim of dissension within Ford's management ranks.
Following World War II, Henry Ford II retained 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 a result, McNamara eventually amassed a considerable amount of power at Ford. McNamara was very much a throwback to Henry Ford in that, like the elder Ford, McNamara was committed to Ford to the almost total exclusion of the company's other products. Thus, McNamara had little use for the Continental, Lincoln, Mercury and Edsel brand cars made by the company.
McNamara opposed 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 little more than 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 rest of Ford's management structure that the Edsel was doomed and that it was time to end production before the Edsel bled the company dry. McNamara also attempted to discontinue the Lincoln nameplate, but that effort ended with Elwood Engel's now classic redesign of 1961. McNamara left Ford when he was named United States Secretary of Defense|Secretary of Defense by President John F. Kennedy.
During the 1964 U.S. 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, McNamara 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 as the Comet and assigned to Mercury dealerships as a stand-alone product. While based on the new-for-1960 Ford Falcon, the Comet was an instant success, selling more cars in its first year than all models of Edsel produced during that marque's entire 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. The Mercury name does not appear anywhere on the 1960 and 1961 models.
Fifty years after its spectacular failure, the Edsel has become a highly collectible item among 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, Jaguar Cars, BMW, Subaru, Lancia 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 now standard features of sports cars.
Even if the Edsel had survived beyond the early 1960s, it is far from certain that the brand would still be in production today. Chrysler discontinued the DeSoto brand at almost the exact same time, Chrysler's announcement of the DeSoto's discontinuation coming only nine days after Ford's announcement of the Edsel's discontinuation. While the market for medium-priced cars would recover for a time, they would eventually be squeezed out due to Ford and Chevrolet having vehicles moving up in the medium-priced segment. Meanwhile, Dodge would move down into the low-priced field, which had traditionally been occupied by Plymouth. Although Oldsmobile was discontinued in 2004 in an unrelated move, the final death knell for the traditional domestic medium-priced brands was the Automotive industry crisis of 2008–2010. As a result of this crisis, General Motors and Chrysler filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy. This development saw the end of the Pontiac and Saturn brands by GM, while Ford's own Mercury division was discontinued despite Ford being relatively healthy compared to GM and Chrysler and not needing government assistance. By the 2011 model year, only Dodge and Buick among the traditional medium-priced makes had remained in production, with Dodge having taken Plymouth's old spot within Chrysler and Buick arguably surviving only due to the brand's success in China.
It could be argued that during the early-to-mid 2000s, Mazda and Volvo vehicles, then part of the Ford group, appealed to the demographics the Edsel had targeted in the late 1950s, (young professionals on the way up, and those who had "arrived") while the Mercury Grand Marquis was a solid seller to the Edsel's actual target cohort (those who had actually been young professionals on the way up in the late 1950s). By the end of the decade Ford had sold its share in those companies and announced the end of the Panther models.
- Collier and Horowitz, Fords: An American Family, 1987, Simon & Schuster, p. 263.
- The Auto Editors of Consumer Guide (2006). Encyclopedia of American Cars: A Comprehensive History of the American Automakers From 1930 to Today. Publications International, Ltd., 374.
- "HowStuffWorks "1955–1959 Volkswagen Beetle"". Auto.howstuffworks.com. Retrieved on 2009-05-17.
- The Auto Editors of Consumer Guide (2006). Encyclopedia of American Cars: A Comprehensive History of the American Automakers From 1930 to Today. Publications International, Ltd., 375.
- The Auto Editors of Consumer Guide (2006). Encyclopedia of American Cars: A Comprehensive History of the American Automakers From 1930 to Today. Publications International, Ltd., 374.
- "Autos: The $250 Million Flop (30 November 1959)", Time (1959-11-30). Retrieved on 2011-01-30.
- The 50 Worst Cars of All Time – 1958 Ford Edsel, Time Magazine
- Robert McNamara. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. Random House. 1995. p. 150.
- View all comments that have been posted about this article.. "The Flop Heard Round the World", Washingtonpost.com. Retrieved on 2009-05-17.
- "Buick's New Baby: Due For U.S. In Late 2011 – With A New Name | Car News Blog at Motor Trend". Blogs.motortrend.com (2010-04-23). Retrieved on 2010-09-13.
- Deutsch, Jan (1976). The Edsel and Corporate Responsibility. Yale University Press.
- Dicke, Tom. "The Edsel: Forty Years as a Symbol of Failure," Journal of Popular Culture, June 2010, Vol. 43 Issue 3, pp 486–502
- 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.
- The Auto Editors of Consumer Guide (2006). Encyclopedia of American Cars: A Comprehensive History of the American Automakers From 1930 to Today. Publications International, Ltd..
- Edsel.com History, specifications, resources for owners.
- Smith Motor Company Virtual Edsel Dealer
- The International Edsel Club
- 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
- The Edsel Tinsmith A catalog of tin toy Edsels that were manufactured in Japan
|Edsel road car timeline, North American market, 1958–1960|
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