A 1958 Edsel Ranger Sedan
On September 4, 1957 the
Edsel made its debut in showrooms across the country. The launch
came on the heels of an extensive, expensive and exceptionally
successful marketing campaign that had everybody talking about
this mysterious new automobile. Months earlier ads began running
that simply pictured the hood ornament, underscored with "The
Edsel is Coming." Another ad depicted a covered car carrier with
the same tag line. Meanwhile, the company went to great lengths to
keep the car’s features and appearance a secret. Dealers were
required to store the vehicles undercover, and could be fined or
lose their franchise if they showed the cars before the release
date. With all the hype it’s no surprise that consumers were eager
to see what the fuss was about.
When September 4th rolled
around consumers flocked to the dealerships in record numbers. For
a day or so Edsel executives were thrilled—until they realized
that people weren’t buying, they were only coming to look. "The
company expected to sell a daily minimum of 400 Edsels through
1,200 dealers," says Gayle Warnock, director of public relations
for the Edsel launch and author of The Edsel Affair. "That was the
pencil pushers’ requirement for a successful launch. We never made
it," he laments.
"The public thought there was
something radically new coming out," reminds Bob Ellsworth, owner
and operator of edsel.com. "But it was really just another 1958
[model] car. It had more gizmos and gadgets on it but it wasn’t
anything that lived up to the hype." In retrospect, Warnock
realizes that Edsel executives didn’t take the most sensible
approach to marketing the car. "I learned that a company should
never allow its spokespersons to build up enthusiasm for an
unseen, unproven product," he says.
"There were cases where cars
that weren’t exactly complete showed up at dealerships. They would
have a list on the steering wheel saying which parts were
With early sales unexpectedly
sluggish, Edsel executives began to worry. Even generally positive
reviews from the media weren’t enough to soothe them. "The looks
and styling were lauded by the press when the car first came out,"
says Phil Skinner, a respected Edsel historian. "The front end
design was the most prominent feature. If you consider other cars
from the mid-1950s, they all looked somewhat alike. Basically it
was two headlights and a horizontal grille. By having the big
impact ring in the middle—what we now call a horse collar—it
really set the Edsel apart," he continues.
According to Mike Brogan,
president of the International Edsel Club, creating a unique
appearance was one of the goals of the Edsel’s chief designer, Roy
Brown Jr. "He set out to create a car that was instantly
recognizable from a block in any direction," says Brogan.
Inevitably, not all the
reviewers applauded the unique new look. Some reviews were
downright nasty. "One member of the media called it ‘an Oldsmobile
sucking a lemon’ and another called it ‘a Pontiac pushing a toilet
seat’," recalls Ellsworth. Even some of the positive reviews took
a wait-and-see attitude, openly wondering about the public’s
reaction to a huge, gas-guzzling vehicle with such distinctive
Does Size Really Matter?
The origins of the Edsel can
be traced back to 1948 when Ford decided it needed another line to
compete against General Motors (GM). After all, GM had Chevrolet,
Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Buick and Cadillac—a family of cars where one
could start out with an economical Chevy and progress up the line
to a Cadillac. Similarly, Chrysler had Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto,
Chrysler and Imperial. Ford, however, was limited to Ford, Mercury
and Lincoln, and was distressed that consumers were stepping
outside the family between Ford and Mercury.
As you’d expect, the Edsel
was designed to meet the needs of a particular target audience.
"When the Edsel was first developed it looked like big was the way
to go," says Ellsworth, "but by 1958 people were thinking more
along the lines of smaller economy cars. The public’s interest in
huge, big fin cars with glitzy chrome was just about over," he
To make matters worse, the
company based its sales expectations on 1954-56 figures, a time
when the auto market was going straight up. "They assumed that
trend was going to continue," says Brogan. "They believed that by
the 1958 model year they wouldn’t be able to build them fast
It’s the Economy, Stupid
The high sales expectations
became an issue when the economy slumped. "The projection was that
200,000 units would be produced the first year," says Skinner.
"That would have represented about five percent of the total
market, which was not too outrageous. However, 1958 was a horrible
year for the automobile industry," he continues. "Only two
cars—the Ford Thunderbird and a compact called the Rambler
American—saw an increase over their 1957 production."
Two more subtle economic
issues also weakened the Edsel’s early sales. At the time, new
models typically came out in November for the following model
year. However, the September launch meant that the cars reflected
1958 pricing, but were being sold against everyone else’s 1957
models. With dealers discounting their 1957’s (trying to clear
them off the lots in anticipation of next year’s models), the
Edsel looked expensive by comparison.
Compounding this problem was
the fact that Edsel pushed its biggest, most luxurious and
expensive model first—a tough sell against end-of-year specials in
a recession year. Recalls Skinner: "Edsel would have done well to
bring out the Pacer and Ranger series and promoted them as ‘You
can buy this for just a few dollars more than a Ford, Plymouth or
Chevrolet. You’re buying next year’s model today.’ And then
brought in, ‘If you’re looking for the tops in luxury, here’s our
Citation and Corsair.’" Towards the end of the 1958 model year the
company began promoting how inexpensive it was to own a
bottom-line ’58 Edsel, but the damage was already done.
Without an established
customer base it’s no surprise Edsel sold only 64,000 units in its
first year. And by that time, the company’s warts had really
started to show.
EDSEL: Every Day Something
When Ford launched the Edsel
it made a fateful and costly decision to create a brand-new
division. "Edsel was its own division, with its own everything,"
says Ellsworth. "One of my pet peeves is that people are fond of
calling it the ‘Ford Edsel.’ But the word ‘Ford’ doesn’t appear
anywhere on the car. They even recruited brand-new dealerships
instead of franchising with Ford/Mercury," he notes.
Ironically, the only thing
Ford didn’t create from scratch was separate manufacturing
facilities. "There were no plants set up to produce the Edsel, so
the Edsel division had to rely on Ford and Mercury employees,"
notes Skinner. But squeezing in Edsels on the Ford and Mercury
assembly lines proved to be disastrous from a quality control
perspective because many Ford/Mercury employees resented having to
build another division’s vehicles.
"There are a lot more Edsels
out there than people who love them."
"As a result, the cars would
come to the end of the line with parts missing and brakes not
working," says Skinner. "A lot of cars that were unsafe for the
road were being delivered to dealerships, as well as being very
poorly put together. A lot of that is attributed to intentional
vandalism, but to what extent, I don’t know."
Ultimately, a reputation for
mechanical problems preceded the Edsel. "They occasionally ran out
of parts and occasionally put the wrong parts on," concurs
Ellsworth. "There were cases where cars that weren’t exactly
complete showed up at dealerships. They would have a list on the
steering wheel saying which parts were missing."
Mike and the Mechanics
The Edsel’s quality control
issues were compounded by mechanics’ unfamiliarity with the car’s
state-of-the-art technology. The most vexing problem was its
automatic Tele-touch transmission, whereby the driver selected the
gears by pushing buttons on the center of the steering wheel. "It
was a pretty complicated system for its time and mechanics didn’t
know how to fix it," claims Brogan.
Design flaws also created
issues for Edsel owners. Even the hood ornament became a safety
hazard. "They had to redesign it," quips Ellsworth, "because once
you got the car up to 70 mph—which was easy to do—it would just
fly right off."
Edsel? What About Utopian
Forty-five years later many
people assume that the car’s name played a major role in its
downfall. "Probably five percent of the problem was its name,"
claims Skinner. "A high quality car can be called almost anything
except ‘lemon’." Oddly, the name could have been a lot worse. "One
of the more popular stories kicking around is that they went to
Marianne Moore [a popular poet] and asked her for input. She was
good with flowery words but not all that good at naming cars and
came up with things like ‘Utopian Turtletop’," claims Ellsworth.
Ultimately, the company did
extensive surveys and even asked Ford staffers for suggestions.
After considering thousands of names the company narrowed things
down to a handful of choices including: Ranger, Pacer, Citation,
Corsair and Ventura. Then they threw away all the market research
and named it after Henry and Clara Ford’s only child, Edsel
Bryant—a bizarre choice considering that the name didn’t mean
anything to people living outside the state of Michigan.
Ironically, four of the finalists ultimately became names of
Jeopardy Question: Who Is ‘An
Over the course of three
model years (’58, ’59 and ’60) approximately 118,000 Edsels were
manufactured in the U.S. and Canada. Today, there are a couple
thousand Edsels on the road, with three- to six-thousand others in
storage or in various states of restoration.
"As a collector car it was
recognized as a unique vehicle relatively early in its afterlife,"
says Skinner. Today, the Edsel is considered a poor man’s
collectors car because "there are a lot more Edsels out there than
people who love them," he offers.
What would possess someone to
buy an Edsel? "I’m not a normal person to ask," quips Ellsworth. "
"You definitely have to have something not screwed together right
to be an Edsel owner. You get a lot of people pointing and
staring, saying, ‘Oh, my God, it’s an Edsel.’"
"To this day, it’s still
pretty embarrassing to be broken down on the side of the road with
These days, you’re not likely
to see one on the road unless there’s an Edsel covention in your
area. At these get-togethers, owners ogle each other’s cars,
inquire about parts, and even engage in valve cover racing. "I’ve
never seen it anywhere except an Edsel convention," says
Ellsworth. "You take an Edsel valve cover, strap wheels to it, and
then race each other." According to Ellsworth, owners also show
off vintage memorabilia such as miniatures. "When the car first
came out the dealers had 1/25-scale Edsels and if you took a test
drive you got the little one for free," he says.
If it sounds a little strange
most attendees would probably agree. "I don’t think any of us are
normal, but for the most part it’s a good group of people,"
Bump In The Road?
Despite the perception that
the Edsel was a catastrophic financial failure, Skinner contends
that the monetary losses sustained by Ford weren’t overwhelming.
"They lost $250 million in 1958 dollars, which would be comparable
to $2.25 billion today. That’s a lot of money, but the stock
didn’t really take a hit and Ford paid a dividend and posted a
profit in all the years the Edsel was produced," claims Skinner.
Perhaps more significantly,
much of the money invested in the Edsel paid off down the road.
Many of the new technologies developed for and charged to the
Edsel’s budget were applied to future Ford models. For instance,
the Edsel was the first car to have self-adjusting brakes; by 1962
all Ford’s were equipped with self-adjusting brakes.
It’s also clear that the
automobile industry benefited from Ford’s experience with the
Edsel. For its part, Ford took its assembly plants away from the
individual divisions and created a new division known as
‘manufacturing.’ The guy on the assembly line no longer worked for
the Ford division, he worked for ‘manufacturing.’ "That meant that
whatever car was coming down the line, he was responsible for
making it the best he could. Quality was greatly increased,"
One company even used the
Edsel as the model for what not to do. "About five years ago I
interviewed Skip LeFauve," says Skinner, "who was the
president/CEO of the Saturn Corporation. He said, ‘The Edsel
Affair is what made Saturn a success.’ He bought a case of the
books, gave a copy to all his executives and had them underline
everything that Ford did wrong with the Edsel."
Not all Edsel devotees were
convinced that Saturn was going to be successful. "I’ll never
forget the first time I saw one," says Brogan. "I was driving my
Edsel to one of the [Saturn] rallies in Nashville. I said, ‘Yeah,
there’s the next Edsel.’ I guess I was wrong," he says.
You Drive Me Crazy
At this point it’s safe to
assume that the Edsel will always be associated with failure.
However, the car still has its defenders: "The Edsel is very
misunderstood," claims Ellsworth. "It was a good, solid, fast,
well-handling car. Sure it had problems, but nothing that should
equate the name Edsel with failure."
owners will attest that there’s still a stigma attached to the
Edsel. "Once it got a bad rap it became a joke to be caught
driving one," reminds Brogan. "To this day, it’s still pretty
embarrassing to be broken down on the side of the road with one."