The past ain't what it used to be: The Edsel finally is cool
If at first you don't succeed ... wait for a wave of nostalgia
For decades, Ford's beleaguered Edsel was America's industrial poster child of how to do all sorts of things - marketing, research, styling, manufacturing. Wrong.
In the mid-1950s, Ford invested about $250 million ($2.25 billion in 2003 dollars) setting up the Edsel Division; creating a network of 1,200 dealers; and developing a range of Edsel sedans, coupes, wagons and convertibles.
The Edsel, a gadget-filled, medium-priced car meant to compete with DeSoto, Studebaker, Oldsmobile, Dodge, Pontiac and Buick, was offered in four series: Ranger, Pacer, Corsair and Citation. Prices ranged from $2,300 for a Ranger sedan to $3,489 for a Citation convertible.
Ford's loss on the Edsel was staggering by 1950s standards. The company lost $312,500 a day on the Edsel from its introduction in September 1957 until November 1959, when Ford announced the end of Edsel production. Even though the loss was huge, Ford remained profitable in those years and still paid a dividend to its shareholders.
Ford planned to sell 200,000 Edsels annually. In 1958, the Edsel's best year, just 63,107 units sputtered painfully out of six Ford plants. By the time the vehicle died, only 118,000 had been built in the United States and Canada.
Although the word "Edsel" entered the nation's lexicon as a synonym for failure - defined by Webster's as "a product or project that fails to gain public acceptance despite high expectations and costly promotional efforts" - the Edsel debacle was more than just an expensive and embarrassing blunder for Ford.
Many Edsel dealers who invested in franchises lost their money. For those who championed the car, such as Henry Ford II and Ford Chairman Ernest Breech, the Edsel was just a bump in the road in their careers. But at least 2,000 Ford white-collar workers lost their jobs, and the careers of many others were affected.
Rebirth in the '80s
The public's perception of the Edsel started changing in the late 1980s, says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University in New York.
"In pop culture, there's a law of cultural life," Thompson says. "Something that is most extraordinary in failure gets resurrected in glorious nostalgic reflection."
Comedians of the day lambasted the Edsel. They compared the shape of its grille to a toilet seat and said it resembled "an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon."
In the Edsel's case, resurrection means skyrocketing values for certain models in immaculate condition - and that comes as no surprise to Brown, 86, who speaks about the Edsel in a soft but pride-filled voice. He is not embarrassed by the car; he's happy to have been associated with it.
It's the one part of his 20-plus years with Ford on which people still focus. Since he started giving interviews about the Edsel in the mid-1960s, Brown has defended the car's design, and he always has felt that styling wasn't what sank the brand.
"I say the Edsel is the most successful failure in history," says Brown, who lives in Brooklyn, Mich. "The reason it failed was more the timing than anything."
The failure of the Edsel, he says, also has to do with Ford creating unreasonable expectations for a somewhat ordinary Ford- or Mercury-based car. For months the Ford PR machine promised that the Edsel would be something radically different. About 2.5 million people went to Edsel dealerships on "E-Day," Sept. 4, 1957, and most came away disappointed.
Ford's timing was bad on several fronts. The market research that led to the creation of the Edsel was at least 4 years old by the time the car was ready for the market.
When the vehicle rolled into showrooms, buyers' tastes were shifting toward smaller, more economical cars, such as American Motors' Rambler, which was then on sale. The Plymouth Valiant and the Ford Falcon were two years away. Those were the first American responses to the Volkswagen Beetle and other small imports.
The heyday of the mid-sized car had ended, and the Edsel was a mid-sized car. The import invasion began in 1958 in the United States, and a brutal recession was underway. It was a time of massive upheaval in the U.S. auto market.
Buick sales skidded 33.1 percent, DeSoto fell 53.9 percent, Dodge plunged 47.4 percent, Mercury dropped 47.7 percent, and Oldsmobile was off 17.5 percent.
Poor quality was another problem. Because Edsels were built alongside regular Ford and Mercury cars, assembly line workers sometimes had trouble fitting the proper parts. Edsels were built in factories dedicated to either Fords or Mercurys. When an Edsel came down the line, workers had to attach the special parts, which many did with indifference.
They also weren't thrilled about having to build another brand of automobile. Basically, it was extra work for no extra pay.
In January 1958, after it was clear that the Edsel was not going to meet its sales expectations, Ford folded it into the new M-E-L - Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln - Division.
A quick redesign for 1960 gave the car a more conventional appearance, but sales didn't improve. Just one month into the 1960 model year, Ford had had enough and killed the brand.
The Edsel today
Forty-five years down the road, Brown says he sees the Edsel's history unfolding pretty much as he thought it would. Brown says he always believed that at least some collectors would come to appreciate the car.
Meticulously restored Edsel convertibles, or those in pristine original condition, are selling for $25,000 to $30,000 - not far behind another cherished Ford classic of that era, the 1955-57 Thunderbird roadster. Edsel wagons and sedans in excellent condition are selling for $10,000 to $15,000 - about the same as many other late-1950s Oldsmobiles, Desotos, Studebakers and Plymouths.
Thompson, the Syracuse professor, says today's teenage and twenty-something students look at the Edsel and see only that it looks like any late-1950s American car. Perhaps three students out of a class of 120, he says, know the Edsel was a massive failure for Ford.
"Today, if you named your child Edsel, he would get teased because it's a crazy, goofy name," Thompson says. "Not because of the car."
Only about 5,000 to 6,000 Edsels are thought to have survived. Because the car was unloved for so many years, the scrappage rate was extremely high, says Keith Martin, editor and publisher of Sports Car Market, a monthly magazine that tracks the values of antique and classic cars sold at auction.
Rich Dean, a 37-year-old executive at KQED, a public radio station in San Francisco, relies on an Edsel for his daily transportation. Dean says he has no modern car and doesn't want one.
"I was looking for an old car, something with style, when I ran across an Edsel," he says. ''I looked at the grille. It's love. How cool is that? They don't make stuff like this anymore."
Dean says that at stoplights and in parking lots some old-timers can't resist telling him what a failure the Edsel was. But most people don't view the car that way.
"The styling of the 1958 model has held up really well," he says. "When people see the car going down the road, they look at it, see it is an Edsel, and they smile. Maybe they don't judge it quite the same way now as they did then."
The Edsel's distinctive styling, featuring a horse-collar grille, deeply scalloped sides and horizontal tailfins, garnered plenty of criticism. But the car's looks were not out of place for the times, says J Mays, Ford's vice president of design.
"The Edsel and its design have sort of become an urban myth," Mays says. "Although its design elements were not as harmonious as they might have been, much about the car's appearance was in line with other things that were going on at the time. You have to see designs of the 1950s and '60s within the cultural mind-set of the time -just as you do today."