Roy Brown survived Edsel, then flourished in Britain
Roy Brown, who died on Feb. 24 at age 96, goes down in history as the chief designer of the Edsel, the famous '50s flop that cost many a Ford executive his career. But Brown's story didn't end there.
Ford launched the Edsel with great fanfare in the fall of 1957, but it died just three years later after becoming the butt of many jokes. Comedians said the grille looked like an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon and compared it to a toilet seat.
But Brown was considered such a brilliant stylist that guardians high in the company shifted him to Ford of Britain until things cooled down in Dearborn. He rebounded spectacularly in the United Kingdom, drawing such classics as the original Ford Cortina and the Consul.
If "Edsel" has long been a code word for automobile failure in the United States, the Cortina is pretty much the opposite in Europe. The compact became Britain's best-selling car of the 1970s and is still spoken of in reverent terms there.
Brown, who retired from Ford in 1979, got the plum assignment to head the Edsel design team after impressing his bosses with a motor show fantasy, the Lincoln Futura concept that later would become TV's Batmobile.
His original Edsel design has been called extraordinary, but a bevy of compromises were imposed. Bean counters said many of Brown's scoops and scallops would be too costly to manufacture, while engineers said the elegant, bladelike vertical grille would create ventilation problems. A different car emerged.
"Brown was a designer, not a corporate guerrilla," according to Robert Lacey's 1986 book, Ford: The Men and the Machine. "He lacked the skills to defend his own turf strongly."
It's a case of what might have been. Lacey wrote that Brown's original clay model of the Edsel is "still treasured in the minds of the few admitted past all the guards, passwords and locked doors of the Ford Design Center."