"Those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it," warned philosopher
George Santayana. In the high stakes financial world of the auto industry
repeating the mistakes of others is prohibitively expensive. So itís no
surprise that when Saturn Corporation launched "a different kind of car
company" in 1990, it used failureóspecifically the lessons of the Edselóas
its road map to success. A dozen years and more than 2.2 million vehicles
later Saturn is still going strong. As a result of the Edselís impact on Saturn
and other auto manufacturers, its legacy may be redefined from one of the
most monumental failures of the twentieth century to one of the most
A 1958 Edsel Ranger Sedan (Photo by owner, Marshall Havner)
A Car Is Born
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 carís 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 itís 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 thrilledóuntil they realized that
people werenít 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 Edselís launch and author of The Edsel Affair.
"That was the pencil pushersí 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 wasnít anything that lived
up to the hype." In retrospect, Warnock realizes that Edsel executives didnít 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 werenít exactly complete showed up at
dealerships. They would have a list on the steering wheel saying which
parts were missing."
With early sales unexpectedly sluggish, Edsel executives began to worry. Even
generally positive reviews from the media werenít 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 middleówhat we now call a horse collaróit 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 Edselís 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 Ďan Oldsmobile sucking a
lemoní and another called it Ďa Pontiac pushing a toilet seatí," recalls Ellsworth.
Even some of the positive reviews took a wait-and-see attitude, openly wondering
about the publicís 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 Cadillacóa 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 youíd 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 publicís interest in huge, big fin cars with glitzy chrome
was just about over," he notes.
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 wouldnít be able to build them fast enough."
Itís 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 carsóthe Ford Thunderbird and a compact called the
Rambler Americanósaw an increase over their 1957 production."
Two more subtle economic issues also weakened the Edselís 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 elseís 1957 models. With dealers discounting
their 1957ís (trying to clear them off the lots in anticipation of next yearís
models), the Edsel looked expensive by comparison.
Compounding this problem was the fact that Edsel pushed its biggest, most
luxurious and expensive model firstóa 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 ĎYou can buy this for just a few
dollars more than a Ford, Plymouth or Chevrolet. Youíre buying next yearís model
today.í And then brought in, ĎIf youíre looking for the tops in luxury, hereís our
Citation and Corsair.í" Towards the end of the 1958 model year the company began
promoting how inexpensive it was to own a bottom-line í58 Edsel, but the damage
was already done.
Without an established customer base itís no surprise Edsel sold only 64,000 units
in its first year. And by that time, the companyís warts had really started to show.
EDSEL: Every Day Something Else Leaks
When Ford launched the Edsel it made a fateful and costly decision to create a
brand-new division. "Edsel was its own division, with itís own everything," says
Ellsworth. "One of my pet peeves is that people are fond of calling it the ĎFord
Edsel.í But the word ĎFordí doesnít appear anywhere on the car. They even
recruited brand-new dealerships instead of franchising with Ford/Mercury," he
Ironically, the only thing Ford didnít 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 divisionís vehicles.
"There are a lot more Edselís 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 donít 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 werenít exactly complete showed up
at dealerships. They would have a list on the steering wheel saying which parts
Mike and the Mechanics
The Edselís quality control issues were compounded by mechanicsí unfamiliarity
with the carís 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 didnít 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 ó which was easy to do ó it would just fly right off."
Edsel? What About Utopian Turtletop?
Forty-five years later many people assume that the carís 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 Ďlemoní." 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 ĎUtopian Turtletopí," 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 Fordís only child, Edsel Bryantóa bizarre choice considering that the
name didnít mean anything to people living outside the state of Michigan. Ironically,
four of the finalists ultimately became names of individual models.
Jeopardy Question: Who Is ĎAn Edsel Ownerí?
Over the course of three model years (í58, í59 and í60) approximately 118,000
Edselís were manufactured in the U.S. and Canada. Today, there are a couple
thousand Edselís 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 manís collectors car
because "there are a lot more Edselís out there than people who love them," he offers.
What would possess someone to buy an Edsel? "Iím 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,
ĎOh, my God, itís an Edsel.í"
"To this day, itís still pretty embarrassing to be broken down on the side of
the road with one."
These days, youíre not likely to see one on the road unless thereís an Edsel
covention in your area. At these get-togethers, owners ogle each otherís cars,
inquire about parts, and even engage in valve cover racing. "Iíve 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 1/24 scale Edselís 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 donít think any
of us are normal, but for the most part itís a good group of people," attests Ellsworth.
Bump In The Road?
Despite the perception that the Edsel was a catastrophic financial failure, Skinner
contends that the monetary losses sustained by Ford werenít overwhelming. "They
lost $250 million in 1958 dollars, which would be comparable to $2.25 billion today.
Thatís a lot of money, but the stock didnít 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 Edselís
budget were applied to future Ford models. For instance, the Edsel was the first
car to have self-adjusting brakes; by 1962 all Fordís were equipped with self-
Itís also clear that the automobile industry benefited from Fordís experience with
the Edsel. For its part, Ford took its assembly plants away from the individual
divisions and created a new division known as Ďmanufacturing.í The guy on the
assembly line no longer worked for the Ford division, he worked for Ďmanufacturing.í
"That meant that whatever car was coming down the line, he was responsible for
making it the best he could. Quality was greatly increased," claims Skinner.
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, ĎThe Edsel Affair is what made Saturn a
success.í 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. "Iíll
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, ĎYeah, thereís the next Edsel.í I guess I
was wrong," he says.
You Drive Me Crazy
At this point itís 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."
Nevertheless, current-day owners will attest that thereís 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, itís still pretty embarrassing to be broken down on
the side of the road with one."