Edsel Ford should have changed Ford forever, but never got the chance

The automotive world is not short on tragedy, and not just among racing drivers. It’s a crucible that destroys people, dreams and ideas, embracing only the continuously profitable. The rest, ahem, just pass through.

This is how most of the world remembers Edsel Ford, if at all. “How unspeakably sad it is,” wrote Hemmings Classic Car’s Jim Donnelly, “that for many people, Edsel Ford's legacy is only as the victim of a cruel, unholy Cain-and-Abel struggle for identity.” Raised from birth to be Ford Motor Company’s leader then hobbled by his father, his personal tragedy overshadowed what should have been a genius remembered forever.

After what’s been described as an isolated childhood, Edsel went to work at Ford straight from high school and married at 23; by age 24 in 1917, he was appointed to the board of directors and was appointed company President by his father in 1919. Edsel soon learned that Henry was obsessed with one thing, making the Model T as efficiently as possible. Little else held his interest, including modernising the car – he yelled at Edsel to shut up during a board meeting when Edsel advocated for hydraulic brakes. But Edsel remained convinced, correctly, that Henry Ford’s single-minded obsession would destroy the company as Chevrolet rolled out new models and features.

When Lincoln went bankrupt in 1921, Edsel Ford saw an opportunity to build cars with actual styling and was instrumental in Ford’s 1922 acquisition of the company. As President of Lincoln, he was able to pursue his desires and created Ford’s first design studio with help from stylists John Tjaarda and Bob Gregorie, both of whom had worked with Harley Earl, the father of Detroit car design. At the same time, Edsel slowly fought his father into agreeing to the 1928 Model A, and later on launching the style-oriented Mercury line, which he’d pushed through as a Pontiac competitor.

Edsel’s influence was Ford’s saving grace during the 1930s. The Model T was Ford’s sole passenger car, so by the time of its last full year of production in 1927 that was all they had to sell against the AA Capitol Chevrolet, Dodge Fast 4, Pontiac Six, Nash Light Six or anything else. Henry had already held onto the T long past its sell-by date and without Edsel, would probably have driven Ford into bankruptcy on the T’s axles.

It was, instead, Edsel who bankrupted himself. Nonstop fighting, both bureaucratic and personal, with his father and his cronies, destroyed Edsel’s health, leading to ulcers and stomach cancer. At the age of 49 in 1943 and increasingly ill, to soothe the pain he drank a bottle of unpasteurized milk from a Ford farm, got sick, and died.

If he had been able to be President of Ford in fact, not just name, he would have done with it as he did with Lincoln, which not only survived the Depression but at its end created both the Lincoln Zephyr and Continental, monuments of Prewar design. Edsel’s Ford of the Twenties and Thirties would truly have been the standard of the world instead of a desperate holding action against progress. That is the great tragedy of his life, the lost promise of an earlier, second golden age at Ford.

Hagerty’s Essentials is an ongoing series that helps introduce enthusiasts to people, places and things that every well-rounded car lover should know. Rather than being in-depth, Essentials is a quick take giving you a conversational knowledge and ultimately, an idea of how the whole fits together.