8 September 2016

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.

6 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Jeffery Warshawsky Chicago,IL September 12, 2016 at 10:35
    my family started the retail auto parts business in the early part of the twentyith century,I love Fords "great designs"
  • 2
    Diane Brandon Portland, Oregon area September 15, 2016 at 13:55
    If you read the history of Harley-Davidson, you know that Edsel tried every sneaky trick in the book to put the bike maker out of business. There was a TV series shown last week called "Harley and the Davidsons" that was based on the factual history of the company. And when you learn Edsel's dirty tricks, you won't feel so sorry for the lad.
  • 3
    Neville Taylor Toronto September 15, 2016 at 09:37
    Edsel's reputation and place in history has obviously suffered from his association with the eponymous car, its failure in the market and the unfortunate design of its grille. I had been unaware that in many respects he can be credited with saving the company from his OCD father.
  • 4
    Eric Wrobbel Los Angeles, California September 15, 2016 at 10:47
    Design. It's all about design. Has there ever been an industry--or a hobby--more confused about design? Loving it and hating it at the same time. Revering designers outwardly while trashing and disrespecting ("customizing") their work at every turn. And then there's the living room on wheels completely bypassing its opportunity to become the open-view bubble of friendly motoring and turning instead into a cocoon from which the alienated exercise the only power they ever know in the form of road aggression.
  • 5
    FREDERICK WILEY Florida September 16, 2016 at 19:28
    I have read many books on the Ford family. Edsel was a good man and well respected in the auto industry. I think the pressures of WWII production had a lot to do with his early death. My mother , a Western Union Telegraph employee, talked to Edsel many times while he was at his Florida home. He sent long telegrams to Ford executives. She said he was always very friendly and courteous to be a man of such power and wealth. Henry just never understood what he did to Edsel and he was never the same after his death.
  • 6
    Michael Adirondack Mountains, Upstate New York September 16, 2016 at 23:10
    I have read that Edsel Ford had an eye for style and subsequent to four years of Model A's ( 1928, 1929, 1930 and 1931) Edsel was very instrumental in the design of the 1932 ( the coupe which today remains a timeless design) as well as the 1933-34 and the Lincoln Zepher. So few car styles withstand the test of time....yet decades later many of Edsel's style and design ideas are popular and duplicated. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

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