After five decades, can we redeem the Edsel?

Introduced 59 years ago, the Edsel lives on as a symbol of abject failure. One that reportedly cost Ford Motor Company and its dealers some $400 million (more than $4 billion today). As such, it has been studied and dissected ad nauseum as a case study in how not to develop and promote new products.

Glib auto critics love naming the Edsel on those “50 Worst cars of All Time” lists. But in retrospect, the Edsel was probably no worse, but likely no better, than anything else in showrooms at the time.

The magnitude of the product planning and marketing disaster from which the Edsel emerged, however, cannot be overstated. Has anything been learned from it?

Market segmentation in the auto industry was an up-and-coming practice in the early 1950s. General Motors had its five-brand hierarchy, although there was certainly some overlap. Chrysler made its luxury Imperial a separate brand in 1955, giving it five divisions, as well, but also with obvious redundancies.

Ford product planners were certain that the company was missing out on a big chunk of business by having just Ford, Mercury and Lincoln brands. For 1956, Ford added the Continental brand with the launch of the exclusive and beautiful Continental Mk. II. And then, shepherded by Ford Vice President Ernest Breech, came number five, Edsel.

In the early 1950s, Ford spent a lot of money and time on market research and became convinced that vast numbers of young, upward professionals (yes, yuppies in the 1950s!) were looking for a car that was roomy, distinctive looking, comfortable and advanced – but without a luxury car price.

After repeatedly polling focus groups, Ford decided success would come from pleasing everybody with models positioned between Ford and Mercury, and more versions between Mercury and Lincoln. Yet, they’d all have the same look.

At least one pragmatist, Ford Division General Manager Robert McNamara, thought the whole thing was loony and suggested instead designing a deluxe Ford model. However, he wasn’t yet in a position to act.

The plan advanced with the internal code name “E car,” which stood for “experimental,” not Edsel. The name Edsel was chosen later after thousands of other suggestions were dismissed. Some of the famously rejected badges came from the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Marianne Moore: “Utopian Turtletop” and “Resilient Bullet.” Ford went with Edsel, named for Henry Ford II’s father – reportedly not with Mr. Ford’s blessing. Surprisingly, no car brand ever snapped up “Utopian Turtletop.”

But reptilian transportation aside, in the year leading up to Edsel, teaser ads promised a dramatic new car of the future without actually displaying it. Nissan would repeat this tactic when launching its Infiniti luxury brand 30 years later, with similar detrimental results.

Edsel even sponsored a one-hour TV musical called “The Edsel Show,” featuring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and other top talent of the day. Ironically, this Emmy-winning show was one of the year’s most successful.

After all the hype, there was actually a car, or, more accurately, 18 models spread over four lines. The “big” Mercury-based Edsels were called Citation and Corsair and were built on Mercury assembly lines. The Ford-based Pacer and Ranger were made on Ford lines.

There were four-door hardtops, two-door hardtops, convertibles and wagons, also with two or four doors. And they all looked the same. There was a difference under the hood: the Merc-based Edsels used a 410-cid version of the new M-E-L (Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln) V-8, while “small” Edsel models used a 361-cid version of Ford’s also-new FE (Ford-Edsel) V-8.

Ford called the Edsel an “entirely new kind of car,” but the buying public didn’t quite see it that way. (GM used the same spiel for the Saturn in the 1990s.)

Edsel did offer some new features, including steering wheel transmission shift buttons, called Teletouch, which proved unreliable but were, admittedly, prescient. The Edsel also had seatbelts, self-adjusting brakes, automatic lubrication, child-proof rear door locks and dashboard warning lights for low oil, parking brake and engine overheating.

The high-positioned gullwing-style taillights on the 1958 Edsel were a boon to visibility, a safety benefit that many cars’ taillights lacked. The 1959 restyle replaced them with lower, conventional round lights.

Unfortunately, by the time Edsel launched in September 1957, the U.S. economy was headed into a deep recession. Car sales plummeted. The day after Edsel went on sale, McNamara became group vice president in charge of all Ford Motor Company cars and trucks. He began sharpening his axe immediately.

The Edsel was a letdown to many, regardless of the hype, who were expecting a boldly styled car of tomorrow. Instead of 200,000 first-year sales projected by optimistic Edsel executives, Edsel built 68,000.

The design drew much blame. The tall central grille drew a deluge of criticism, with some comparing it to a horse collar or toilet seat. (Why has no one made those comparisons to the grille on today’s Bugatti?)

The rest of the car was actually one of the period’s more restrained designs. There were no tailfins, and chrome trim was not excessive. There were quality problems, though, the result of trying to do too much to please too many.

McNamara wielded his aforementioned axe, folding the Edsel into a new Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln Division, allotting money for a minor but deft 1959 restyle while at the same time cutting the Mercury-based models. Edsel sales dropped to under 48,000 for 1959, and McNamara kept cutting. The 1960 Edsel was little more than a gussied-up Ford, with weird tacked-on taillights and a front end that resembled the 1959 Pontiac. (The GM division would return the favor by aping some of the ‘59 Edsel’s front-end cues, a decade later.) Some 2,800 were built before McNamara had the satisfaction of euthanizing Edsel.

In hindsight, by 1959, the market was shifting toward the kind of economical models that McNamara felt Ford should be building. The upcoming 1960 Falcon and ‘62 Fairlane that he championed would be tremendously successful. A Falcon-based compact originally planned for Edsel was punted to Mercury as the 1961 Comet.

Nearly a half-century after Edsel’s introduction, Ford’s folly still has something to teach in an era of expansive car-model proliferation. Splitting niches too thinly and overpromising is fraught with risk.

When you see an Edsel at a car show or concours, though, try looking at the car without taking inventory of its considerable baggage.

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