“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 it’s no surprise that when Saturn Corporation launched “a different kind of car company” in 1990, it used failure—specifically the lessons of the Edsel—as 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 Edsel’s 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 instructive.
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 car’s 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 it’s 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 thrilled—until they realized that people weren’t 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 Edsel launch and author of The Edsel Affair. “That was the pencil pushers’ 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 wasn’t anything that lived up to the hype.” In retrospect, Warnock realizes that Edsel executives didn’t 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.
With early sales unexpectedly sluggish, Edsel executives began to worry. Even generally positive reviews from the media weren’t 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 middle—what we now call a horse collar—it 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 Edsel’s 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 ‘an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon’ and another called it ‘a Pontiac pushing a toilet seat’,” recalls Ellsworth. Even some of the positive reviews took a wait-and-see attitude, openly wondering about the public’s reaction to a huge, gas-guzzling vehicle with such distinctive styling.
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 Cadillac—a 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 you’d 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 public’s 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 wouldn’t be able to build them fast enough.”
It’s 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 cars—the Ford Thunderbird and a compact called the Rambler American—saw an increase over their 1957 production.”
Two more subtle economic issues also weakened the Edsel’s 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 else’s 1957 models. With dealers discounting their 1957’s (trying to clear them off the lots in anticipation of next year’s models), the Edsel looked expensive by comparison.
Compounding this problem was the fact that Edsel pushed its biggest, most luxurious and expensive model first—a 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 ‘You can buy this for just a few dollars more than a Ford, Plymouth or Chevrolet. You’re buying next year’s model today.’ And then brought in, ‘If you’re looking for the tops in luxury, here’s our Citation and Corsair.’” Towards the end of the 1958 model year the company began promoting how inexpensive it was to own a bottom-line ’58 Edsel, but the damage was already done.
Without an established customer base it’s no surprise Edsel sold only 64,000 units in its first year. And by that time, the company’s 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 its own everything,” says Ellsworth. “One of my pet peeves is that people are fond of calling it the ‘Ford Edsel.’ But the word ‘Ford’ doesn’t appear anywhere on the car. They even recruited brand-new dealerships instead of franchising with Ford/Mercury,” he notes.
Ironically, the only thing Ford didn’t 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 division’s vehicles.
“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 don’t 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 weren’t exactly complete showed up at dealerships. They would have a list on the steering wheel saying which parts were missing.”
Mike and the Mechanics
The Edsel’s quality control issues were compounded by mechanics’ unfamiliarity with the car’s 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 didn’t 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—which was easy to do—it would just fly right off.”
Edsel? What About Utopian Turtletop?
Forty-five years later many people assume that the car’s 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 ‘lemon.’” 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 ‘Utopian Turtletop,’” 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 Ford’s only child, Edsel Bryant—a bizarre choice considering that the name didn’t 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 ‘An Edsel Owner’?
Over the course of three model years (’58, ’59 and ’60) approximately 118,000 Edsels were manufactured in the U.S. and Canada. Today, there are a couple thousand Edsels 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 man’s collectors car because “there are a lot more Edsels out there than people who love them,” he offers.
What would possess someone to buy an Edsel? “I’m 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, ‘Oh, my God, it’s an Edsel.’”
These days, you’re not likely to see one on the road unless there’s an Edsel covention in your area. At these get-togethers, owners ogle each other’s cars, inquire about parts, and even engage in valve cover racing. “I’ve 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 1/25-scale Edsels 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 don’t think any of us are normal, but for the most part it’s 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 weren’t overwhelming. “They lost $250 million in 1958 dollars, which would be comparable to $2.25 billion today. That’s a lot of money, but the stock didn’t 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 Edsel’s budget were applied to future Ford models. For instance, the Edsel was the first car to have self-adjusting brakes; by 1962 all Ford’s were equipped with self-adjusting brakes.
It’s also clear that the automobile industry benefited from Ford’s experience with the Edsel. For its part, Ford took its assembly plants away from the individual divisions and created a new division known as ‘manufacturing.’ The guy on the assembly line no longer worked for the Ford division, he worked for ‘manufacturing.’ "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, ‘The Edsel Affair is what made Saturn a success.’ 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. “I’ll 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, ‘Yeah, there’s the next Edsel.’ I guess I was wrong,” he says.
You Drive Me Crazy
At this point it’s 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 there’s 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, it’s still pretty embarrassing to be broken down on the side of the road with one.”