Edsel: An Auto Biography

Failure examines the history of the Edsel.

Edsel: An Auto Biography

A 1958 Edsel Ranger Sedan. Photo by Marshall Havner.

“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.

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