Minding the gaps between its popular-priced Ford, Mercury, and Lincoln lines, Ford Motor Company set out to create an entirely new division that had to be absolutely distinctive. Months were spent choosing a name, a poet was even hired to contribute ideas, but none seemed to catch fire. Finally out of exasperation, a top executive dropped the mic on his choice: Edsel, the first name of Henry Ford’s only son. Nobody at Ford much cared for the name, but they were stuck.
And it was off to the races in 1955 with a planned introduction for the 1958 model year. Introduced on September 4, 1957 with an elaborate spread of eighteen separate models, the Edsel was ballyhooed with a lavish, award-winning TV special the following month that starred Bing Crosby as host with Rosemary Clooney, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and The Four Preps along for the ride.
Ford heavily pre-hyped the Edsel, promising, “An entirely new kind of car,” but shoppers weren’t fooled when they saw it shared much with the company’s other offerings. And then there was its styling. Designers had been instructed to create a car so distinctive, it could be identified from a block away. As American cars at the time had horizontal grilles and vertical tail lights, Edsel reversed these with its vertical “horse collar” grille and slim, horizontal tail lights. It was definitely distinctive, but simply didn’t work for most consumers. Bob Hope didn’t help when he famously described the Edsel as looking like “an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon.”
Ford spent millions on what was said to be the most market researched car ever and somehow got things wrong. It didn’t help that they built the new dreamboat on the same production lines as Ford and Mercury vehicles. Switching back and forth between makes frustrated lineworkers and led to serious build quality issues. At times workers couldn’t finish their builds and simply tossed left over parts in the trunk and shipped the cars to dealers to finish assembly. The cars were so poorly built that dealers would have to work them over before putting them on their lots, often scavenging parts from one Edsel to make another car right.
And then there were the gimmicks. Ford had promised the public something radically new, but when shoppers showed up at showrooms, they found fancy versions of Fords and Mercurys with weird styling and goofy gimmicks like Teletouch automatic transmission buttons located in the steering wheel hub and a drum speedometer, hardly the stuff of dreams. Though Edsels did offer innovative self-adjusting brakes and automatic lubrication, these features were lost in the undertow.
Though far below expectations, first year sales of over 65,000 cars was not a bad start for an all-new division. But sales drooped to around 45,000 units for the ‘59 cars, now built on the smaller Ford platforms exclusively as its offerings were simplified.
Ford executive Robert McNamara opposed the Edsel from its start and leapt to kill it when it proved a sales dud. The beleaguered Edsel went out with a whimper, building only 2,846 1960 models with all new styling obviously based on the contemporary Fords.
Ford lost $350 million on the Edsel venture; that’s $2.4 billion in 2018 dollars. Launched in a recession year to compete with well-established makes like Chrysler, Desoto, Oldsmobile, and Buick, saddled with goofy styling and poor build quality, the overly-hyped Edsel never had a chance. As someone accurately cracked, it was “the wrong car at the wrong time.”