Classic American Cars: The Edsel

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1958 Ford Edsel Ad

Marketing for the Edsel was intense, but did little for Ford’s new line.

The Edsel’s Poor Timing, Planning and Execution

The Edsel was an automobile that has become synonymous with failure. There are many reasons why the car was such a disaster. Simply put, the Edsel failed because of a combination of planning, marketing and production problems.

There were internal changes at Ford that resulted in a lack of support for the Edsel division, as well as Continental, Lincoln and Mercury. Ford was struggling after the end of WWII and Henry Ford II had brought a group of executives onboard, known as the “Whiz Kids”, to help stop their losses. Among this group was Robert McNamara, who was opposed to having separate divisions under the Ford name. He succeeded in eliminating the Continental line and sought to do the same with the Edsel line.

Another problem with the Edsel was rooted in how it was produced. As a means of cutting costs on Edsel production, the planned wheelbase was eliminated and the car was built on Ford and Mercury platforms. Edsels were made in Ford and Mercury factories, rather than having a dedicated Edsel plant. Every 61st car on the assembly line was to be an Edsel. This caused difficulty with assembly because workers who had been assembling Fords or Mercurys all day had to switch parts and tool bins to put together the Edsel. This changeover resulted in mistakes and cars sometimes going unfinished to the dealerships, (supposedly with the extra parts and directions for the dealership mechanics in the trunk). Such inconsistencies in manufacturing led to problems with the car’s reliability and word of its problems spread, tarnishing the new model’s reputation.

The Edsel’s marketing was a flop as well. The car was literally kept under wraps, arriving at dealerships under a tarp. Ads prior to its release featured a very blurry car, or one under wraps, so people had no idea what is was going to look like. The price also left people confused. The Edsel was placed slightly above the top model Ford and slightly below the base model Mercury. They didn’t get where it fit in (whether it was a step up or a step down).

The name was also problematic. The car was originally referred to as the “E” car, for “experimental”. After doing extensive and costly research on names, the Ford execs continually came back to “Edsel”, the name of Henry Ford II’s father. The results were inconclusive when people on the street were polled, and ultimately, “Edsel” was the name Ford went with. Unfortunately, people began to joke that “Edsel” was an acronym for “Every Day Something Else Leaks”.

The design of the Edsel was another issue. What was originally intended by the designer to be an elegant grill design was modified by engineers, and resulted in what people called a “horse collar design”. The transmission was controlled with buttons placed on the steering wheel, rather than with a gearshift lever. This resulted in drivers changing gears when they had intended to honk their horn. The taillight design was also an issue. When the turn signal was used, the “boomerang” shape looked like an arrow pointing downward in the opposite direction of the driver’s intended turn.

Edsel Steering Wheel

Steering wheel “Teletouch” shifting caused confusion to Edsel drivers.

The Edsel could have been a somewhat profitable car for Ford had it been given the appropriate marketing support and had the manufacturing been properly executed. It would never have been a very successful model, even given full corporate support, because of circumstances beyond Ford’s control. The car that had been planned in the prosperous early-1950s was designed and produced late in 1957, at the beginning of a recession when people were buying cheaper, smaller and more fuel-efficient cars. The Edsel was priced between $2,484 and $3,766, when a base model Ford Custom 300 sold for $1,977. The Edsel was fast, but it was also a big car and used premium gas.

Introduced in the 1958 lineup, the Edsel was made for only two more years before the line was completely dropped. The Edsel that was planned for the 1960 model year as the “Edsel Comet” had its name changed simply to the “Comet” and was distributed by Mercury dealerships. The Comet caught on with car buyers immediately, and more Comets sold in the first year of sales than the Edsel did over three years.

Were you (or would you have been) an Edsel driver back then? What about now?

Last updated: May 07, 2009
Filed under: Classic American Cars Tagged with: advertising, auto industry, cars, Ford, marketing