Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The EDSEL--Car of the Future--Really?


I grew up in the Dearborn, Michigan--the center of what is commonly known as Ford Country. Most people in the area buy Ford products--unless of course they work for Chrysler or General Motors. Brand loyalty is encouraged by the automotive companies and most workers comply--especially when the company offers employee discounts.

When Ford Motor Company came out with the Edsel in 1958, the company upgraded its Lincoln Division to compete with General Motor's luxury Cadillac. Ford needed a premium vehicle to fill the intermediate slot vacated by Lincoln to compete with Oldsmobile, Buick, and DeSoto. Ford promoted the Edsel as the product of extensive research and development. Their sophisticated market analysis indicated to the suits at Ford's that they had a winner.

The Edsel was touted as the car of the future. Ford executives were confident of brand acceptance by the car buying public. Innovative features like a rolling-dome speedometer, engine warning lights, an available Teletouch pushbutton shifting system, self-adjusting brakes, optional seat belts, and child-proof rear door locks would surely capture the imagination of modern-thinking consumers.

The day after the Edsel was introduced, The New York Times dubbed it the "reborn LaSalle"--a nameplate that disappeared in the early 1940s. So much for the car of the future concept. Once the Edsel hit the streets, the public thought it was unattractive, overpriced, and overhyped. The car's production was stopped after three years of under performing in Ford and Mercury showrooms.


Ford Motor Company lost $250 million on the project. Edsel's failure was across the board. Popular culture thought the car's styling was odd. The nameplate's trademark horsecollar grille was said to resemble "an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon." The Teletouch pushbutton transmission was problematic being centered on the steering wheel hub where most cars had their warning horn. Some drivers accidently shifted when they meant to sound their horn. Another unforeseen problem was that the pushbutton transmission was not suited for street racing, so the Edsel became known as an old man's car.

What turned off other consumers was the car's sticker price which placed it in direct competition with Mercury--Ford's sister division. Further complicating matters, the low priced Volkswagen Beetle hit the American car market in 1957. Many younger buyers were fascinated by the odd-looking vehicle with the incredible gas mileage. The Edsel was a gas guzzler.

Consumer Reports blamed the car's poor workmanship. For instance, the trunk leaked in heavy rain, and the pushbutton transmission was fraught with technical problems. Marketing experts insisted the Edsel was doomed from the start because of Ford's inability to understand the American consumer and market trends. Automotive historians believe the Edsel was the wrong car at the wrong time.

Edsel Ford
Unfairly, the name Edsel became synonymous with epic failure. Named after Henry Ford's only son, this car became a posthumous slap in the face to the man who mobilized his family's vast industrial resources to produce B-24 Liberator bombers, instrumental in helping win World War II. Edsel Ford's legacy deserved better.

As luck would have it, my father bought a brand-new Edsel in 1959. It was Christmas time and I was eleven years old. After my brothers and I had our photograph taken with Santa at Muirhead's Department Store, my dad brought us to the Ford Dealership across the street for our family Christmas present.

He went into an office and signed a few papers, then the salesman handed over the keys. As we were driving away from the dealership, I remember snowflake clusters illuminated by the car's headlights. It was magical. By the time my family got home, we were intoxicated with the new-car smell of fresh upholstery and uncured lacquer.

Later that week, my dad was celebrating with his friends and had a few too many before coming home from work. On the way, he hit an ice patch and lost control of the car, wrapping it around a telephone pole. He was relatively uninjured, but the Edsel was totaled. I remember we had that Edsel for such a short time I can't remember what color it was. 

Edsel concept car.
Misfortune aside, I've always had a love for the Edsel and often wished Ford would find a market for the nameplate and start production again. That may never happen, but a boy can dream.

Here is a Psychology Today article on how the Edsel got its name: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/psychology-yesterday/201311/how-the-edsel-got-its-name