The Edsel was an automobile marque that was planned, developed, and manufactured by the Ford Motor Company for model years 1958-1960. With the Edsel, Ford had expected to make significant inroads into the market share of both General Motors and Chrysler and close the gap between itself and GM in the domestic American automotive market.
Ford invested heavily in a yearlong teaser campaign leading consumers to believe that the Edsel was the car of the future – an expectation it failed to deliver on. After it was unveiled to the public, it was considered to be unattractive, overpriced, and overhyped. The Edsel never gained popularity with contemporary American car buyers and sold poorly. The Ford Motor Company lost $250 million on Edsel's development, manufacturing, and marketing. The very word "Edsel" became a popular symbol of a commercial failure
EDSEL BRYANT FORD
(November 6, 1893 – May 26, 1943)
Edsel Ford was the son of Clara Jane Bryant Ford and the only recognized child of Henry Ford. He was the president of Ford Motor Company from 1919 to his death in 1943. His eldest son was Henry Ford II.
Edsel worked closely with his father, as the sole heir to the business, but was keen to develop cars more exciting than the Model T ("Tin Lizzie"), in line with his personal tastes. Even as president, he had trouble persuading the older man to allow any departure from this formula. Only a change in market conditions enabled him to develop the more fashionable Model A in 1927. Edsel founded the Mercury division and was responsible for the Lincoln Zephyr and Lincoln Continental. He introduced important features, such as hydraulic brakes, and greatly strengthened the company’s overseas production.
Edsel was a major art benefactor in Detroit and financed Admiral Richard Byrd’s polar explorations. He died of stomach cancer aged 49, with his father resuming presidency of the company, before handing it over to Henry Ford II. The range of cars launched by Ford in 1957 under the name Edsel is remembered as one of the classic marketing failures.
In the post-war years, the powers that be at the Ford Motor Company began discussing of adding another line of automobiles to meet a perceived gap in their product line. General Motors and Chrysler were able to offer people numerous car lines from the lowest price to the highest to coincide with the buyer's financial standing. The Korean War put this project on hold, but Ford resurrected the plan soon after the hostilities ended.
In the mid-fifties, the strengthening economy re-awakened a spirit in people that hadn’t been evident since the advent of the Great Depression, and nowhere did this manifest itself in a more concentrated form than in the automobile industry. Bigger and better were watchwords of the day. It was in the giddy time that Edsel was conceived.
The Edsel division of Ford began selling cars on Sept. 4, 1957. E day as it was known, was preceded by one of the largest advertising campaigns in history.
Of course, there were individual success stories at the dealer level, but overall the opening year was considered a complete failure. It seems something happened between those glory years of 54 and 55 and the reality of the late fifties. The market that foreshadowed a never-ending incline in the size and prices of cars was taken by surprise by the recession of 57 and the trend towards smaller and more efficient cars.
E Car-1958-2By the time the curtain came down on the 58 Edsel, sales hadn’t reached one-third of the projections. The ability of the competition to keep buyers in “The family” as their affluence grew was the driving force behind this train of thought at Ford.
Planning was begun to offer a mid-priced Stepping Stone series of cars to help climb the ladder starting with Ford and culminating with Lincoln. The new as yet to be named model designated the E car for experimental was to be offered for sale in the Fall of 1957 as a 58 model.
The tele-touch drive feature allowed the driver to shift the transmission electrically with the push of a button located in the center of the steering wheel. After much internal turmoil, a name was finally chosen for this new line. To honor the son of Henry Ford II, the new series division would be called Edsel.
Teaser ads had been placed in every newspaper and major magazine in the country. Everyone went to see the four series (Ranger and Pacer based on a Ford chassis along with Corsair and Citation which shared its frame with the Mercury) and three wagons (Roundup, Villager, and Bermuda) on opening day to satisfy their built-up curiosity. Problems became evident when showroom traffic did not translate into sales. As time went on, the problem only got worse.
Pre-production planning for the 1959 Edsel was completed before the 58 model’s release to the buying public on September 4, 1957. The original plan was to continue to offer Edsel models on both the Ford and larger Mercury chassis following the long, low, and wide styling direction established in the late Fifties. The economic recession of late 57 had yet to have any substantial effect on long or short-range product planning at the Ford Motor Company.
It was too late to affect any substantial styling changes so the only avenue available was cost-cutting to weather the storm while the entire Edsel project was rethought.
In the winter of 1958, the Edsel Division was dissolved and the product line was merged with Lincoln and Mercury.
The newly reorganized “M.E.L.” Division had the result of pushing the Edsel further from the front burner at Ford.
The 59 Edsel was offered for sale in the fall of 1958. Sales were as disappointing as the previous years despite a change in marketing strategy from one targeting the upward-moving middle class to one offering an inexpensive alternative to the competition’s mid-priced models. Besides the “Corsair” and “Ranger” that were provided as two or four-door, sedans or hardtops, Edsel also offered convertible and station wagons. Engine and transmission choices and combinations were also expanded along with all the available power and convenience options. These changes and a concrete improvement in quality did nothing to improve the previously sullied name of Edsel.
The 58 Edsel debuted in full showrooms but had disappointing sales. This had an immediate chilling effect on the already laid plans for 59.
One of the first places that the cost-cutting axe fell was on the Mercury-based “Corsair”. The entire more extensive series was scrapped. The “Corsair” nameplate was slid over to the small series supplanting the “Pacer”. Besides some changes in the exterior stainless trim and different upholstery treatments, the upscale “Corsair” was essentially the same car as the “Ranger” model. The number of assembly plants designated to produce next year’s cars was also substantially reduced. Although these and other changes resulted in tangible cost savings they would prove to be insufficient to stem the money hemorrhage that the Edsel Division had become.
Although there were a few bright spots, year-end sales figures proved to be even more disappointing than the perceived “failure” of the 58.
It was clear for all to see that something had to be done if this bold experiment by Ford was to succeed. Few people outside of the inner circle knew that the decisions concerning the future of Edsel had already been made.
The die was already cast for the disposition of the Edsel at the Ford Motor Company before the pen was ever put to paper in the planning of the 1960 model. Were it not for contractual obligations to suppliers and dealers alike the “Sixty” would not have happened at all. The anemic sales of the 58 models only added ammunition to the “kill the Edsel” forces in Dearborn.
Once the final decision was made to terminate, the most important thought in everyone’s mind was how to produce an automobile at the very least cost. Having dissolved Edsel as a separate division in early 1958 and folded it into the new “M.E.L.” division; the new product planning team was essentially given plans for a 1960 Ford and were told to modify it enough to make it distinct but not to spend too much money doing it.
Rumors of Edsel’s demise continued to circulate across the country despite official statements of denial from the highest levels at Ford.
Sales of the 60 started out at a crawl and went downhill from there. In early November, the announcement that everyone knew was coming was made; the Ford Motor Company will discontinue production of the Edsel. This spurred a brief increase in sales orders by some brave speculators but the general public knew better than to collar a dead horse.
As early as 1957 certain executives at Ford, led by Robert Strange Macnamara, were calling for the cancellation of the entire Edsel project.
Once one becomes an Edsel driver and a member of the International Edsel Club, “Why” doesn’t seem to matter. You’re just glad that they did, and the question changes to where, as in where is the next Edsel meet so we can get together with more friends and share parts and stories. So join us today and let’s go for a ride.
Was it the recession, the design, or the quality that defeated Edsel, who knows? The answer probably lies somewhere in a combination of all of those factors and more.
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