We recently celebrated Epic Fail
Week Week and a Couple Days Fortnight here at Car Lust, our tribute to vehicles (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) that, for whatever reason, failed miserably on the roads and in the marketplace. In all that celebration of failure, we failed (get it?) to mention the big one, the one everybody's heard of, the one the Washington Post called "the most colossal, stupendous and legendary blunder in the history of American marketing," the Alpha Dog, Queen Mother, and Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of Epic Automotive Fail.
You know exactly what car I'm talking about.
The tale of the Edsel is fascinating because it's an instance of a large organization full of talented, competent, well-intentioned people setting a goal that seemed perfectly reasonable, marching confidently toward that goal--and going straight off a cliff. There was no one big colossal mistake--well, actually, there was one big mistake, in my opinion, but we'll get to that--so much as there was a long series of minor to moderate miscalculations that all added up to an idea that not only didn't fly, but crashed and burned on takeoff and left a great smoking hole in Ford's corporate treasury.
In order to understand the thinking behind the Edsel, we must first go back in time to 1950 or so and take a look at the automobile market. The Big Three, and the automotive press of the day, thought of the market as three distinct segments commonly called the "low-price field," the "medium-price field," and the "luxury field." Chevrolet, Ford, and Plymouth were colloquially referred to as the "low-priced three;" the ritzier Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, Mercury, DeSoto, and Dodge competed in the medium-price market; prestigious Cadillac, Lincoln, Chrysler, and Imperial covered the high end. Each brand stayed strictly within its price range--there were no entry-level Buicks, small(er) Chryslers, baby Caddies, or tricked-out high-end luxobarge Fords such as we would get 20 and 30 years later.
It was also devoutly believed by the men in the gray flannel suits that consumers moved up-market with each automobile purchase as their careers progressed. GM, in particular, set up its brand structure with this theory in mind. Your first new car would be a Chevy, then you'd trade up to a Pontiac, then an Olds, then a Buick, and when you got to the top of the company ladder, it was time for the Caddy, baby!
Undoubtedly, there were some people who did this--America's a big and diverse country, after all--but it seems unlikely that a majority, or even a sizable plurality, of customers went from brand to brand in linear progression, synchronizing their purchases with their career progression. (The adults I grew up around tended to be loyal to one brand--Uncle Joe had a Dodge, and then another Dodge, and another, and so on.) Still, that's what everyone in the auto company executive suites thought their customers were doing, and there was market research data that seemed to support the theory.
Ford management considered Ford to be at a disadvantage compared to GM and Chrysler because it had only the Mercury as a medium-price nameplate. The concern was that there was too much of a "gap" between a Ford and a Mercury, both in price and in what might be called "psychological distance." The customer looking to move up from a Ford to something fancier might think the Mercury was too pricey or too much of a step, look for something a little less ritzy, and--horror! horror!--end up in a Dodge or a Pontiac or even a Nash.
Ford's management decided that the answer to this problem was to create another mid-priced make that would fill the gap between Ford and Mercury. This project was code-named the "E-Car," with the "E" standing for "experimental." Rather than build the E-Car in existing factories, and market it through Ford's existing dealer network, it was decided to create a separate division, with its own dealers, management, engineering and design staff, infrastructure, and even its own separate factories. Just why Ford felt the need to create a duplicate organization is not clear. (Unlike what GM was attempting with Saturn thirty-some years later, Ford did not intend for the separate organization to have a radically different organizational culture.) In any event, the new division didn't end up quite as separate as originally planned--it had a separate sales and marketing operation, but never its own factories, and the cars were built on platforms shared with Fords and Mercurys.
Then, there was the matter of branding. Ford paid ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding to come up with a list of potential make and model names. Foote, Cone submitted a list of 6,000 names, which was not quite the level of specificity Ford was looking for. The marketing people eventually managed to winnow it down to ten possibilities. However, no one was really enamored of any one of them.
While the name-winnowing was in process, a couple of Ford executives consulted modernist poet Marianne Moore, the queen of nonrhyming "syllabic verse," to solicit "inspirational names" for the E-Car. The purpose of the consultation was to stimulate creativity, and not because anyone at Ford was necessarily going to use what she came up with. That's a good thing, too--Ms. Moore's sense of branding was, er, ah, um ... let's be polite and call it really unique, OK? Her list of suggestions included "Pastelogram," “Anticipator,” "Mongoose Civique," "Intelligent Whale," and "Utopian Turtletop." "Mongoose Civique" would be a cool name for a French sports car, but as for the others, a "Pastelogram" sounds like something the Easter Bunny would send through Western Union, and I don't think there is a human being alive today who would voluntarily drive an "Intelligent Whale" or a "Utopian Turtletop." While Ford did end up using an oddball name, it wasn't Ms. Moore's fault--her participation in the E-Car project was merely an amusing footnote.
Finally, Ford's chairman of the board suggested calling the new make the "Edsel," after the late Edsel Ford, Henry Ford's only son. Edsel Ford was the founder of the Ford Foundation, and by all accounts an exemplary individual. He certainly deserved to have something big and bold named after him.
What the E-Car project ultimately did to his good name shouldn't happen to a dog.
Edsel Ford's undeniable qualities as a man aside, the name "Edsel" is a little, well, odd. On the other hand, the world is full of cars with dorky model names. The non-standard brand name wasn't necessarily a fatal handicap, and could even someday be an advantage--as long as the product design was good. Unfortunately, the product design wasn't all that good.
Since the Edsel was supposed to be a step up in prestige from the Ford line, it needed to be a full-size car. By today's standards, Edsels were not just "full-size," they were vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly enormous. The small Edsel sedans ("Ranger" and "Pacer") were built on the 118-inch-wheelbase Ford sedan platform and came with a 361-cubic inch, 303-horsepower "E-400" V-8--so named because it produced 400 foot-pounds of torque. The station wagons (2-door "Roundup," 4-door "Villager" and "Bermuda") were built on a Ford 116-inch wagon platform, and also used the E-400 engine. The big Edsel sedans ("Corsair" and "Citation") were based on a 124-inch Mercury platform, powered by a colossal 410-cubic inch, 345-horsepower "E-475" engine. As the name suggests, this engine produced a staggering 475 foot-pounds of stump-pulling, driveshaft-warping torque. The mammoth V-8s were considered a necessity in such big heavy cars, and their fuel consumption was as prodigious as their peak torque ratings.
In keeping with the up-market theme, the top line Corsair and Citation would come with an automatic transmission as standard equipment, and it would be an option on the rest of the lineup. In practice, nearly all '58 Edsels had automatics. The tranny was a stock three-speed Ford-O-Matic, no better or worse than any other automatic of that time.
To make the Edsel different, it was decided to feature a pushbutton interface in place of the usual column shifter. Rather than put the pushbuttons in a logical location on the dashboard, like Chrysler did, Edsel's brain trust stuck them in the center of the steering column--creating the infamous Teletouch Drive found on something over 90 percent of 1958-model Edsels. As a matter of ergonomics, the Teletouch Drive was just a little bit dodgy, as it put the shifter where most cars traditionally put the horn button. (Edsel owner tries to honk horn, puts Edsel in reverse, hilarity ensues.) It also later proved to be unacceptably fragile.
Edsels shared the same rooflines, doors, and rear quarter sheetmetal as their Ford and Mercury cousins. The Edsels were given unique trim--lots of it--to disguise this. They did not have tail fins, but they had every other overstated styling cue and chrome-plated gewgaw known to mankind. All 1958 Edsels had a comet-shaped area on the rear half of the side, officially called the "scallop," outlined in chrome. The scallop, and the roof, could be painted a different color than the body, and Edsels were available in two- and three-tone combinations that ranged from generic to garish (e.g., pink and black, yellow and pinkish-brown "coral") to positively ghastly (e.g., pink with a dark brown scallop and white roof). The top-of-the-line Bermuda wagon got two-tone fake wood side trim on top of all the other nonsense. Paint a Bermuda in certain of the available two-tone paint schemes, and between the paint and the fake wood you have something that literally hurts your eyes to look at.
All of this was bad enough. When you walked around to the front of the car, it got worse. The front-end styling was intended to be instantly recognizable. You were supposed to be able to tell an Edsel from any other car from a block away.
They sure accomplished that objective, all righty.
The front of the car was dominated by a large, somewhat oval vertical grille, backed up by a massive ridge running down the center of the hood like a flood control levee. The big chrome oval thingy around the grille was officially called the "impact ring,"--but it was better known as the "horse collar," or "toilet seat." One popular description of the front end styling was that it looked like "an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon."
In short, it was hideous.
If the Edsel had a single fatal flaw, the impact ring was it. The Edsel's styling was overdone, but so was the styling of most of the Edsel's contemporaries. (It was, on the whole, no worse an offense against good taste than the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser, and paled in comparison to the 1958 Buick Limited Riviera.) But that schnozz ... that horse-collar ... that toilet seat ... whatever that thing was, not only was it unattractive in its own right, it was strongly vertical while every other styling cue on the car--the fender lines, the scallop, the chrome "sweep-spear," even the rest of the front end--was firmly horizontal. The grille was in visual conflict with the rest of the car, fighting a war that could have no cease-fire and no victor.
One wonders if anyone at Ford ever looked at any of the drawings and mock-ups and clay models and said, "Y'know, maybe we need to rethink this whole E-Car project, because, daggone it, the front end of that thing's ugly!" If so, no record of this dissent survives.
The car was scheduled to be unveiled to the public on "E-Day," Sept. 4, 1957. The economy started to go soft in 1957, entering what is now known as the "Recession of 1958." This was probably not the most auspicious time to be launching a new upscale make of personal luxury car--but there were dealers who had executed franchise agreements and needed cars to sell, subcontractors were producing components, raw materials were on order, parts were stacking up in warehouses, and factory production schedules had been set. It was probably too late to turn back even if anyone had wanted to.
The Edsel product launch was preceded and accompanied by a concentrated barrage of advertising and promotion and corporate cheerleading that rivaled World War I artillery in its relentless intensity. The public was titillated with "teaser" ads like the one at right: "The EDSEL is on the way." There were 16mm promotional training films and even a live stage musical put out for Edsel dealers and salesmen, to build their enthusiasm to the desired fever pitch.
In the last weeks before E-Day, build quality suddenly became a critical issue that threatened the whole project. Since the planned new Edsel factories did not yet exist, the Edsels were being built at Ford and Mercury plants. Edsels were different from Fords and Mercurys, they took different parts and had different assembly sequences--which made them inconvenient and annoying to deal with--and they didn't really "belong" there. As a consequence, Edsels didn't get the attention they deserved, and they were coming off the line with parts missing and body panels out of alignment. The Edsel sales and support staff, and many dealers, had to scramble to make those first cars presentable, and quite a few Edsel dealerships had "hangar queens" squirreled away in the back room on E-day, waiting for parts to come in.
Despite these problems, E-Day went off on schedule. The covers came off, the curtains parted, and the cars were revealed in all their chrome-bedecked, three-toned, impact-ringed glory. The hype barrage reached its full crescendo: saturation buys of print and radio and TV ads, giveaways of toy Edsels, the distribution of View-Master reels, tie-ins and contests and cross-promotions galore. Every Edsel dealer in the country conducted a raffle in which first prize was a pony--to pull off that particular promotion, Ford had to acquire a whole herd of ponies, over a thousand animals.
Curious crowds poured in to Edsel dealerships across the country. 4,000 cars were sold the first day. Lucky raffle winners rode off on their ponies. Local papers ran articles. It all looked so good.
A week or two later, Ford began to realize that the Edsel was in deep trouble.
People were coming in droves to look, but they weren't buying in droves. Part of that was the overall economy--total new car sales in the United States declined 31% from the 1957 to 1958 model years--but most of the Edsel's problems were specific to the Edsel.
The first dealer allotments of Edsels were weighted in favor of the larger, more luxurious, more expensive Citation and Corsair, and even the Rangers and Pacers had the Teletouch Drive and all the other extra-cost options. What people saw on E-Day were the most expensive Edsels possible. Down the street at the competing dealerships, there were left-over '57s priced to move, as well as new '58s that still managed to beat the tricked-out Edsels on price.
Worse yet, even a queen-of-the-option-sheet Edsel didn't live up to the hype. The Edsel publicity blitz promised some sort of radically different car of the future with every imaginable innovation short of atomic-powered cigar lighters. What Edsel actually delivered was dead-conventional late-1950s Detroit iron: torquey V-8 engine, rear-wheel drive, independent front suspension, live axle leaf spring rear end, body-on-frame construction, soft ride, bench seats, power steering, power brakes, MPGs in the low teens and acres of chrome. The only truly unique features of the Edsel were the Teletouch Drive and the Oldsmobile-sucking-a-lemon grille treatment--neither of which inspired the kind of fevered consumer passion Ford was banking on.
But there was yet a deeper problem: for the previous two or three years, Detroit's stylists and product designers had been racing to out-chrome and out-tailfin their competitors with bigger and bigger vehicles. The Edsel was just one part of this trend. What the Big Three seemed not to realize was that public tastes were going in a different direction. Buyers in 1958 didn't want big thirsty cars with lots of shiny brightwork, they wanted economical cars with understated styling. The Edsel--like many of its competitors--was the wrong product for the time. The only domestic manufacturer whose sales increased in 1958 was AMC, whose economical, understated, compact Rambler marque gave the people what they really wanted. AMC would go on to double its sales in 1959, and Studebaker would ride the same trend back from the gates of death with its economical, understated, compact Lark--while the Big Three took a couple more years to catch on and catch up.
With Edsel sales volume still not where it needed to be at the end of September, Ford decided that more hype was the answer. The ad blitz continued, albeit with a new emphasis on the lower-priced Edsel models. Then, Ford rolled out the ultimate weapon in its Edsel advertising campaign: The Edsel Show, a musical variety hour shot through with dozens of shiny new Edsels in an unprecedented barrage of product placement. Today, we'd call it an infomercial.
The Edsel Show aired live on CBS on the evening of October 13, 1957, and was the first program in history to be videotaped for delayed broadcast in the Pacific time zone. It packed enough celebrity firepower for six of today's Super Bowl halftimes. Bing Crosby hosted the program; it starred Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Louis Armstrong, Lindsay Crosby & The Four Preps, and special guest Bob Hope. It was a paragon of mid-century pop culture that attracted an audience of 53 million Americans.
The next morning, and in the weeks that followed, almost none of those 53 million people bought an Edsel. The most-watched, most-expensive TV commercial in history had essentially zero persuasive effect.
It was about this time that a lot of the build quality issues that had been hastily covered up in the month before E-Day began asserting themselves. Cars developed squeaks and rattles and minor (and major) malfunctions. The fragile Teletouch Drive began misbehaving with alarming frequency. Edsel dealers' service departments suddenly became very busy. Word got around that the cars were lemons. Wags began claiming that the name "Edsel" was an acronym for "Every Day Something Else Leaks." Bob Hope added Edsel jokes to his stage routine. Just a few weeks after hitting the market, the Edsel had gone from being The Next Big Thing to a national punch line.
A total of 63,110 Edsels were sold in the 1958 model year, which doesn't sound all that bad until you realize that Ford expected to sell 200,000--and needed to hit that number for the E-Car project to break even.
In an attempt to salvage the Edsel, Ford rationalized the product mix for the 1959 model year, eliminating the 124-inch wheelbase super-dreadnoughts, the two-door Roundup wagon, and the heavily-forested Bermuda. On the engineering front, Ford got rid of the giant gas-hog V-8s and the goofy Teletouch Drive, and added a six cylinder engine option for better fuel economy. The surviving Edsel models were greatly restyled. They still had a vertical grille element, but it was toned down and no longer looked like a toilet seat, and the designers had also dialed way back on the chrome count.
The '59 Edsels were much better cars, but the Edsel's reputation as a four-wheeled turkey was already too firmly established for the improvements to mean much. Sales fell by a third from 1958's depressing numbers. In November 1959, Ford discontinued the Edsel nameplate completely, after a desultory production run of just 2,500 or so surprisingly attractive 1960 models.
Ford took a major financial hit from the Edsel failure. Various sources give the loss at between $250 and $350 million, which equates to something well north of two billion in today's dollars--and that figure doesn't include the additional losses suffered by individual Edsel franchisees. The very name "Edsel" became synonymous with failure on a grand scale. If you're making a film or TV show set around 50 years ago, there's an amazingly efficient way to communicate to the audience that a particular character is a clueless dork: have 'em drive up in an Edsel.
In a column written to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of E-Day, op-ed writer George Will said:
"No industry boomed more in the 1950s than the manufacturing of social criticism excoriating Americans for their bovine "conformity," crass "materialism" and mindless manipulability at the hands of advertising's "hidden persuaders." ... In 1958, ... John Kenneth Galbraith, with bad timing comparable to the launch of the Edsel, published "The Affluent Society." It asserted that manufacturers, wielding all-powerful advertising, were emancipated by the law of supply and demand because advertisers could manufacture demand for whatever manufacturers wished to supply. ... But all of Ford's then-mighty marketing prowess could not keep the Edsel from being canceled in 1959. ... Americans are more discerning and less herdable than their cultured despisers suppose, so what matters most is simple. Good products."
This, to me, is the enduring lesson of the Edsel. Advertising can get your products attention, but if there's any disagreement between the ad men and the customers over what the customers want or need, the customers are going to win the argument every time, just as they did in the fall of 1957. The teaser ads and the ponies and Bob Hope got customers into the showroom, but when they got there, they took one look at the impact ring and the goofy transmission and the sticker price and concluded that the Edsel just wasn't the car for them.
As we enter what may prove to be a brave new world of bailouts and quasi-nationalization, those who would commend the future of the automobile industry to the alleged wisdom of "car czars," Congressional committees, or Presidential task forces should remember the Edsel. If the new Utopian Turtletop you experts think we should all be driving isn't really what we the people want or need, if it fails as a product, all the advertising and speechmaking in the world won't save it.
The vintage print ads come from the invaluable John's Old Car and Truck Pictures. All the other illustrations come from Edsel.net, a wonderful website that masquerades as the web page of Edsel dealer "Smith Motor Company," circa 1958--or, rather, mimics what an Edsel dealer's website would have looked like in 1958 if they'd had websites back then. Be sure to check out the "employees only" intranet section (don't worry, the password dialog box is just for show), especially the amusing "confidential" memo entitled "Why We Are Having Trouble Selling The Edsel."
I would also like to acknowledge Edsel.com and The Edsel Pages, another very helpful website, and the fine work done by the many other Edsel fans and restorers in preserving these fascinating cars and their history and sharing their knowledge on the Web. Car Lust salutes you.
--Cooke the Dog's Owner