The History of the Edsel

My dear departed mother earnestly sought to implant one idea in my consciousness. She wanted me to think big, and it would follow that if I succeeded, I would succeed big. If I failed I would fail big, but be free from the possibility of being among the timid souls that never tried or accomplished anything.  The Ford Motor Company set the standard for failing big. It was called the Edsel.

Let’s start with the name. Car buyers were never animated by it. Car names are supposed to incite passion, excitement, at least some interest. The name should conjure up images of a warm summer day, top-down, elbow resting on the door, driving down a beautiful, scenic road with a gigantic smile on one’s face. Edsel, say it slowly. E..d..s..e..l, it just doesn’t conjure up any such image.

I suppose the name Edsel was loved by the mother of Edsel B. Ford, son of Henry Ford himself, and second president of the Ford Motor company from 1919 to 1943. And obviously, his descendants and employees at Ford Motor Company held the man in very high regard, perhaps even loved his name. But naming a line of cars after him was, how should I say it? Not an enlightened choice. What would amount to $4 billion in today’s economy of unenlightenment.

Here are the cold, hard facts. Edsel was supposed to be a brand, not just a line of Ford automobiles. Ford established a division to create what it advertised as the car of the future, “an entirely new kind of car,” they said. And my, how they did say it. For a full year in a full out advertising assault, they told America this incredible machine was coming on September 4, 1957. E-day, they brazenly named it. Advertising teased but never revealed the car. It was only shown wrapped in a cover or in unfocused shots on television and in magazine ads. It was shipped wrapped to the nearly 1,200 newly created Edsel dealers. They were stored wrapped on the dealer’s lots before E-day.

The advertising ploy did build a pretty healthy sense of anticipation in the car buying public. Who wouldn’t want to drive the car of the future?

The problems started when the cars were unwrapped.

The general reaction was, “What was all the fuss about?” The Edsel did have some notable innovations, but it turns out self-adjusting brakes just aren’t considered all that sexy by the car buying public. The car’s appearance did little to help. The horse collar grill looked kinda weird to most folks and having the transmission shifter buttons in the center of the steering wheel just confused patrons trying to honk their horn.

The Ford Motor Company played the Edsel hand poorly. One of those too many cooks spoiling the broth situations. The designer provided quite a different idea than the ultimate horse collar, toilet seat, or an “Oldsmobile sucking on a lemon” grill as it was described. Engineers were concerned about engine cooling issues and changes were made. Those kind of changes were made over and over to satisfy production or marketing or parts until the car was just plain bastardized.

The name Edsel is another example of Ford’s bureaucratic nightmare. The Ford family, it’s said, strongly opposed the idea of naming the car after the former company president. Ford conducted studies hired advertising firms that were given the task of finding a name, they came up with 6,000 but not a single definitive one. Poet Marianne Moore was informally consulted and offered names like “Resilient Bullet” and “Mongoose Civique.” It’s doubtful those names would have saved the Edsel, but they probably wouldn’t have made things any worse. Ford executive Earnest Breech was chairing a board meeting without any Ford family members present and pushed through the adoption of Edsel as the chosen name. Such subterfuge does not invite success.

The car’s formidable V-8 delivered awesome power to the wheels, but was a gas guzzler and required premium gas. Just as VW Beetles were starting to fill garages all across America, the Edsel was branded the wrong car at the wrong time. Although no indication was ever given what would have been the right time for the poor Edsel.

If one feels to defend Ford, there was a recession developing just as the rollout was to occur, and the car buying market shifted under their feet. Only 118,287 Edsels ever rolled off the production lines, and by 1960 it was over. In perspective, that same year, Ford got something right. They introduced the Ford Falcon and sold 400,000 units in its first year.

We need benchmarks to establish our perspective of things. Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in a year, a million dollars to establish our wealth, and Ford gave us a benchmark for business product failure with the Edsel.



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