Born to Lose: The Story of the Edsel

Ford’s ill-fated Edsel Division was born in 1957 as part of an ambitious plan to match General Motors division for division. Edsel died only two years later, but it remained the butt of jokes for decades and its name became virtually synonymous with failure. This week, we look at the history of Edsel and the reasons it flopped.

1959 Edsel Ranger grille

MERCURY RISING

Today, with car companies selling or shuttering divisions as fast as state franchise laws will permit, it’s become fashionable to criticize the auto industry — particularly General Motors — for its surfeit of brands. For decades, however, GM’s divisional structure was the envy of Detroit. Almost every automaker aspired to a GM-like brand hierarchy, from Chrysler to upstart independents like Kaiser-Frazer.

Until the late thirties, a major exception was the Ford Motor Company. Although Ford had acquired bankrupt Lincoln back in 1922, Henry Ford had never cared for expensive cars and he steadfastly refused to create a mid-priced line. In the early years of the Great Depression, that wasn’t much of a loss, but as the economy began to show signs of life, the vast price gap between Ford and Lincoln cost the company many buyers.

In the summer of 1937, Edsel Ford and sales boss John R. Davis finally persuaded Henry to authorize the development of a new mid-priced car. It emerged the following fall as the 1939 Mercury. Although the Mercury shared many components with the standard Ford, including a bored-out version of the familiar flathead V8, it was bigger, heavier, and more expensive, putting it in the same territory as mid-priced makes like Oldsmobile, Hudson, and DeSoto.

The Mercury sold reasonably well, but it was not a great threat to GM’s mid-priced divisions. Its main failing was that most buyers perceived it as a Ford, not a separate brand. Indeed, even Edsel Ford had wanted to call it the Ford-Mercury and all of the early promotional material carried that name. Most Mercurys were even sold through Ford dealers; there were a few dealers who only sold Lincolns and Mercurys, but they were rare before the war. The consequence was that each of Mercury’s direct rivals outsold it by more than two to one.

1948 Mercury station wagon badge
The Mercury badge of a 1948 Mercury station wagon.

HENRY FORD II AND THE WHIZ KIDS

By the fall of 1945, Edsel Ford was dead and Henry Ford had reluctantly ceded control of the company to Edsel’s eldest son, Henry Ford II. Henry II, then only 27, realized immediately that the company’s problems were beyond his ability and sought outside help.

Shortly after Henry’s ascendancy, he hired a group of young officers recently released from the United States Army Air Force, including Charles “Tex” Thornton, Ben Mills, Francis (Jack) Reith, and Robert McNamara. All had worked together in the Army Air Forces’ Office of Statistical Controls, applying the latest techniques in business analysis to the war effort. When the war ended, Tex Thornton sent an impudent telegram to Henry Ford II, offering the group’s expertise to Ford.

The Whiz Kids, as Thornton’s group became known, were smart, ambitious, and ruthless. While they each aspired to top positions within Ford (which many of them later achieved), few of them had much interest in cars or the auto business for their own sake. Cars — and to some extent Ford itself — were simply a means to an end.

Clever as the Whiz Kids were, they were not much older than Henry Ford II, so Henry decided he needed more experienced managerial help. In the summer of 1946, he hired Ernest R. Breech, former president of GM’s Bendix subsidiary, as his executive vice president. Breech, in turn, recruited a host of other GM veterans, including Harold Youngren, Earle MacPherson, and Lewis Crusoe, who became Ford’s VP of operations and later the general manager of the new Ford Division. Unlike the Whiz Kids, who were after power, Breech’s group sought to make over Ford in GM’s image. Their ultimate goal was to do everything GM had done, only better — from management style to divisional structure.

Inevitably, there was great tension between the Whiz Kids and Breech’s group. Despite their youth, the Whiz Kids had just spent three years telling generals what to do and had an unshakable confidence in their own talents. They sometimes made a great show of deference to Breech and other older executives, but privately, they often regarded them as obstacles and adversaries.

Henry Ford II watched these conflicts unfold, never permanently siding with any one group. His only goal was to restore his grandfather’s company to its former position as the world’s number-one automaker, and he was willing to follow whatever path seemed likely to get him there. To some extent, he may have been intimidated by the brilliant and driven men working for him, but at the end of the day, it was Ford’s company.

1948 Mercury station wagon front
The 1946-1948 Fords, Mercurys, and Lincolns were lightly refreshed prewar designs; this is a 1948 Mercury station wagon. The 1949 models were introduced quite early in 1948: The new Mercurys bowed on April 29, almost six months earlier than usual.

POSTWAR FORDS, LINCOLNS, AND MERCURYS

Once Henry Ford I was gone, no one at Ford had any compunctions about expanding the company’s product line. Early plans called for an extensive new lineup: a bigger standard Ford, a new compact “Light Car,” two different Mercurys, and three Lincolns, the largest of which was to replace the Continental as the company’s flagship.

With Ford’s finances still shaky, however, those plans proved overly ambitious. The Light Car was sold to Ford’s French subsidiary, where it became the 1949 Ford Vedette, while the bigger Lincolns were canceled. Ford launched a crash program to design a new standard Ford, the bigger Ford became a Mercury, and the larger Mercury became the base-model Lincoln.

When the all-new 1949 models finally appeared, the lineup was as follows:

  • The Ford, on a 114-inch (2,896mm) wheelbase, priced in the $1,300-$1,900 bracket
  • The Mercury, on a 118-inch (2,997mm) wheelbase, priced in the $2,000-$2,500 bracket
  • The standard Lincoln, on a 121-inch (3,073mm) wheelbase, priced in the $2,500-$3,200 bracket
  • The Lincoln Cosmopolitan, on a 125-inch (3,175mm) wheelbase, with prices ranging from just under $3,200 to about $4,000.

In theory, the new model range gave Ford an entry in each major segment of the American market. The Ford competed with Chevrolet and Plymouth; the Mercury with Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Dodge; the standard Lincoln with Buick and Chrysler; the Lincoln Cosmopolitan with Cadillac and Packard. In practice, there were still large price gaps between the different model lines, the most problematic being the more than $500 gap between Mercury and Lincoln. That was a lot of money at the time, so the gap probably cost Ford a lot of middle-class customers. Marketing studies revealed that only about one in four Ford buyers moved on to a Mercury or Lincoln while more than four out of five Chevrolet buyers stepped up to a more expensive GM car. Ford needed something to fill the gap.

1950 Mercury convertible front © 2007 ChiemseeMan / Späth Chr. PD
The 1949-1951 Mercury was originally designed by Bob Gregorie as the 1949 Ford, but Ernie Breech thought it would be too big and cost too much to build for the low-priced field, so it became a Mercury instead. Powered by a 255 cu. in. (4,184 cc) version of the Ford flathead V8, it had 112 hp (84 kW) in 1951. The 1949-1951 Merc was very popular with hot rodders and customizers, although its straight-line performance was no match for that of the new Oldsmobile Rocket Eighty-Eight. (Photo: “Mercury 8 Convertible 130PS 1950 1” © 2007 ChiemseeMan (Späth Chr.); released to the public domain by the photographer, resized by Aaron Severson)

12 Comments

  1. The Ford Edsel project looks like an excuse for the execs to justify their paychecks.
    Seems they were chasing something that was within reach, but failed.

  2. Since Mercury had the big Turnpike Cruiser and Park Lane model for ’57 and ’58, I never understood why FoMoCo though they needed the Edsel. With Mercury’s new line-up, the were very competitive with Oldsmobile and Buick.

    1. Well, as the article explains, even though Mercury was doing quite well in the early to mid-fifties, their volume was quite a bit lower than the combined total of Buick-Olds-Pontiac, and there was a vast chasm in price between Mercury and Lincoln. The Park Lane was intended to address the latter problem (although it didn’t do a very good job of it; its early sales were awful), but it didn’t address the former.

      Part of the rationale of the Edsel was to try to expand FoMoCo’s total dealer base — GM had over twice as many dealers as Ford did, and there are only so many cars each dealer can move. Ford figured that by adding a new brand (originally intended to fit above Mercury), they could also add a bunch of new franchises, and they’d be in a better position to match B-O-P on overall sales volume. Obviously, it didn’t work out that way, but that was the plan.

  3. The ’60 and ’61 Comets were not part of Mercury’s line up. The Comet, like the Valiant was a brand of its own. !962 was the first year the Comet wore a Mercury nameplate.

    Very well done article.

    1. Thanks for catching that! I double-checked, and you’re quite right. I amended the text to fix that, both here and in the Fairlane/Comet article.

      1. Another interesting bit of Comet history is that the ’60 Comet used the Edsel’s stylised “E” in the C-O-M-E-T identification on the rear of the car.

  4. I spotted some pictures of clay models of the proposed "Edsel Comet" at .

    And someone imagined what if there was a 1961 Edsel Corsair as well as a 1962 model.

    Strangely in Canada, there was a line-up called Meteor who was between Ford and Mercury and it did better then the Edsel.

    1. Very interesting. I’m not terribly familiar with the Canadian market, but I do know that both then and now, there have been some upscale versions of what in the U.S. were fairly plebeian cars — the Pontiac Laurentian in the fifties (essentially a Chevrolet trimmed like a Pontiac), and more recently the Acura EL, an upscale version of the Honda Civic.

  5. I didn’t know about the Edsel-Comet relationship, but I’ve noticed that the early Comet and the ’60 Edsel had the same tail light lenses.

  6. I became friends with Emmett Judge, who was a splendid guy. He headed sales a Lincoln Mercury and took a lot of heat while trying to repair the Edsel mess. He was VP sales at Lincoln Mercury and actually showed up at my house while visiting his daughter at school in La Jolla. He sponsored the Ed Sullivan show and was the one who had to tell Ed that the show was ending.

    He had also been VP at Westinghouse. His background was engineering and my acquaintance came about when he was a director of a company I worked for.

    Strange to say, I had a slab-sided Continental when he visited me at home and worked on the window motors which had some problems. I also had had a ’62 Comet wagon. Wonderful car, wish I had it now.

  7. Emmett Judge apparently wrote a book on the Edsel. Does anyone know where to find one?

  8. We had a 1959 Edsel with the 361 FE block with a four barrel Holley. It was a powerful car, and ran perfectly. It was really just an early 1960s LTD.

    A friend had one with the MEL 410 block, and it was quick for the time.

    I think the Edsel was a car that was just a little ahead of the times. People were not ready for it yet. But as for the cars themselves, they were fine.

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