In September 1948, only four months after the ’49s went on sale, Henry Ford II ordered a study group to explore adding a new mid-priced car between Mercury and Lincoln. Preliminary planning work started the following year, but it was put on hold in the summer of 1950, following the outbreak of the Korean War. The need hadn’t gone away, but with new production restrictions and severe shortages of strategic materials, Ernie Breech and the executive committee decided it was a bad time to introduce a new car line.
In August 1951, Emmet Judge, the head of product planning for Lincoln-Mercury, and Morgan Collins, L-M’s controller, appeared before the committee with a new proposal. They had recently analyzed GM’s 1950 shared bodies program, which was one of the most ambitious in the industry to date, and concluded that if Lincoln-Mercury adopted a similar interchangeability program, they could save enough money on tooling for their existing lines to finance a new model.
The Collins-Judge proposal was eminently logical, but it was politically problematic. Various factions were busily wrestling for control of product planning decisions, and none looked kindly on external threats to their authority. Collins and Judge, with their effective, sensible proposal, reportedly managed to offend all sides.
Because the idea made so much sense, however, it could not simply be ignored. In January 1952, the executive committee assigned sales VP John Davis to conduct a new study on adding additional mid-priced models. Considering the work that had already been done, there was little need for another study, but it served as a sort of bureaucratic flanking maneuver, giving the different factions a chance to spin the existing proposals their own way.
Davis’s study, a massive, six-volume treatise released in June 1952, outlined in lavish detail what most Ford executives had already realized about the company’s position in the mid-priced market. If anything, that problem had only gotten worse. Lincoln had dropped its cheaper short-wheelbase model in 1952, and the least-expensive Lincoln now cost almost $1,000 more than the equivalent Mercury. Although Ford chief engineer Earle MacPherson reportedly thought the Lincoln should target the Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight, the Lincoln was priced like a Cadillac, not an Olds or Buick. Mercury, meanwhile, lacked the prestige and distinction to appeal to upper-middle-class customers; it could tackle Pontiac and perhaps the junior Oldsmobiles, but not Buick.
The conclusions of the “Davis Book,” as the report was called internally, basically reiterated the recommendations of the previous studies. It proposed creating a new “big” Mercury (initially dubbed Mercury-Monterey), combining the Lincoln body shell with Mercury running gear. The main difference between the Davis Book and the previous plans is that it recommend splitting Mercury and Lincoln into separate divisions. It also called for the creation of a new flagship model, priced in the $8,000 range (about twice the cost of a standard Lincoln), to answer dealer requests for a replacement for the Continental. The flagship would be built by a new Special Products Division, increasing the total number of divisions from two to four.
After reviewing Davis’s recommendations, Henry Ford II assigned his younger brother, William Clay Ford, to begin development work on the flagship car. Meanwhile, Lincoln-Mercury assistant general manager Richard Krafve was ordered to develop Davis’s “Mercury-Monterey” concept, which was initially slated for the 1956 model year.
BIRTH OF THE E-CAR
Despite the obvious need for a new upper-middle-class model, development of the big Mercury proceeded very slowly. Styling work did not begin until the summer of 1954, more than two years after the release of the Davis Book. Many (though not all) of the Whiz Kids were dubious about it, thinking it would cost too much. Senior management, meanwhile, was preoccupied with early preparations for Ford’s first public stock offering, which took place in January 1956 and ultimately netted more than $640 million.
Until the end of 1954, the new model was still conceived as an upscale Mercury, to be sold through existing Lincoln-Mercury franchises. However, a series of management changes in early 1955 changed those plans dramatically. In January 1955, Ernie Breech was named the chairman of Ford’s new board of directors. Lewis Crusoe assumed some of his former responsibilities, becoming group vice president of car and truck operations; Robert McNamara took his place as general manager of Ford. At the same time, Whiz Kid Jack Reith returned to the U.S. after a stint as general manager of Ford SAF, Ford’s French subsidiary. Reith had just completed a deal to sell Ford SAF to Simca, which was heralded as a silk-purse/sow’s-ear achievement for a subsidiary that Ernie Breech had considered a lost cause. After returning to Dearborn, Reith rejoined Lew Crusoe’s staff, certain that he was bound for bigger and better things.
Crusoe and Reith reexamined the Davis Book and decided that it was not bold enough. They conceived a remarkably ambitious new plan to expand the company from three divisions (Ford, Lincoln-Mercury, and Special Products) to five, including separate Lincoln and Mercury divisions and a new mid-priced division known as “E-Car” (for “experimental”), positioned between Ford and Mercury. The divisions would share three basic body shells: one for Ford and the low-end E-Car, one for the high-end E-Car and the cheaper Mercury, and one for the big Mercury and Lincoln.
The main motivation for adding the new divisions was to enable Ford to expand its dealer body, which at the time was only half of GM’s 16,000-franchise empire. Although Mercury was doing quite well in the early and mid-fifties, its total sales amounted to barely a third of GM’s Buick-Oldsmobile-Pontiac trio — which ran to around 1.2 million units a year — in part because of B-O-P’s much larger dealer base. It was clear that there were limits to how many cars each of Lincoln-Mercury’s existing dealers could be expected to sell. If it wanted substantial growth in total sales, Ford needed more franchises.
Crusoe and Reith presented their plan to the board on April 15, claiming that it would increase Ford’s total market share by almost 20% by 1961. Some senior Ford executives, notably John Davis, recommended against it, warning that trying to move Mercury upscale and replacing it with an unfamiliar new line would be disastrous. Robert McNamara also opposed the plan, arguing that it would take many years to become profitable. (We suspect he also saw it as a power play by Reith, which McNamara may have wanted to stymie.) Nevertheless, the board unanimously approved the Crusoe-Reith plan — even Ernie Breech, who claimed years later that he had opposed the E-Car from the start.
On April 18, Ford formally reorganized its divisions as Crusoe and Reith had recommended. Mercury and Lincoln became separate divisions; the existing Special Products Division was renamed Continental; and Ford launched a new Special Products Division to build the still-unnamed E-Car. Jack Reith became general manager of Mercury, which may have been his goal all along, while Dick Krafve was appointed general manager of the new E-Car division. Ironically, Krafve had opposed the Crusoe-Reith plan — he still felt the E-Car should be a Mercury — but he accepted the assignment, and vowed to do his best.
AN OLDSMOBILE SUCKING A LEMON
Early design work on what became the E-Car began in July 1954, nearly a year before the Crusoe-Reith plan was approved. The project’s chief stylist was Roy Brown, Jr., a young designer who had previously been part of Gene Bordinat’s Mercury studio. In an interview with Dave Crippen in the eighties, Bordinat recalled that Brown was ecstatic about his new assignment. To be able to set the direction for a completely new car was every designer’s dream, and Brown threw himself into it with gusto.
Brown’s team had several directives for the new car’s design, most of them based on the various marketing studies. Their central imperative was to make the car immediately recognizable from any angle. Everyone involved in the project knew it would be entering a crowded marketplace in a borrowed body shell; it needed to have a distinct visual identity.
That push for uniqueness was responsible for most of the E-Car’s controversial styling features. The vertical grille, later compared to “an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon,” was chosen because no other American car of the time had a similar front-end treatment. The same logic inspired the dramatic gullwing taillights and side scallops. Whatever its other virtues, the E-Car did not look like anything else on the road.
When it was originally designed, the E-Car was bigger than the standard Mercury, but after the approval of the Crusoe-Reith plan, Brown’s team rescaled their design for two different versions: the Ford-bodied (EF) standard models and the Mercury-bodied (EM) big cars. That decision was made fairly late in the design process, so there was little stylistic difference between the EF and EM versions other than trim and overall dimensions.
Roy Brown presented a full-size fiberglass model of an EM convertible to the board of directors on August 15, 1955. When the curtain went up, Ernie Breech led the board in a standing ovation. The design received immediate approval.
Despite the multitude of previous reports and studies, the Special Products Division ordered yet another marketing study in late 1955. This time, E-Car marketing specialist David Wallace hired Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Social Research to conduct an in-depth analysis of potential buyers. That analysis, which involved some 1,600 interviews in Peoria, Illinois and San Bernardino, California, went well beyond the typical marketing survey, attempting to quantify the psychological motivations of new-car buyers.
Motivational research of this kind was a fairly new idea in the fifties. The hipper ad agencies had embraced it, but conservative businesses viewed it with great suspicion and it had drawn the ire of social critics like Vance Packard, who saw motivational research as an insidious force, manipulating people into buying things they neither wanted nor needed. Many Detroit executives dismissed it as mumbo jumbo.
The Columbia study later sparked considerable controversy, with some critics even blaming it for the E-Car’s eventual failure. Although its questions and methodology were slightly peculiar, the study’s conclusions reiterated most of the points of the previous studies, suggesting that the E-Car’s audience should be upwardly mobile families and young executives. In any event, its impact on E-Car product planning seems to have been very limited. It appears that the study’s real purpose was not to draw new conclusions, but to rationalize choices that had already been made months before the research even began.
NAMING THE EDSEL
The Columbia study did not address what became the most contentious part of the E-Car’s development: selecting a name. Early on, Dick Krafve had suggested “Edsel,” thinking it would be an appropriate way to honor the man who had brought Ford to the mid-priced market in the first place. The Ford family was not enthusiastic, though, and Krafve was told to come up with something else.
The naming process dragged on for months, ultimately involving the Special Products marketing staff, another local market research firm, and the division’s new ad agency, Foote, Cone & Belding (FCB). David Wallace and product planner Bob Young even asked the well-known Modernist poet Marianne Moore to suggest some names, with ludicrous results — among Moore’s suggestions were “Andante Con Moto,” “Mongoose Civique,” and “Utopian Turtletop.” (Contrary to popular belief, Ford did not actually hire Moore, although Young and Wallace did send her flowers to thank her for her efforts.)
In mid-1956, Special Products PR director Gayle Warnock presented the more rational name suggestions to the board. Ernie Breech summarily rejected all of them, and asked to hear some of the runners-up. Eventually, they came back to “Edsel,” and Breech suggested they call it that. Dick Krafve pointed out Henry Ford II’s previous opposition to that name, but Breech assured him he would talk to Henry personally. (In later years, Breech tried to downplay his role in this decision, claiming that Lewis Crusoe had talked him into it. However, it was Breech who called Henry Ford to secure the reluctant approval of the Ford family for the use of the Edsel name.)
Gayle Warnock was very uncomfortable with Breech’s decision. “Edsel” was not exactly a mellifluous name, and Warnock later wrote that it cost the E-Car 200,000 sales. Moreover, the division had spent months of work and thousands of dollars on new names, just to come back to Dick Krafve’s original idea — something that was becoming an overriding theme of the entire E-Car program.
The naming project was not entirely in vain, however; the rejected names became the Edsel’s initial trim series. The smaller EF (Ford-based) models were the Ranger and Pacer, supplemented by Roundup, Villager, and Bermuda station wagons, while the EM (Mercury-based) cars were named Corsair and Citation.
Ford announced the Edsel name to the public in a press statement on November 19. With the announcement, Special Products Division became the Edsel Division.
THE CRUSOE-REITH PLAN COMES APART
By the time of the Edsel announcement, the Crusoe-Reith plan was already fraying. The first warning sign was the demise of the original plan to share bodies between Mercury and Lincoln. In the fall of 1955, Earle MacPherson had suggested switching the 1958 Lincoln to unibody construction and building it in Ford’s new Wixom, Michigan plant alongside the 1958 Ford Thunderbird.
The problem was that no other Ford plant was then capable of handling unitized construction and Wixom did not have the capacity to build Mercurys. As a result, the ’58 Lincoln would once again have a stand-alone body and the “Super Mercury,” a crucial part of Jack Reith’s plan to take Mercury upscale, would have to settle for a stretched version of the standard Mercury body. Reith protested, but MacPherson, by then Ford’s chief engineer, had more clout. The board approved the unitized Lincoln.
To make matters worse, the Continental Division turned out to be a flop. Its first product, the $10,000 Mark II coupe, had been released in November 1955, to mild critical acclaim and meager sales. Although production continued until August 1957, Ford shuttered the division in July 1956 and rolled its operations back into Lincoln’s. In November 1956, Edsel inherited the former Continental offices. It was not an auspicious omen.
In May 1957, Lewis Crusoe had a heart attack that forced him into early retirement. Robert McNamara replaced him as group VP of car and truck operations. With Crusoe’s departure, the Crusoe-Reith plan lost one of its principal architects while one of its leading opponents was elevated to a position of much greater authority.
Reith himself was the next casualty. In August, he was fired as general manager of Mercury and Lincoln and Mercury were reintegrated under the leadership of James Nance, formerly the head of Studebaker-Packard. The Reith plan was all but dead — its only remnant was the Edsel.