Born to Lose: The Story of the Edsel

THINKING BIGGER

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, Emmett Judge, the head of product planning for Lincoln-Mercury, and Morgan Collins, Lincoln-Mercury’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 the Collins-Judge plan, while eminently sensible, satisfied none of these ambitions.

1951 Lincoln Cosmopolitan front 3q © 2008 Jagvar PD
From 1949 to 1951, Lincoln offered both a short-wheelbase base model (originally designed as a big Mercury) and the bigger Cosmopolitan; this is a 1951 Cosmopolitan convertible. In 1952, Lincoln consolidated its line on a single chassis, sized between the 1951 models. Since the cheaper model had accounted for more than half of all Lincoln sales, this move proved to be a serious marketing mistake. (Photo: “1951 Lincoln Cosmopolitan” © 2008 Jagvar; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized by Aaron Severson)

Nonetheless, the price-gap issue remained, so 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 logical 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.

The so-called “Davis Book,” a massive, six-volume treatise completed in June 1952, outlined in great 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; with the demise of Lincoln’s cheaper short-wheelbase model for 1952, the least-expensive Lincoln now cost almost $1,000 more than the equivalent Mercury. Although Ford chief engineer Earle MacPherson 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 Buick or Chrysler buyers.

The Davis Book basically reiterated the recommendations of the previous studies, proposing the creation of a new “big” Mercury (described as “Mercury-Monterey”) combining the Lincoln body shell with Mercury running gear. Davis added a new wrinkle by recommending that Mercury and Lincoln be split into separate divisions and that Ford introduce a new flagship model priced above existing Lincolns; the latter was intended to answer dealer requests for a successor to the old Continental. This flagship was to be built by a new Special Products Division, which would increase the total number of Ford automotive divisions from two to four.

Henry Ford II reviewed these recommendations and assigned his younger brother, William Clay Ford, to lead the development of the flagship car. Lincoln-Mercury Division assistant general manager Richard Krafve was assigned to develop the “Mercury-Monterey” concept, initially slated for the 1956 model year.

BIRTH OF THE E-CAR

Despite two marketing studies and an obvious need, development of the Mercury-Monterey proceeded surprisingly slowly. Styling work didn’t begin until mid-1954, fully two years after the Davis Book. Many (though not all) of the Whiz Kids were dubious about the upper-middle-class model, thinking it would cost too much. Ford’s 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 late 1954, the assumption was still that the new model would be an upscale Mercury, offered through existing Lincoln-Mercury franchises. However, a series of management changes in early 1955 changed those plans dramatically. In January, Ernie Breech was named the chairman of Ford’s new board of directors. Lewis Crusoe assumed some of Breech’s former responsibilities with a promotion to group vice president of car and truck operations; Robert McNamara took Crusoe’s place as general manager of Ford Division. At the same time, Whiz Kid Jack Reith returned to the U.S. after a stint as general manager of Ford’s struggling French subsidiary, Ford SAF. 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 many observers had considered a lost cause. After returning to Dearborn, Reith rejoined Crusoe’s staff, certain that he was bound for bigger and better things.

Crusoe and Reith expanded on the Davis Book’s recommendations with a remarkably ambitious new plan to expand the company from three automotive 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 new divisions were not intended simply as a paper shuffle; the principal motivation was to allow Ford to expand its dealer body. At the time, Ford had only about half as many U.S. dealer franchises as General Motors, which put definite limits on how many cars Ford could expect to sell. That was particularly true of Mercury. Although Ford’s mid-priced brand 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 together averaged around 1.2 million units a year — in part because Lincoln-Mercury had far fewer dealers than Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac.

In their presentation to the board on April 15, Crusoe and Reith claimed their plan would increase Ford Motor Company’s total market share by almost 20 percent in the next six years. Some senior Ford executives, notably John Davis, objected to the plan, arguing that trying to move Mercury upscale and shift its existing buyers to a new brand would be a disaster. Some of the staunchest opposition came from McNamara, who argued that the plan was so expensive that it wouldn’t show a profit for years.

Despite those criticisms, the board of directors — including Breech — unanimously approved the Crusoe-Reith plan. The formal reorganization of divisions took place three days later, separating Mercury and Lincoln, renaming the existing Special Products Division Continental Division, and adding a new Special Products Division to build the still-unnamed E-Car. Jack Reith became general manager of Mercury while new general manager of the E-Car division was Dick Krafve, who, ironically, had opposed the Crusoe-Reith plan, arguing that the E-car should be a Mercury.

“AN OLDSMOBILE SUCKING A LEMON”

By the time the board approved the Crusoe-Reith plan, styling development of what would become the E-Car had been under way for almost a year, led by a young designer named Roy Brown, Jr., previously part of Gene Bordinat’s Mercury studio. It was a proud moment for Brown; to be able to set the direction for a completely new car was every designer’s dream.

Brown’s team had several directives for the new car’s design, of which the most important was the imperative to make the car immediately recognizable. Distinctive styling was critical to the E-Car’s commercial prospects, since the car would be using body shells shared with other Ford Motor Company models.

1958 Edsel Ranger front 3q
The Edsel’s “horse collar” grille, designed by stylist Jim Sipple, was inspired in part by Alfa Romeo. This four-door hardtop is a 1958 Edsel Ranger, the base EF (Ford-bodied) model. Rangers and Pacers were 213.1 inches (5,413 mm) long on a 118-inch (2,997mm) wheelbase; the larger Mercury-based Corsair and Citation were 218.8 inches (5,558 mm) long on a 124-inch (3,150mm) wheelbase, tipping the scales at over 4,200 lb (1,920 kg). The big Edsels were actually larger than the low-end Mercurys that shared their body shell. (Photo © 2005 Robert Nichols; used with permission)

That push for uniqueness was responsible for most of the E-Car’s controversial styling features. The vertical grille, which would inspire a host of imaginatively unflattering epithets, 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, receiving a standing ovation led by Ernie Breech. The design was approved precisely three months after the approval of the Crusoe-Reith plan.

MOTIVATIONAL RESEARCH

In late 1955, Special Products Division marketing specialist David Wallace ordered yet another marketing study, this one an in-depth analysis of prospective buyers conducted by Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Social Research. This study, which involved 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 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 and some critics even blamed it for the E-Car’s eventual failure. Although the study’s questions and methodology were a bit peculiar, the conclusions mostly reiterated the previous studies, suggesting that the E-Car’s target audience should be upwardly mobile families and young executives. In any event, the study’s actual impact on E-Car product planning appears to have been very limited. It seems that the study’s real purpose was not so much to draw new conclusions as to rationalize choices that had already been made months or years earlier.

1958 Edsel Ranger rear 3q © 2005 Robert Nichols (used with permission)
The Edsel’s gullwing taillight treatment is almost as dramatic as its grille, presaging the rear-end styling of the following year’s Chevrolet. Edsel running gear and suspension were very conventional — double wishbones in front, Hotchkiss drive in back — but it was one of the first Ford products with self-adjusting brakes. (Photo © 2005 Robert Nichols; used with permission)

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, but the Ford family had not been enthusiastic.

The naming process, which took months, ultimately involved the Special Products Division marketing staff; a 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, which yielded ludicrous results; among Moore’s suggestions were “Andante Con Moto,” “Mongoose Civique,” and “Utopian Turtletop.” (Contrary to popular belief, Ford did not actually pay Moore for these suggestions, although Young and Wallace did send her flowers and a thank-you card.)

Special Products PR director Gayle Warnock presented the more rational name suggestions to the board in mid-1956, only to have Ernie Breech summarily reject all of the choices. After hearing some of the runners-up, the board came back to “Edsel.” Dick Krafve pointed out Henry Ford II’s previous opposition to the name, but Breech said he would smooth things over with the Ford family. (In later years, Breech tried to downplay his role in this decision, claiming that Crusoe had talked him into it, but it was Breech who convinced Henry Ford to secure the Ford family’s reluctant approval to use the Edsel name.)

Warnock was very uncomfortable with this decision, arguing that the name Edsel was not exactly mellifluous; Warnock later claimed it was the root of the E-Car’s subsequent commercial failure. Moreover, the division had just wasted months of work and thousands of dollars trying to come up with new names just to come back to Dick Krafve’s original idea, a pattern that was becoming an overriding theme of the entire E-Car program.

The work done on alternative name choices was not wholly in vain. Some of 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.

1959 Edsel Ranger Edsel badge
The Edsel badge on a 1959 Edsel Ranger four-door sedan.

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, however, 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. Wixom did not have sufficient capacity to build Mercurys and no other Ford plant was then capable of handling unitized construction.

As a result, the ’58 Lincoln would once again have a stand-alone body and the so-called “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 vice president of engineering, had more clout. The board approved the unitized Lincoln.

To make matters worse, the Continental Division had turned out to be an expensive 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, the Crusoe-Reith plan lost one of its principal architects: Lewis Crusoe suffered a heart attack that forced him into early retirement. Robert McNamara, who was still strongly opposed to the whole plan, replaced Crusoe as group VP of car and truck operations.

Reith himself was the next casualty. That 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. With Reith’s exit, the only significant remnant of the Crusoe-Reith plan was the Edsel.

1958 Ford Fairlane front 3q © 2005 Matthew Brown aka Morven (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
Part of the rationale for the Edsel’s overwrought styling was to distinguish it from its less-expensive Ford sibling — the 1958 Pacers pictured above share the same body shell as the 1958 Ford Fairlane. (Photo: “1958 Ford Fairlane” © 2005 Matthew Brown aka Morven; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

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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