THE EDSEL IS BORN
Edsel pilot production began on April 15, 1957, exactly two years after the board approved the Crusoe-Reith plan and about a week after the first dealership franchise agreements were signed. Full production began in July.
Early on, there had been a tentative plant to give the Edsel division its own factory, but the board decided instead to expand the capacity of several existing plants and build the Edsel alongside its Ford and Mercury cousins. The sales force was told that this was a temporary measure and that Edsel would eventually have a factory of its own.
Building the Edsel on the same lines as Fords and Mercurys may have made financial sense, but it was disastrous for quality control. Despite their structural commonality with the contemporary Ford and Mercury, Edsels had unique trim and many unique components, which greatly complicated assembly line operations and created many opportunities for error. Shared production also generated considerable resentment among factory workers, who were annoyed at having their jobs made more difficult by another division’s products. Ford quality was already sub-par that year and Edsels were often even worse.
SELLING THE EDSEL
The 1958 Edsels debuted with great fanfare on September 4, 1957. Its launch was preceded by months of teaser ads and grandiose claims by Ford management. In January, Ford had announced that the Edsel would be a radical new design, using many new production techniques. Dick Krafve told the press that Edsel expected to sell 200,000 units in the first year.
The automotive press was scrupulously polite about the Edsel’s looks, but the public was far less kind. The Edsel’s grille immediately became the punchline of many off-color jokes. Not since the “coming or going” Studebaker of 10 years earlier had a new car’s styling been the subject of so much public ridicule. Edsel’s frequently poor early quality control did nothing to help; some cars arrived at dealers in unsaleable and unsalvagable condition.
Aside from its styling and assembly quality, the Edsel’s fundamental problem was the worrisome ambiguity of its market position. Although Jack Reith’s long-awaited big Mercury — now called Park Lane — also debuted that fall, the original plan to take Mercury upmarket did not materialize. As a result, the Edsel straddled the Mercury line rather than fitting between Ford and Mercury. Worse, there was still a gap of nearly $700 between the most expensive Mercury Park Lane and the cheapest Lincoln.
If the Edsel had debuted two years earlier, it might have done somewhat better, but it had the misfortune to arrive just as the U.S. economy began to sink dramatically. The stock market had taken a nosedive back in June and by September, the U.S. was entering a full-fledged recession. Moreover, buyers had apparently had their fill of overwrought styling just as Detroit’s new models hit new heights of rococo gimmickry. As a result, sales of most mid-priced cars immediately tanked, with some makes falling by more than 30%. Mercury’s total volume plunged from about 286,000 for the 1957 model year to about 153,000 for 1958. Edsel’s first-year total was only 63,110, less than a third of Ford’s optimistic sales projections.
By the end of 1957, it was clear that Edsel sales did not justify the expense of maintaining a separate division. On January 14, 1958, it was rolled into Lincoln-Mercury, which was renamed the Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln Division, now headed by Jim Nance. Richard Krafve resigned from Ford a year later; he went on to become the president of Raytheon.
Ford tried hard to put a positive spin on Edsel’s weak debut. A June 1958 press release admitted that first-year sales were disappointing, but spoke optimistically about the marque’s future. In fact, Edsel’s fate beyond 1960 was already in considerable doubt. Even before the 1958 cars launched, Bob McNamara had told FC&B’s Fairfax Cone that the Edsel’s days were numbered. The new marque’s dismal sales had quickly validated McNamara’s original skepticism.
In August 1958, Nance was ousted as the head of Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln in favor of Ben Mills, another of the Whiz Kids. Mills announced that the 1959 Edsel line would be pared down to the Ranger, Corsair, and Villager station wagon, all using the smaller Ford shell. The bigger EM (Mercury-based) models and the big MEL-series engine were dropped. The Ranger traded its previously standard 361 cu. in. (5,902 cc) FE-series engine for the 292 cu. in. (4,778 cc) Y-block; Ford’s 223 cu. in. (3,653 cc) “Econo-Six” was now optional. The optional automatic transmission on smaller-engined Edsels was now the Mile-O-Matic, essentially the same as the new two-speed Fordomatic. The unreliable Teletouch pushbuttons were long gone.
The 1959 Edsel’s styling was toned down considerably from its first year. Contrary to popular belief, the more conservative look was not a reaction to the public ridicule; Roy Brown’s team had designed the ’59 in late 1956 and early 1957, well before the 1958 Edsel went on sale. The new styling was much more conservative than the ’58, although it was also more ordinary, making the Edsel look more like the facelifted Ford it was.
Despite the smaller engines and toned-down styling, the 1959 Edsel was more expensive than the ’58, by as much as $120. The higher prices, combined with the still-rocky state of the economy and lingering buyer doubts about the Edsel’s quality, made for dismal sales. The total for the 1959 model year sank to about 45,000, just behind Chrysler’s equally moribund DeSoto.
Roy Brown, who was transferred in April 1958 to Ford of England, also developed full-size clay models for the 1960 Edsel. However, McNamara decided that Edsel sales didn’t justify the tooling investment. Stylist Bud Kaufman was ordered to create a cheaper alternative design that could be built on a tooling budget of less than $10 million — small change by Detroit standards. That meant that the 1960 Edsel would be little more than a badge-engineered Ford.