Born to Lose: The Story of the Edsel

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.

1958 Edsel Ranger four-door sedan © 2015 Steve Glover (CC BY 2.0 Generic)
All 1958 Edsels had V8 engines; a six became optional in 1959. This 1958 Edsel Ranger four-door sedan has the 361 cu. in. (5,902 cc) version of the new FE (Ford-Edsel) series V8 line, whose later iterations include the more familiar 390 cu. in. (6,391 cc) and 427 cu. in. (6,986 cc) versions. The Edsel version of the 361, called E-400, had a single four-barrel carburetor and claimed 303 gross horsepower (226 kW). The 1958 Corsair and Citation used the E-475, the 410 cu. in. (6,722 cc) of the physically larger and significantly heavier MEL (Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln) series engine, here rated at 345 gross horsepower (257 kW). (Photo: “Edsel Ranger 4-Door Sedan (1958) © 2015 Steve Glover; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

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.

1958 Edsel Ranger dash © 2005 Robert Nichols (used with permission)
The dashboard of a 1958 Edsel Ranger. The left-most pod is a compass; on upper-series Edsels, that pod was filled with a tachometer. The dials to the right of the steering column are a clock and the heater controls. The left bank of switches control the lights, antenna, and courtesy lights, while the right bank (not visible) controls the heater fan, wipers, and cigarette lighter. The buttons on the steering wheel bus are the “Teletouch” transmission controls. Unlike the pushbutton transmissions used by contemporary Chrysler products, Teletouch was electrically operated. It was a neat idea, but it proved grievously unreliable and was dropped at the end of the model year. (Photo © 2005 Robert Nichols; used with permission)

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.

FULL RETREAT

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.

1959 Edsel Ranger front
The 1959 Edsel was, if anything, less ostentatious than its overwrought ’59 Ford sibling, retaining the vertical grille concept in a much less confrontational form. If the 1958 Edsel had looked like this, it might have sold better than it did.

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.

1959 Edsel Ranger front 3q
Most 1959 Edsels had smaller engines than their 1958 counterparts. The Ranger had the 292 cu. in. (4,778 cc) Y-block with 200 hp (149 kW), while the standard engine on the Corsair was now the 332 cu. in. (5,436 cc) FE with 225 hp (168 kW). The 1958 Edsel Ranger’s 361 cu. in. (5,902 cc) four-barrel engine, renamed “Super Express,” was optional; it again had 303 gross horsepower (226 kW). Four-door Ranger sedans like this one were the most popular 1959 Edsel; they had a base price of $2,684 and accounted for 12,814 sales.

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.

1959 Edsel Ranger rear 3q
All 1959 Edsels shared the body shell of the ’59 Ford. Although the wheelbase was stretched from 118 inches (2,997 mm) to 120 inches (3,048 mm), the 1959 Edsel Ranger was slightly shorter than the ’58, 210.9 inches (5,357 mm) overall. Performance was adequate; Car Life, testing a four-door hardtop Ranger with the same powertrain as this car, recorded a 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) time of just under 11 seconds with gas mileage of about 14 mpg (around 17 L/100 km), average performance for the time.

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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