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)

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)

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.

PLAN B: THE COMET

Even before the 1959 cars debuted, Nance and Mills had been thinking about taking Edsel in a completely new direction. Ford was then busily developing a new compact model, which emerged as the 1960 Ford Falcon. With small-car sales booming since the start of the recession, Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln dealers were screaming for a compact of their own.

Nance and Mills decided that the logical answer was to offer an M-E-L version of the compact as an Edsel, which would kill several birds with a single stone: salvaging the Edsel brand, giving it a unique product, and avoiding the risk of damaging the market position of either Mercury or Lincoln by adding an economy model. The board approved this plan in September 1958, shortly after Nance’s departure.

The Edsel compact, originally known simply as “Edsel B” and later called Comet, would share the Falcon’s body and running gear, but would be somewhat bigger and a little more expensive, allowing a higher level of trim and features than its Ford cousin. The plan was for the Comet to supplement the larger Edsels for 1960 and then to replace them entirely by 1961, demoting the E-Car from mid-priced model to upscale economy car.

1960 Edsel Ranger side 2010 Fletcher6 CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
A 1960 Edsel Ranger shows off Bud Kaufman’s new styling. Not quite visible is the split grille that bears a distinct (if probably coincidental) resemblance to the 1959 Pontiacs. (Photo: “Edsel Ranger 4-door sedan” © 2010 Fletcher6; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

Edsel didn’t make it that far. The 1960 models debuted on October 15, but M-E-L received only about 2,400 orders from almost 1,500 Edsel franchises. By then, many Edsel dealers had either given up, gone under, or hedged their bets by adding Ford and/or Lincoln-Mercury franchises. Having already been burned once, most of the remaining dealers were unwilling to take a chance on yet another new Edsel.

McNamara, of course, was more than willing to pull the plug. On November 19, Ford announced the end of the Edsel brand and offered hefty dealer incentives to clear stocks of unsold cars. Sales for the abbreviated 1960 model year totaled only 2,846, bringing total Edsel production to 110,847 cars in three model years.

If Edsel had still been a separate division at that point, the Comet might have died with it, but Ben Mills saw no reason to throw away a promising new product. The Comet went on sale through Lincoln-Mercury dealers in March 1960, about four months after the Falcon. Although contemporary reviewers tended to describe it as a Mercury, the early Comet was technically a separate make with no other marque identification. It didn’t matter; the Comet sold more than 116,000 units, exceeding the entire three-year total of its late parent and helping to carry Lincoln-Mercury dealers through a difficult period. The Comet’s success inspired the very successful intermediate Ford Fairlane and a whole genre of midsize cars.

1961 Mercury Comet front 3q © 2015 Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0 Generic)
The original Comet was styled by Bud Kaufman, marrying a stretched version of the Falcon body with a formal roof inspired by the 1959 Ford Galaxie. The Comet shared the Falcon’s 144 cu. in. (2,365 cc) and 170 cu. in. (2,780 cc) sixes, but it rode a 5.5-inch (140mm) longer wheelbase and was about 100 lb (45 kg) heavier, making the Comet even slower than its already sleepy Ford cousin. (Photo: “1961 Mercury Comet” © 2015 Greg Gjerdingen; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

POSTMORTEM

There is no doubt that Ford lost a lot of money on the Edsel fiasco. The most commonly cited figure is $250 million (equivalent to almost $1.9 billion in 2010 dollars), which was the cost Ford announced for launching the new model. Ford spent about $100 million on marketing and the overhead costs of running Edsel as a separate division; as a point of comparison, Ford said that re-consolidating Lincoln and Mercury in 1957 saved about $80 million a year in administration and overhead expense. The estimated $150 million spent on factory expansion was obviously not a total loss, since Ford continued to use that capacity after the Edsel was gone.

Regardless of the actual dollar losses, the whole debacle had other costs. First, we suspect that a fair number of the sales Edsel did achieve came at the expense of Mercury. The first Park Lane sold poorly and most Mercury sales in 1958-1959 were low-end models that competed directly with Edsel in size and price. Second, not sharing bodies between Mercury and Lincoln proved to be very expensive. The 1958-1960 Lincolns also lost money and Lincoln came very close to cancellation, although it was saved by the new 1961 Continental. Third, and perhaps most seriously, Ford never actually plugged the gap between Mercury and Lincoln, so the E-Car’s original objective remained unfulfilled.

Over the years, historians have laid the blame for the Edsel’s failure on many things: the styling, the name, the market research, the poor timing of its debut. There’s some truth to each of those conclusions, but we think that the E-Car’s greatest failing was that Ford lost sight of what it was supposed to be. The initial goal — filling a hole in the lineup — was straightforward enough, but it was completely overshadowed by nine years of political gamesmanship. When the E-Car finally appeared, it was redundant. Even if the market had been better, the best it could have done was to eat away even more at Mercury’s market share. The Edsel didn’t simply fail; it never had a chance.

The Edsel remained a sore subject within Ford for many years after its demise. Lee Iacocca, who became general manager of Ford Division in 1960, convinced Henry Ford II to cancel the FWD subcompact Cardinal by warning him that it would be another E-Car. The Edsel’s failure was particularly bitter for Henry Ford; not only had it lost a huge amount of money, it had made a joke of his late father’s name. Edsel — both the car and the man — deserved better.

FIN


NOTES ON SOURCES

Our sources for this article included “Advertising: The Buick Winner,” TIME 24 February 1958, www.time. com, accessed 3 March 2010; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1960 Edsel,” HowStuffWorks.com, 16 September 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1960-edsel.htm, accessed 2 March 2010, “1960-1963 Mercury Comet,” HowStuffWorks.com, 21 August 2007, www.howstuffworks. com/ 1960-1963-mercury-comet.htm, accessed 3 March 2010, and Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); “Autos: The Newest Car,” TIME 2 September 1957, www.time. com, accessed 3 March 2010; “Autos: The $250 Million Flop,” TIME 30 November 1959, www.time. com/ time/magazine/article/ 0,9171,826017,00.html, accessed 3 March 2010; Larry Blodget, “The Forgotten Edsel,” Car Classics February 1975, reprinted in Edsel 1957-1960 Road Test Limited Edition, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1997); Thomas R. Bonsall, Disaster in Dearborn: The Story of the Edsel (Stanford, CA: Stanford General Books, 2002); Douglas Brinkley, Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress (New York: Viking Press, 2003); Arch Brown, “Luxury in a Tidy Package: 1952 Lincoln,” from Special Interest Autos #73 (January-February 1983), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Lincolns: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002); Dave Crippen, “The Reminiscences of Eugene [Gene] Bordinat, Jr.,” 27 June 1984, Automotive Design Oral History Project, Benson Ford Research Center, Accession 1673, www.autolife.umd.umich. edu/Design/ Bordinat_interview.htm [transcript], accessed 8 March 2010; Kathleen A. Ervin, “Edsel: An Auto Biography,” Failuremag.com, 6 March 2002, failuremag. com, accessed 2 March 2, 2010; Jonathan Glancey, “How bad was the Edsel?” Classic & Sports Car September 1988, reprinted in Edsel 1957-1960 Road Test Limited Edition; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975 Revised 4th Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); David Halberstam, The Reckoning (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1986); Tim Howley, “1950 Lincoln: More than a Mercury,” Special Interest Autos #130 (July-August 1992), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Lincolns; Tim Howley, “SIA Comparison Report: 1950 Mercury vs. 1950 Oldsmobile 88,” Special Interest Autos #124 (July-August 1991), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Mercurys: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002); Lee Iacocca, Iacocca: An Autobiography (New York: Bantam Books, 1984); Robert Lacey, Ford: The Men and the Machine (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1986); Michael Lamm, “1950 Mercury,” Special Interest Autos #12 (August-September 1972) reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Mercurys, “Mark II Meets Eldorado Brougham,” Special Interest Autos #2 (November-December 1970), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Cadillacs: driveReports from Hemmings Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000), and “Revenge of the Edsel,” Car Life May 1969, reprinted in Edsel 1957-1960 Road Test Limited Edition; Michael Lamm and David L. Lewis, “The First Mercury & How It Came to Be,” Special Interest Autos #23 (July-August 1974), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Mercurys; David L. Lewis, “Ford’s Postwar Light Car,” Special Interest Autos #13 (October-November 1972): 22–27, 57; and “Lincoln Cosmopolitan: The Gleam in Edsel Ford’s Eye,” Car Classics April 1973, reprinted in Lincoln Gold Portfolio, 1949-1960, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1990); George Mattar, “1958 Pacer Panache,” Hemmings Classic Car #4 (January 2005): 48–53; Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders (New York: David McKay Company, 1957); Phil Skinner’s The Edsel Pages, 1999-2010, www.edsel. com/ index.html, including R. Lee Parks, “Dealer Recollections” (26 April 2003, www.edsel. com/ division/rlee.htm) and Tom Sneary, “Reflections of the Edsel Days” (8 February 2001, www.edsel. com, accessed 3 March 2010; Daniel Strohl, “Classy Commuter,” Hemmings Classic Car June 2006; “The Comet,” Road & Track Vol. 11, No. 8 (April 1960), reprinted in Mercury Comet & Cyclone 1960-1970 (A Brooklands Road Test Limited Edition), ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1999); “The Secrets of Ford,” TIME 2 January 1956, www.time. com, accessed 3 March 2010; C. Gayle Warnock, The Rest of the Edsel Affair (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2007); Mary Wilkins and Franck Hill, American Business Abroad: Ford on Six Continents (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1964); and Anthony Young, “The Rise and Fall of the Edsel,” The Freeman September 1989, www.theadvocates. org/ freeman/8909youn.html, accessed 2 March 2010.

We also consulted the following period road tests: Malcolm Andrews, “…Who Needs an Edsel?” Motor Life, September 1957; Robert Matthews, “Should You Buy an Edsel?” Speed Age, September 1957; “The New Edsel,” Motor Life October 1957; Jim Whipple, “1958 Edsel Consumer Analysis,” Car Life October 1957; Warren Weith, “First Tech Report on the Edsel,” Speed Age October 1957; Joe H. Wherry, “How Good Is the Edsel?” Motor Trend October 1957; Al Outcalt, “Edsel: Fireball or Flop?” Car Life March 1958; Roger Huntington, “What Happened to the Edsel?” Autocar, 23 May 1958; “Edsel aims for lower price field…basic styling retains original look,” Motor Life December 1958; Jim Whipple, “1959 Edsel Consumer Analysis,” Car Life March 1959; Al Berger, “Speed Age Expert Test: Edsel: New Era for the Big ‘E,'” Speed Age June 1959; and “Edsel: a change in personality for Ford’s famous infant,” Motor Life December 1959, all of which are reprinted in Edsel 1957-1960 Road Test Limited Edition.

Our inflation estimates were based on the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator, data.bls. gov/ cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl. Please note that the inflation figures cited in the text are approximate and are provided solely for general reference — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on the historical value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!


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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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