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Saturday, November 01, 2008

EDSEL

I find it hard to believe that major American auto makers could have ever been so stupid as to get themselves into the current financial fix. Oh, sure they’ve all made mistakes. After all, you never hear about people collecting a model “S”, or a Model “P” Ford. And that is not just because old man Ford sold fifteen million of the mythical Model “T”s. It was the Model “T” that made Time magazine’s list of the fifty worst cars of all times; “…a piece of junk, the Yugo of its day.” And that wasn’t even the worst disaster that Ford ever made. That had to be the Edsel.
It wasn’t just a car. It was an entire new line of cars, originally conceived in 1954, to compete with General Motor’s Cadillac division. The chief designer on the project was a young man from Canada, Roy Brown. Years later Brown told "The New Yorker" magazine, “Our goal was to create a vehicle which would be unique…and yet somehow familiar.” The design team took ‘front on’ photos of the 19 other cars on the road at the time and realized that from a few hundred feet away they were indistinguishable from one another. But clay models of Brown’s original grillwork were so graceful and delicate the engineers questioned how much fresh air would reach the engine.

So Brown created what he called the “Horsecollar” (officially known as “the impact ring”), front and center. It reminded one critic of “a vagina with teeth”. In fact, while the design still existed only in clay, a prankster taped fur in-between the front grillwork which left it, according to Robin Jones, then a young Ford designer, looking like “…a hormonally disturbed cow after giving birth”. Kinder critics said it resembled “an Oldsmobile sucking on a lemon”, or just “a toilet seat”. Looking for the perfect name Ford hired one of the largest advertising companies in the world, Foote, Cone and Belding, (“Successful Advertising is Only a Foote Away”) who offered up 6,000 possible names (including the “Mongoose Civique” and the “Utopian Turtletop”). Growled one Ford executive, “We hired them to come up with a name. They came up with six thousand.” Finally, after months of searching in vain, they settled on “Edsel”, as a tribute to Edsel Ford, son of old man Henry Ford.

Edsel Ford was a civilized, cultured, talented and intelligent man who was also a skilled car maker. But suffice it to say that if he hadn’t died of a heart attack from overwork in 1943 there would never have been a Ford Edsel named after Edsel Ford. When Ford’s Public Relations chief, C. Gayle Warnock, was presented with the name for the new cars he claims to have said, “We have just lost 200,000 in sales”. They financed the Edsel with the infusion of cash they got by going public in 1957, and from the success of the new Thunderbird. But at the last minute they decided to start pinching pennies. Rather than establish a brand new production line, management chose to assemble Edsels on the same production lines used to make Lincolns and Mercurys, and at the same time. The resulting confusion was perfectly predictable. The assembly line workers and plant management both saw the Edsel as an intrustion in their regular work scheduals and gave the new cars short shrift. Too many of their "mistakes" would slip through because of the advertising campaign.

Ford chose a mystery introduction for the Edsel. Cars were shipped wrapped in fabric, and the 1,160 brand new Edsel dealers were strictly instructed to keep the cars wrapped up on their lots until “E” day, which was supposed to be September 4, 1957. However, a used car dealer in Cleveland, Ohio had an unwrapped white Edsel on display two days early. So much for the surprise

Meanwhile the $2 million advertising campaign ($14.5 million in 2007 dollars) began by showing only the hood ornament, and then blurry shots of speeding Edsels, and drawings of draped cars on transporters, always with the taunting tag line, “The new Edsel is coming!” Finally, on Friday night, September 13, during the premier of the “Edsel Show”, staring Bing Crosby, with Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Louis Armstrong, Bob Hope and the Four Preps on CBS, an announcer, standing in front of a curtain –the car’s silhouette only hinting at its design - spoke in warm golden tones; “And now for the moment I'm sure you've all been looking forward to, a look at the newest member of the Ford family of fine cars ... the Edsel!" It may have been the greatest advertising buildup since Moses came down off the mountain. And like Moses' trip, it was all downhill from there - one stumble downhill after another.

The dealers' showrooms were full of people, but few customers. Ford had expected to sell 2 million Edsel the first year. They only sold half a million. What went wrong?

Stumble Number One was that between August 1957 and February 1958 American industrial output declined by 10%. During the same six months two million were added to the unemployment rolls, retails sales dropped 2% and so did take home pay. The recession was bad enough that it gave Democrats a majority in the House in 1958, and set up Kennedy’s victory in 1960. In short, this was not the time to introduce a new line of expensive automobiles. And, Stumble Number Two, there were a few small problems with the cars. The much ballyhooed "Vac-U Start" feature, which was supposed to help you if the car should stall, displayed a dangerous tendency to restart the car after you had put it in park, turned the engine off and walked away. And the “Teletouch” push button transmission shifter, located in the center of the steering wheel, was so new and so secret that nobody knew how to service it.

And then there was the famous hood ornament. The first look many customers had gotten of the new Edsel line was an advertising photograph of the hood ornament. But when the big V8 engine was pulling the Edsel at over seventy miles an hour, which was easy to do, the hood ornament had a nasty tendency to come flying off and turn into shrapnel.

Stumble Number Three was that many Edsels left the factories with wrong or missing parts, brought on by the confusing assembly process. When the wrappers were finally taken off after "E" Day, many Edsels simply would not start. Wires had been incorrectly connected and an occasional transmission had been installed backwards. And many of those Edsels that did start prompted dissatisfied owners to later claim that Edsel stood for “Every Day Something Else Leaks”. (Decades later, when Ford failed to respond well to the invasion of well made inexpensive Japanese cars, the name Ford was said to stand for “Found On Road, Dead”).

Stumble Number Four was that Ford had introduced the 1958 Edsel in September of 1957, so it was competing with other Ford products being sold at 1957 inventory closeout prices.

And then there was the advertising blitz. As one observer has noted, although customers had been primed to expect a “…plutonium-powered, pancake-making wonder car…” what they were being offered was, “…kind of homely, fuel thirsty and too expensive…”; Stumble Number Five.

Almost over night the Edsel went from wonder kid to village idiot. In 1958, when a crowd in Peru pelted Vice President Richard Nixon with eggs while he was riding in a brand new Edsel, he would quip, “They were not attacking me. They were attacking the car.” And in 1961 when funny man Deputy Barney Fife, on the Andy Griffith Show, bought a used car, it simply had to be a sky blue Edsel convertible. The audience was laughing even before the steering wheel slowly projected itself into Barney’s face. The Edsel had become “…an aggalmoration (sic) of everything the public had grown tired of…vulgar ostentation and superferlous (sic) size…”.By November of 1959, after building 110,847 Edsels and losing $350 million ($2 billion, 463 million 926 thousand dollars in 2007 dollars) Ford surrendered, and stopped production of the Edsel. A legend was born.

Three years later Ford would introduce the Mustang, a car designed to fit what the customer wanted, rather a car design looking for a customer, which the Edsel was.

Today just six thousand Edsels survive. And Roy Brown, the now elderly designer of the “vagina with teeth”, still insists with a straight face, “The car is a complete success as far as I'm concerned." And that kind of thinking is what is wrong with Detroit, today.

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