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Friday, June 05, 2009

EDSEL

I do not find it hard to believe that American auto makers have been so stupid as to get themselves into their current financial fix. They’ve made mistakes before. You never hear about people collecting a model “S”, or a Model “P” Ford. And that is not just because old man Henry Ford sold fifteen million of 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 destinction had to go to the Edsel.
It wasn’t just a car. It was an entire new line of cars, the Saturn of their day. The Edsel was originally conceived in 1954, to compete with General Motor’s Cadillac division. The chief designer on the project was a young man from Canada named 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 “The Ford Edsel”.
Edsel Ford was a civilized, cultured, talented and intelligent man who was also a skilled car maker and favorite son of old man Henry Ford. And suffice it to say that if Edsel hadn’t died of a heart attack from overwork in 1943 there would never have been a Ford carrying his name because Edsel Ford knew too much about marketing to have ever allowed it. When Ford’s Public Relations chief, C. Gayle Warnock, was presented with the name "Edsel" 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 assembly line workers and plant management both saw the Edsel as an intrustion into their regular work scheduals and the results were perfectly perdictable. And the "mistakes" which slipped through the quality control were not helped by 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 under wraps 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 a $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 on CBS of the “Edsel Show” - staring Bing Crosby, with guest stars Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Louis Armstrong, Bob Hope and the Four Preps - an announcer, 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, 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 unemployement jumped by two million. Retail 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 win of the White House in 1960. In short, this was not the time to introduce a new line of expensive automobiles.
Stumble Number Two; there were a few small problems with the cars. The much ballyhooed "Vac-U Start" feature displayed a dangerous tendency to restart the car after you had 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 none of the dealers knew how to service it.
And then there was the famous hood ornament. When the big V8 engine was pulling the Edsel at over seventy miles an hour (which it easily could 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: wires had been incorrectly connected and an occasional transmission had been installed backwards. And many of those Edsels which did start prompted dissatisfied owners to 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 instead of October, the standard practice at the time, so the Edsells were competing with other Ford products being sold at 1957 inventory closeout prices.
And then there was the advertising blitz; Stumble Number Five. As one observer noted, although customers had been primed to expect a
“…plutonium-powered, pancake-making wonder car…” what they were being offered was a “…kind of homely, fuel thirsty and too expensive…” car." The American public simply didn't want this car.
Overnight 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 on the Andy Griffith Show when Deputy Barney Fife bought a used car, it simply had to be an 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 and 1/2 billion 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.
- 30 -

5 comments:

  1. A few things on your Edsel piece. Ford expected to sell 200,000 of the 1958's, not 2 million as stated. They only ended up selling about 68,000 including Canadian-built models.

    Barney Fife's car which had the steering wheel problem was not an Edsel. That was in a much earlier episode, when the show was still black and white, I believe. The Edsel came later after Barn went to Raleigh to become a detective and only periodically returned to Mayberry. The car seemed to fit Don Knott's personality as he also drove one in "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken."

    Lastly, Mr Brown's comments that the Edsel was a success were meant to convey that the Edsel had achieved its goal of being unique, not that it was in any way a successful seller. Even today I cannot drive my Edsel without someone wanting to talk about the Edsel. Usually they like the styling now and find the various features to have been before their time. Where were they all in 1958! :)

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  2. Honestly, I would rather have one or more of those classic American beauties before any of these new pieces of plastic s--- that are being passed for cars now at days. The Edsel was not an ugly car. Have you seen most of these new "cars" people are driving today? I bet that all the people that were thrashing the Edsel back then, have all changed their minds after seen all these ugly cheap plastic crap that the American car companies have been shoving down our throats since the late nineties. -James From Miami

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  3. The writer seems obsessed with the "vagina with teeth" and presents the concept as common. I have never heard that expression and I have been a Edsel fan for 30 years. Many things led the Edsel to demise. Sigmond Freud would like to meet this writer and help him to explain his underlying issues.

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  4. The writer is what is wrong with journalism today, few facts and opinionated. There is no one today that doesn't love to see Edsels at cruise nights and car shows. My 58 Pacer Convertible generates lots of discussion about how todays cars all look alike and have zero style. The claim that the transmission was installed backwards at the factory is an absurd statement. It is physically impossible to do so with ANY car. The claim that the Edsel was supposed to compete with the Cadillac is totally untrue. The Edsel was to be in competition with Olds/Buick/De Soto for the mid to upper income market. The 'Small Edsel' was built on the Fairlane 500. These cars were the entry level Ranger and the next level Pacer. The 'Big Edsel' was built on the longer, wider Mercury frame and even had the Mercury roofline look. These were higher priced Edsels, Corsair and the top of the line Citation. Mercury would be the higher level car than it was until 57. So, Ford was filling a void in it's line to allow the upwardly mobile customer start with a Ford, Small Edsel, Big Edsel, Mercury and Lincoln. BTW, as a regular cruise night participant, I rarely see a 58 Ford.

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  5. Okay, guys. I do not dislike the Edsel. Never owned one, never drove one. But lets get real here. It was a major disaster WHEN IT WAS INTRODUCED. Did you read the Time Magazine comment about the Model T? The Edsel was a marketing disaster. Not a design disaster. It was badly made, but then most American cars built in the 1950's - 50's were badly built, with reliability standards that would not be acceptable today. You bought a car expecting to have to do a lot of maintaining. Unlike today. The Japanese invasion brought us that. If you like the romance of the Edsel, you must know, in part, that is because, it was a marketing disaster. I draw your attention to Dick Van Dyke show about Rob witnessing robbers escaping from a robbery. One of the biggest laugh lines in the show was when he suddenly recalled they were driving an Edsel. Guys, you may love the car, but you must know it was a laugh line for decades. There was a reason for that.And that is what I was writing about. And seriously, if you can look at that front grill and not smile, you have no imagination. It can't be as bad a car as the critics say. It can't be the Donald Trump of cars. But a lot of people thought it was. Haven't you ever wondered why? That is what I was writing about.

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