Ladies and gentlemen, let me present you with one of those special kinds of cars, one of those cars which is just wrong in every single way. Every bad turn was made and every attempt to resolve it just made the problem a whole lot worse! I am of course talking about the automotive horror that is Ford’s Edsel!
Sadly I don’t have a picture of my own of one of these because none ever really made it over to the UK, but I can still tell you why this car has often been dubbed one of the worst things every to hit the road, and cost the Ford Motor Company $250 million when they eventually scrapped it in 1960, a cost today of $514 million!
The Ford Edsel was originally conceived to be Ford’s mid-range automobile, designed to be more upmarket than Ford cars themselves, but not as high as the luxury Lincoln. At the time their rivals General Motors were able to procure the suburban family market with contemporary Buicks and Oldsmobiles, costing Ford a very lucrative market. In 1957 the E-Car division was formulated to come up with an answer, led by chief designer Roy Brown, who would later go on to design the always popular Ford Cortina for the European market. The idea was to build a car that was different in every conceivable way to its rivals, taking styling from the Cadillac LaSalle, including a vertical grille to emulate the cars of days gone by. The design also included horizontal tail lights and a long sweeping body with chrome side scallop. It was indeed a handsome car, apart from the grille, which soon became the butt of many strange and juvenile jokes. A Horsecollar, a Toilet Seat, even a girl’s privates, these were just a few of the many names this odd attachment was given. However, functionally and internally the car was something of praise, with the automatic gearbox controls being push-button, and located on the steering wheel for convenience, the speedometer was floating, gauges were replaced by warning lights and the driver and passenger seat were made separate instead of the conventional bench.
But either way, later that year a $20 million advertising campaign was launched by Ford, starting with a selection of teasers like those you’d get in modern day movies until a full relay of blockbuster style commercials were kicked off on the 4th September 1957, affectionately dubbed ‘Edsel Day’. Which leads us to our second controversy, the name. Poets and writers from across America were hired by Ford to give their mysterious car a name, all coming to naught. Eventually the company decided that they would dub their car the Edsel, in honour of Edsel Ford, who was President of the company between 1919 and 1943, against the wishes of his son and then President, Henry Ford II, who did not desire his father’s name being pasted on hubcaps across the world. But Edsel was the name they gave and boy was it confusing, largely because if you didn’t work inside the Ford company, you wouldn’t know who this person was. In fact many people inside Ford itself didn’t know who Edsel was! You might as well have named it the ‘Ford Steven from down the Road’ or the ‘Ford Daniel who works behind the bar at the local pub!’
Nevertheless, Ford stuck with the name and began their audacious advertising campaign that was soon to go down in history as one of the most over-the-top and uncomfortably forced of all time! Things started well with a fantastically choreographed ‘car dance’, where 16 Edsel’s spun and pirouetted in a formation team. This was very impressive and got things off to a good start with both the press and the public alike, resulting in 2.5 million people flocking to buy themselves an Edsel on New Years Day 1958. But things soon went very wrong when sales stalled at only 150 cars per day, largely due to the fact that Ford had chosen to sell this massive revolutionary car in the middle of the worst recession since World War II! Costing $3,000, the Edsel was hugely more expensive than the car’s it was supposed to be rivalling, which put it in a price bracket of its own, made worse by the fact that people weren’t willing to invest in a cutting-edge machine when cash was short.
Ford decided that the best course of action was to just keep on adding fuel to the flames of trouble by promoting it even more, the only problem being that these adverts were irritating! I’ve seen some Edsel adverts from 1958/59 and the singing makes me cringe even sitting her thinking about it, they were just too annoying for words! I mean I may be a 90’s kid, but even I like some 50’s tunes, but the Edsel commercials drive me mental! At the same time these commercials were plagued with false advertising claims, namely due to the fact that the car was not as special as people had been led to believe, but being no more capable than a Buick of half the price.
But Ford weren’t done yet, and thus product placement was their next port of call, bringing in big names such as Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby to help sell the car in an hour long TV special. The result? Absolutely nothing, except for helping to pay for Sinatra’s, Armstrong’s and Crosby’s new house in Beverley Hills!
Well… not those ponies…
But I am dead serious, Ford did actually try and bring in the masses by offering a free Pony to the children if their parents bought an Edsel! What resulted was that showroom staff were given the arduous task to try and sell the Edsel whilst at the same time look after a stable full of live animals that nobody would have wanted because not everyone is mentally 3 years old! The problem was then compounded when during the recession the price of looking after animals such as horses went through the roof and thus Edsel dealers chose to sell Ponies instead of cars, which proved infinitely more profitable!
Behind the scenes the Edsel was creating a rift between the management and the workforce, the likes of which even British Leyland couldn’t top! Workers loathed building these machines and went on to try and sabotage them, with rattling panels, engines that weren’t fully reliable, and sometimes going so far as to leave a few little things in the cars as well. If it smelt funny, there’d probably be one of the line worker’s half-eaten Tuna sandwiches in the glovebox! The workers however knew they could get away with it because the Quality Control was shambolic at best, barely giving new cars a once over before sending them out to showrooms across America.
Bad press from these poorly made cars was added to when the Ford Vice President went on to say he wanted nothing more than to kill the car off as soon as he could, whilst another Vice President, Richard Nixon, who was pelted with eggs whilst riding in an open top Edsel in Lima, Peru, declared famously “They were throwing eggs at the car, not me!”
In 1958 the car was restyled to look more space age and new, but continued to stick with the controversial front grille. Additionally, many of the novel items of the interior were removed, with the floating Speedo replaced with a conventional horizontal dial, and a gear lever replaced the fantastic touch-button gears.
With the change in car came the change in advertising strategy, replacing the singing and dancing with a more mature form of commercials intended to show the machine was built to be sensible and efficient. But that didn’t mean sense prevailed in all quarters, probably the most famous advert was one where a group of singing and dancing people literally gave us the shirts off their back and got down on their knees for us to buy the car! I’ve heard of forced, but I’ve never actually seen an advert trying to sell a product that has begged people to buy!
In 1959, the final model change came for the ailing Edsel, which finally removed that stupid looking vertical grille and made it look very much like the Ford Thunderbird with smooth, crisp styling and a very modern air about it. In fact if this car had been coupled with the internal assets of the original 1958 model then it could have been one of the best cars of that period ever! But it was far too late to save the Edsel, with the 1960 model only selling 2,800 examples before Ford decided their expensive gamble had long since died the death! November 18th 1959, and the Edsel disappeared forever, but only after they had blown nearly a Billion Dollars on it!
But if you take out the controversial styling, the irritatingly forced promotion, the stupid price and poor build quality, as a mode of transport was the Edsel that bad? In comparison to other American cars of the time, no it wasn’t. Yes it was thirsty and handled like a brick, but so did all large American cars of the time, they were designed to drive in straight lines and this was long before the time of any Oil Crisis so it was only natural to guzzle gas!
Today there is something of a cult following to the Edsel and they have become one of the most desirable nostalgic cars. Originally owners couldn’t even give their cars away, but didn’t realise they were sitting on a nostalgic goldmine of an automobile. You’d be hard pressed to find them here in the UK, but in the States I’m sure there’s plenty badgering about the American open roads. But what we can summarize from the Edsel is the following: How to build the wrong car at the wrong time, name it wrong, give it the wrong price with the wrong design appealing to the wrong kind of market being built in the wrong factories with the wrong workforce, and most crucially, being marketed in all the wrong ways!