A Fun History of The Edsel

edsel-169455_1280In the calendar of American economic life, 1955 was the Year of the Automobile. That year, American automobile makers sold over seven million passenger cars, over a million more than they had sold in any previous year. That year, General Motors easily sold the public $325 million worth of new common stock, and the stock market as a whole, led by the motors, gyrated upward so frantically that Congress investigated it. Also that year, the Ford Motor Company decided to produce a new automobile in what was quaintly called the medium-price range—roughly, from $2,400 to $4,000—and went ahead and designed it more or less in conformity with the fashion of the day, which was for cars that were long, wide, low, lavishly decorated with chrome, liberally supplied with gadgets, and equipped with engines of a power just barely insufficient to send them into orbit. Two years later, in September, 1957, the Ford Company put its new car, the Edsel, on the market with much fanfare. The total amount spent on the Edsel before the first specimen went on sale was announced as a quarter of a billion dollars; its launching—as Business Week declared and nobody cared to deny—was more costly than that of any other consumer product in history. As a starter toward getting its investment back, Ford counted on selling at least 200,000 Edsels the first year.

There may be an aborigine somewhere in a remote rain forest who hasn’t yet heard that the Edsel was a failure. To be precise, two years, two months and fifteen days later Ford had sold only 109,466 Edsels, and many of those were bought by Ford executives, dealers, salesmen, advertising men, assembly-line workers, and others who had a personal interest in seeing the car succeed. The 109,466 amounted to considerably less than one per cent of the passenger cars sold in the United States during that period, and on November 19, 1959, having lost, according to some outside estimates, around $350 million on the Edsel, the Ford Company permanently discontinued its production.

How could this have happened? How could a company so mightily endowed with money, experience, and, presumably, brains have been guilty of such a monumental mistake? The Edsel, many people argued, was designed, named, advertised, and promoted with a slavish adherence to the results of public-opinion polls and motivational research, and they concluded that when the public is wooed in an excessively calculated manner, it tends to turn away in favor of some gruffer but more spontaneously attentive suitor. Several years ago, in the face of an understandable reticence on the part of the Ford Motor Company, I set out to learn what I could about the Edsel debacle, and my investigations have led me to believe that what we have here is less than the whole truth.

For, although the Edsel was supposed to be advertised, and otherwise promoted, strictly on the basis of preferences expressed in polls, some old-fashioned snake-oil-selling methods, intuitive rather than scientific, crept in. Although it was supposed to have a modern name, science was curtly discarded at the last minute and the Edsel was named for the father of the company’s president, like a nineteenth-century brand of cough drops or saddle soap. As for the design, it was arrived at without even a pretense of consulting the polls, but by simply pooling the hunches of sundry company committees, as had been a long-standing practice. The common explanation of the Edsel’s downfall, then, under scrutiny, turns out to be largely a myth, in the colloquial sense of that term. But the facts of the case may live to become a myth of a symbolic sort—a modern American anti-success story.

THE origins of the Edsel go back to the fall of 1948. Henry Ford II, president and boss since his father, the original Henry passed away, proposed to the company’s executive committee, which included Ernest R. Breech, the executive vice-president, that studies be undertaken concerning the wisdom of putting on the market a new and wholly different medium-priced car. The studies were undertaken. There appeared to be good reason for them. It was a well-known practice at the time for low-income owners of Fords, Plymouths, and Chevrolets to turn in their symbols of inferior caste as soon as their earnings rose above five thousand dollars a year, and “trade up” to a medium-priced car. From Ford’s point of view, this would have been all well and good except that, for some reason, Ford owners usually traded up not to Mercury, the company’s only medium-priced car, but to one or another of the medium-priced cars put out by its big rivals—Oldsmobile, Buick, and Pontiac, among the General Motors products, and, to a lesser extent, Dodge and De Soto, the Chrysler candidates. Lewis D. Crusoe, then a vice-president of the Ford Motor Company, was not overstating the case when he said, “We have been growing customers for General Motors.”

The outbreak of the Korean War, in 1950, meant that Ford had no choice but to go on growing customers for its competitors, since introducing a new car at such a time was out of the question. The company’s executive committee put aside the studies proposed by President Ford, and there matters rested for two years. Late in 1952, however, the end of the war appeared sufficiently imminent for the company to pick up where it had left off, and the studies were energetically resumed by a group called the Forward Product Planning Committee, which turned over much of the detailed work to the Lincoln-Mercury Division, under the direction of Richard Krafve (pronounced Kraffy), the division’s assistant general manager, a rather saturnine man with a habitually puzzled look, in his middle forties. The son of a printer on a small farm journal in Minnesota, he had been a sales engineer and management consultant before joining Ford in 1947, and although he could not have known it in 1952, he was to have reason to look puzzled. As the man directly responsible for the Edsel and its fortunes, enjoying its brief glory and attending it in its mortal agonies, he had a rendezvous with destiny.

In December, 1954, after two years’ work, the Forward Product Planning Committee submitted to the executive committee a six-volume blockbuster of a report summarizing its findings. Supported by copious statistics, the report predicted the arrival of the American millennium, or something a lot like it, in 1965. By that time, the Forward Product Planning Committee estimated, the gross national product would be $535 billion a year—up more than $135 billion in a decade. (As a matter of fact, this part of the millennium arrived much sooner than the Forward Planners estimated. The G. N. P. passed $535 billion in 1962, and for 1965 was $681 billion.) The number of cars in operation would be seventy million—up twenty million. More than half the families in the nation would have incomes of over five thousand dollars a year, and more than 40 percent of all the cars sold would be in the medium-price range or better. The report’s picture of America in 1965 was of a country after Detroit’s own heart—its banks oozing money, its streets and highways choked with huge, dazzling medium-priced cars, its newly rich, “upwardly mobile” citizens racked with longings for more of them. The moral was clear. If by that time Ford had not come out with a second medium-priced car—not just a new model, but a new make—and made it a favorite in its field, the company would miss out on its share of the national boodle.

On the other hand, the Ford bosses were well aware of the enormous risks connected with putting a new car on the market. They knew, for example, that of the 2,900 American makes that had been introduced since the beginning of the Automobile Age—the Black Crow (1905), the Averageman’s Car (1906), the Bug-mobile (1907), the Dan Patch (1911), and the Lone Star (1920) among them—only about twenty were still around. They knew all about the automotive casualties that had followed the Second World War—among them Crosley, which had given up altogether, and Kaiser Motors, which, though still alive in 1954, was breathing its last. (The members of the Forward Product Planning Committee must have glanced at each other uneasily when, a year later, Henry J. Kaiser wrote, in a valediction to his car business, “We expected to toss fifty million dollars into the automobile pond, but we didn’t expect it to disappear without a ripple.”) The Ford men also knew that neither of the other members of the industry’s powerful and well-heeled Big Three—General Motors and Chrysler—had ventured to bring out a new standard-size make since the former’s La Salle in 1927, and the latter’s Plymouth, in 1928, and that Ford itself had not attempted to turn the trick since 1938, when it launched the Mercury.

Nevertheless, the Ford men felt bullish—so remarkably bullish that they resolved to toss into the automobile pond five times the sum that Kaiser had. In April, 1955, Henry Ford II, Breech, and the other members of the executive committee officially approved the Forward Product Planning Committee’s findings, and, to implement them, set up another agency, called the Special Products Division, with the star-crossed Krafve as its head. Thus the company gave its formal sanction to the efforts of its designers, who, having divined the trend of events, had already been doodling for several months on plans for a new car. Since neither they nor the newly organized Krafve outfit, when it took over, had an inkling of what the thing on their drawing boards might be called, it became known to everybody at Ford, and even in the company’s press releases, as the E-Car—the “E,” it was explained, standing for “Experimental.”

The man directly in charge of the E-Car’s design—or, to use the gruesome trade word, “styling”—was a Canadian, then not yet forty, named Roy A. Brown who stated “We decided to select [a style that] would be ‘new’ in the sense that it was unique, and yet at the same time be familiar.”

The E-Car had been fully styled by midsummer of 1955. As the world was to learn two years later, its most striking aspect was a novel, horse-collar-shaped radiator grille, set vertically in the center of a conventionally low, wide front end—a blend of the unique and the familiar that was there for all to see, though certainly not for all to admire. In two prominent respects, however, Brown or Krafve, or both, lost sight entirely of the familiar, specifying a unique rear end, marked by widespread horizontal wings that were in bold contrast to the huge longitudinal tail fins then captivating the market, and a unique cluster of automatic-transmission push buttons on the hub of the steering wheel. On August 15, 1955, the members of the Forward Product Planning Committee, including Henry Ford II and Breech, watched critically as a curtain was lifted to reveal the first full-size model of the E-Car—a clay one, with tinfoil simulating aluminum and chrome. According to eyewitnesses, the audience sat in utter silence for what seemed like a full minute, and then, as one man, burst into a round of applause. Nothing of the kind had ever happened at an intra-company first showing at Ford since 1896, when old Henry had bolted together his first horseless carriage.

ONE of the most persuasive and most frequently cited explanations of the Edsel’s failure is that it took so long to produce it. It was easy to see a few years later, when smaller and less powerful cars, euphemistically called “compacts,” that the Edsel was a giant step in the wrong direction, but it was far from easy to see that in fat, tail-finny 1955.

Before spirited but responsible adventurers could have faith in the E-Car, however, it had to have a name. Very early in its history, Krafve had suggested to members of the Ford family that the new car be named for Edsel Ford, who was the only son of old Henry; the president of the Ford Motor Company from 1918 until his death, in 1943; and the father of the new generation of Fords—Henry II, Benson, and William Clay. The three brothers had let Krafve know that their father might not have cared to have his name spinning on a million hubcaps, and they had consequently suggested that the Special Products Division start looking around for a substitute.

The executives in the Special Products Division called in Foote, Cone & Belding, the advertising agency that had lately been signed up to handle the E-Car account. With characteristic Madison Avenue vigor, Foote, Cone & Belding organized a competition among the employees of its New York, London, and Chicago offices, offering nothing less than one of the brand-new cars as a prize to whoever thought up an acceptable name. In no time at all, Foote, Cone & Belding had eighteen thousand names in hand, including Zoom, Zip, Benson, Henry, and Drof (if in doubt, spell it backward). Suspecting that the bosses of the Special Products Division might regard this list as a trifle unwieldy, the agency got to work and cut it down to six thousand names, which it presented to them in executive session. “There you are,” a Foote, Cone man said triumphantly, flopping a sheaf of papers on the table. “Six thousand names, all alphabetized and cross-referenced.”A gasp escaped Krafve. “But we don’t want six thousand names,” he said. “We only want one.”

The situation was critical, because the making of dies for the new car was about to begin and some of them would have to bear its name. On a Thursday, Foote, Cone & Belding canceled all leaves and instituted what is called a crash program, instructing its New York and Chicago offices to set about independently cutting down the list of six thousand names to ten and to have the job done by the end of the weekend. Before the weekend was over, the two Foote, Cone offices presented their separate lists of ten to the Special Products Division, and by an almost incredible coincidence, which all hands insist was a coincidence, four of the names on the two lists were the same; Corsair, Citation, Pacer, and Ranger had miraculously survived the dual scrutiny. “Corsair seemed to be head and shoulders above everything else,” Wallace says. “Along with other factors in its favor, it had done splendidly in the sidewalk interviews. The free associations with Corsair were rather romantic—‘pirate,’ ‘swashbuckler,’ things like that. For its opposite, we got ‘princess,’ or something else attractive on that order. Just what we wanted.”

Corsair or no Corsair, the E-Car was named the Edsel in the early spring of 1956, though the public was not informed until the following autumn. The epochal decision was reached at a meeting of the Ford executive committee held at a time when, as it happened, all three Ford brothers were away. In President Ford’s absence, the meeting was conducted by Breech, who had become chairman of the board in 1955, and his mood that day was brusque, and not one to linger long over swashbucklers and princesses. After hearing the final choices, he said, “I don’t like any of them. Let’s take another look at some of the others.” So they took another look at the favored rejects, among them the name Edsel, which, in spite of the three Ford brothers’ expressed interpretation of their father’s probable wishes, had been retained as a sort of anchor to windward. Breech led his associates in a patient scrutiny of the list until they came to “Edsel.” “Let’s call it that,” Breech said with calm finality. There were to be four main models of the E-Car, with variations on each one, and Breech soothed some of his colleagues by adding that the magic four—Corsair, Citation, Pacer, and Ranger—might be used, if anybody felt so inclined, as the subnames for the models. A telephone call was put through to Henry II, who was vacationing in Nassau. He said that if Edsel was the choice of the executive committee, he would abide by its decision, provided he could get the approval of the rest of his family. Within a few days, he got it.

The man charged with mobilizing an Edsel sales force was J. C. (Larry) Doyle, who, as general sales-and-marketing manager of the division, ranked second to Krafve himself. A veteran of forty years with the Ford Company, who had started with it as an office boy in Kansas City and had spent the intervening time mainly selling, Doyle was a maverick in his field. He knew how to sell cars, and that was what the Edsel Division needed. Recalling how he and his sales staff brought off the unlikely trick of persuading substantial and reputable men who had already achieved success in one of the toughest of all businesses to tear up profitable franchises in favor of a risky new one, Doyle said not long ago, “As soon as the first few new Edsels came through, early in 1957, we put a couple of them in each of our five regional sales offices. Needless to say, we kept those offices locked and the blinds drawn. Dealers in every make for miles around wanted to see the car, if only out of curiosity, and that gave us the leverage we needed. We let it be known that we would show the car only to dealers who were really interested in coming with us, and then we sent our regional field managers out to surrounding towns to try to line up the No.1 dealer in each to see the cars. If we couldn’t get No. 1, we’d try for No. 2. Anyway, we set things up so that no one got in to see the Edsel without listening to a complete one-hour pitch on the whole situation by a member of our sales force. It worked very well.” It worked so well that by midsummer, 1957, it was clear that Edsel was going to have a lot of quality dealers on Introduction Day.

Now that the Edsel was no longer the exclusive concern of Dearborn, the Ford Company was irrevocably committed to going ahead. “Until Doyle went into action, the whole program could have been quietly dropped at any time at a word from top management, but once the dealers had been signed up, there was the matter of honoring your contract to put out a car,” Krafve has explained. The matter was attended to with dispatch. Early in June, 1957, the company announced that of the $250 million it had set aside to defray the advance costs of the Edsel, $150 million was being spent on basic facilities, including the conversion of various Ford and Mercury plants to the needs of producing the new cars; $50 million on special Edsel tooling; and $50 million on initial advertising and promotion. Within a few weeks, the Edsel Division had eighteen hundred salaried employees and was rapidly filling some fifteen-thousand factory jobs in the newly converted plants. On July 15th, Edsels began rolling off assembly lines at Somerville, Massachusetts; Mahwah, New Jersey; Louisville, Kentucky; and San Jose, California. The same day, Doyle scored an important coup by signing up Charles Kreisler, a Manhattan dealer regarded as one of the country’s foremost practitioners in his field, who had represented Oldsmobile—one of Edsel’s self-designated rivals—before heeding the siren song from Dearborn. On July 22nd, the first advertisement for the Edsel appeared—in Life. A two-page spread in plain black-and-white, it was impeccably classic and calm, showing a car whooshing down a country highway at such high speed that it was an indistinguishable blur. “Lately, some mysterious automobiles have been seen on the roads,” the accompanying text was headed. It went on to say that the blur was an Edsel being road-tested, and concluded with the assurance “The Edsel is on its way.” Two weeks later, a second ad appeared in Life, this one showing a ghostly-looking car, covered with a white sheet, standing at the entrance to the Ford styling center. This time the headline read, “A man in your town recently made a decision that will change his life.” The decision, it was explained, was to become an Edsel dealer. Whoever wrote the ad cannot have known how truly he spoke.

DURING the tense summer of 1957, the man of the hour at Edsel was C. Gayle Warnock, director of public relations, whose duty was not so much to generate public interest in the forthcoming product, there being an abundance of that, as to keep the interest at white heat, and readily convertible into a desire to buy one of the new cars on or after Introduction Day—or, as the company came to call it, Edsel Day. Recalling his summons to Dearborn, Warnock says, “When Dick Krafve hired me, back in the fall of 1955, he told me, ‘I want you to program the E-Car publicity from now to Introduction Day.’ I said, ‘Frankly, Dick, what do you mean by “program”?’ He said he meant to sort of space it out, starting at the end and working backward. This was something new to me—I was used to taking what breaks I could get when I could get them—but I soon found out how right Dick was. It was almost too easy to get publicity for the Edsel. Early in 1956, when it was still called the E-Car, Krafve gave a little talk about it out in Portland, Oregon. We didn’t try for anything more than a play in the local press, but the wire services picked the story up and it went out all over the country. Clippings came in by the bushel. Right then I realized the trouble we might be headed for. The public was getting to be hysterical to see our car, figuring it was going to be some kind of dream car—like nothing they’d ever seen. I said to Krafve, ‘When they find out it’s got four wheels and one engine, just like the next car, they’re liable to be disappointed.’”

In July, 1957, the stock market went into a nose-dive, marking the beginning of what is recalled as the recession of 1958. Then, early in August, a decline in the sales of medium-priced 1957 cars of all makes set in, and the general situation worsened so rapidly that, before the month was out, Automotive News reported that dealers in all makes were ending their season with the second-largest number of unsold new cars in history. In August, Mercury, Edsel’s own stable mate, served notice that it was going to make things as tough as possible for the newcomer by undertaking a million-dollar, thirty-day advertising drive aimed especially at “price-conscious buyers”—a clear reference to the fact that the 1957 Mercury, which was then being sold at a discount by most dealers, cost less than the new Edsel was expected to. Meanwhile, sales of the Rambler, which was the only American-made small car then in production, were beginning to rise ominously.

The three-day press preview of the Edsel, was held in Detroit and Dearborn on August 26th, 27th, and 28th, with 250 reporters from all over the country in attendance. It differed from previous automotive jamborees of its kind in that the journalists were invited to bring their wives along—and many of them did. Before it was over, it had cost the Ford Company ninety thousand dollars. Warnock could do no better for the reporters and their wives when they converged on the Detroit scene on Sunday evening, August 25th, than to put them up at the discouragingly named Sheraton-Cadillac Hotel and to arrange for them to spend Monday afternoon hearing and reading about the long-awaited details of the entire crop of Edsels—eighteen varieties available, in four main lines (Corsair, Citation, Pacer, and Ranger), differing mainly in their size, power, and trim. The next morning, specimens of the models themselves were revealed to the reporters in the styling center’s rotunda, and Henry II offered a few words of tribute to his father. “The wives were not asked to the unveiling,” a Foote, Cone man who helped plan the affair recalls. “It was too solemn and businesslike an event for that. It went over fine. There was excitement even among the hardened newspapermen.” (The import of the stories that most of the excited newspapermen filed was that the Edsel seemed to be a good car, though not so radical as its billing had suggested.)

In the afternoon, the reporters were whisked out to the test track to see a team of stunt drivers put the Edsel through its paces. This event, calculated to be thrilling, turned out to be hair-raising, and even, for some, a little unstringing. Enjoined not to talk too much about speed and horsepower, since only a few months previously the whole automobile industry had nobly resolved to concentrate on making cars instead of delayed-action bombs, Warnock had decided to emphasize the Edsel’s liveliness through deeds rather than words, and to accomplish this he had hired a team of stunt drivers. Edsels ran over two-foot ramps on two wheels, bounced from higher ramps on all four wheels, were driven in crisscross patterns, grazing each other, at sixty or seventy miles per hour, and skidded into complete turns at fifty. For comic relief, there was a clown driver parodying the daredevil stuff. All the while, the voice of Neil L. Blume, Edsel’s engineering chief, could be heard on a loudspeaker, purring about “the capabilities, the safety, the ruggedness, the maneuverability and performance of these new cars,” and skirting the words “speed” and “horsepower” as delicately as a sandpiper skirts a wave. The stunt driving, like the unveiling, was considered too rich for the blood of the wives, but the resourceful Warnock was ready for them with a fashion show that he hoped they would find at least equally diverting. He need not have worried. The star of the show, who was introduced by Brown, the Edsel stylist, as a Paris couturière, both beautiful and talented, turned out at the final curtain to be a female impersonator—a fact of which Warnock, to heighten the verisimilitude of the act, had given Brown no advance warning. Things were never again quite the same since between Brown and Warnock, but the wives were able to give their husbands an extra paragraph or two for their stories.

That evening, there was a big gala for one and all at the styling center, which was itself styled as a night club for the occasion, complete with a fountain that danced in time with the music of Ray McKinley’s band, whose emblem, the letters “GM”—a holdover from the days of its founder, the late Glenn Miller—was emblazoned, as usual, on the music stand of each musician, very nearly ruining the evening for Warnock. The next morning, at a windup press conference held by Ford officials. Breech declared of the Edsel, “It’s a husky youngster, and, like most other new parents, we’re proud enough to pop our buttons.”

Then seventy-one of the reporters took the wheels of as many Edsels and set out for home—not to drive the cars into their garages but to deliver them to the showrooms of their local Edsel dealers. Let Warnock describe the highlights of this final flourish: “There were several unfortunate occurrences. One guy simply miscalculated and cracked up his car running into something. No fault of the Edsel there. One car lost its oil pan, so naturally the motor froze. It can happen to the best of cars. Fortunately, at the time of this malfunction the driver was going through a beautiful-sounding town—Paradise, Kansas, I think it was—and that gave the news reports about it a nice little positive touch. The nearest dealer gave the reporter a new Edsel, and he drove on home, climbing Pikes Peak on the way. Then one car crashed through a tollgate when the brakes failed. That was bad. It’s funny, but the thing we were most worried about—other drivers being so eager to get a look at the Edsels that they’d crowd our cars off the road—happened only once. That was on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. One of our reporters was tooling along—no problems—when a Plymouth driver pulled up alongside to rubberneck, and edged so close that the Edsel got sideswiped. Minor damage.”

On September 3rd—E Day-minus-one—the prices of the various Edsel models were announced; for cars delivered to New York they ran from just under $2,800 to just over $4,100. On E Day, the Edsel arrived. In Cambridge, a band led a gleaming motorcade of the new cars up Massachusetts Avenue; flying out of Richmond, California, a helicopter hired by one of the most jubilant of the dealers lassoed by Doyle spread a giant Edsel sign above San Francisco Bay; and all over the nation, from the Louisiana bayous to the peak of Mount Rainier to the Maine woods, one needed only a radio or a television set to know that the very air, was quivering with the presence of the Edsel. The tone for Edsel Day’s blizzard of publicity was set by an ad, published in newspapers all over the country, in which the Edsel shared the spotlight with the Ford Company’s President Ford and Chairman Breech. In the ad, Ford looked like a dignified young father, Breech like a dignified gentleman holding a full house against a possible straight, the Edsel just looked like an Edsel. The accompanying text declared that the decision to produce the car had been “based on what we knew, guessed, felt, believed, suspected—about you,” and added, “YOU are the reason behind the Edsel.” The tone was calm and confident. There did not seem to be much room for doubt about the reality of that full house.

Before sundown, it was estimated, 2,850,000 people had seen the new car in dealers’ showrooms. Three days later, in North Philadelphia, an Edsel was stolen. It can reasonably be argued that the crime marked the high-water mark of public acceptance of the Edsel; only a few months later, any but the least fastidious of car thieves might not have bothered.