The Story of the Edsel, Ford’s Infamously Failed Car Brand of the 1950s

For 60 years now, the name Edsel has been synonymous with failure. In a way, this vindicates the position of Henry Ford II, who opposed labeling a brand of cars with the name of his father Edsel Ford. The son of Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford, Edsel Ford died young in 1943, and thus didn’t live to see “E Day,” the rollout of his namesake line of automobiles. It happened on September 4, 1957, the culmination of two years of research and development on what was for most of that time called the “E car,” the letter having been chosen to indicate the project’s experimental nature. Alas, all seven of Edsel’s first models struck the American public as too conventional to stand out — and at the same time, too odd to buy.

You can hear the story of Edsel in the two videos above, one from transportation enthusiast Ruairidh MacVeigh and another from Regular Car Reviews. Both offer explanations of how the brand’s cars were conceived, and what went wrong enough in their execution to make them a laughing stock still today. No Edsel postmortem can fail to consider the name itself, a choice made in desperation after the rejection of more than 6,000 other possibilities presented by the advertising firm of Foote, Cone & Belding.

Its manager of marketing research also unofficially sought the counsel of modernist poet Marianne Moore, whose suggestions included “Utopian Turtletop,” “Resilient Bullet,” “Mongoose Civique,” and “The Impeccable.”

Another factor cited as a cause of Edsel’s disappointing sales is its cars’ signature vertical grille, derided early on for its shape resembling a horse collar — among other, less mentionable things. Such aesthetic missteps may not have sunk the brand on their own, but they certainly didn’t counteract the effects of other, more mundane conditions. These included persistent assembly-line problems (without a dedicated factory, Edsels tended occasionally to come out with parts improperly installed or absent) and a 1957 economic recession that made upper-middle-tier automobiles of this kind unappealing to the American driver. Even the top-rated CBS television special The Edsel Show — despite its performances from the likes of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, and Louis Armstrong — drummed up little public enthusiasm.

Edsel lasted only from 1958 to 1960, in which time Ford manufactured 118,287 of its cars in total. Six decades after the mark’s retirement, fewer than 10,000 Edsel cars survive — most of them as sought-after collector’s items. For Edsels now have their appreciators, as evidenced by the video above from professional mid-century Americana enthusiast Charles Phoenix, who marvels over every feature of a 1958 Citation, Edsel’s top-of-the-line model, from its Teletouch push-button gear selector to its customizable speed-warning indicator. (Seatbelts came standard, despite being optional extras on other cars of the day.) Current Edsel owners also include lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, who showed off her mint 1958 Roundup in a recent video with Jay Leno — though she seems rather prouder of also owning Edsel Ford’s house.

Related Content:

The Museum of Failure: A Living Shrine to New Coke, the Ford Edsel, Google Glass & Other Epic Corporate Fails

A Flying Car Took to the Skies Back in 1949: See the Taylor Aerocar in Action

A Hulking 1959 Chevy Bel Air Gets Obliterated by a Mid-Size 2009 Chevy Malibu in a Crash Test

The Hertella Coffee Machine Mounted on a Volkswagen Dashboard (1959): The Most European Car Accessory Ever Made

178,000 Images Documenting the History of the Car Now Available on a New Stanford Web Site

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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