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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