Ford’s Unfortunate Edsel

If the subject of the “ultimate failure of an American car model” ever comes up, someone is going to mention the Ford Edsel.  The Edsel has been considered the mother of all car failures and sales were dismal. It has been said it had a terrible design, terrible reliability and the public just simply hated it.  As it turns out, there is some truth to these statements but the story is much deeper than that.

Ford Edsel

Image From Wikipedia

First, let’s look at why the why the Edsel was developed. In the mid-’50s, Ford Motor Company had only one mid-priced car, the Mercury. Because of General Motors various divisions, they had three mid-priced cars – Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick. Chrysler also had had three – Dodge, DeSoto and Chrysler. Ford simply needed another model and the Edsel was born.

Finally introduced in 1958, the Edsel featured nice styling, a V-8 engine, and distinctive technical innovations such as push button transmission controls on the steering wheel hub. During the 1958 model year, 63,110 Edsels were produced. For every two Mercurys sold, one Edsel was sold. As Kayser Ford in Madison, WI points out, not bad for a car in its first year of life. However, everything changed in 1959. Sales for the Edsel absolutely died.  The question is why?

Was it the name?

Many experts have claimed the problem with the Edsel was the name. It’s certainly not a great name for an automobile but it’s certainly no worse than some of the others that were out there, for example “Oldsmobile” (a car for Old People?). As it turns out, many names were floated around but Ford executives finally named the car after Henry Ford’s only son, Edsel, who died in 1943.

Was it the quality?

Other automotive journalists claimed that that Edsels were poorly built, which drove customers away. To be sure Edsels had some quality problems, but so did many of the cars coming off the assembly lines at Ford, General Motors and Chrysler in 1958. The 1950s were not considered a decade of superior automobile quality.

Was it the timing?

People have said the timing was bad for introducing the Edsel. That’s certainly true. The so-called ‘Eisenhower Recession’ began in 1957 and extended through 1958. It was not a good time to introduce a new car product. In fact, car sales in general were stalled.  The Edsel was caught up in these times but so was the entire automotive industry.

Was it an internal affair?

Many point the finger at Ford Group Vice-President, Robert McNamara, later U.S. Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy Administration. McNamara never liked the Edsel. It looked too flashy, he thought, and it didn’t resonate with his sense of what an automobile should be – a no-nonsense, practical car, like the Ford Falcon. In January 1958, McNamara disbanded the independent Edsel Division, folding it into the Lincoln-Mercury Division. This killed dealer enthusiasm and support. In November of 1959, a few weeks after the introduction of the 1960 Edsel, production ended for good.

Today, the Edsel story is a footnote concerning a historic period in automotive technology and marketing. Why was the Edsel such a failure?  Perhaps all the above contributed in one way or another.