“Hey Fred, did you see that special on Channel 6 last night?” “You mean the Edsel show? Wow, that was the greatest! Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Rosemary Clooney, all together on the same show!” “Yeah, and Bob Hope showed up too. It looked live, not that crummy kinescope we always get. Too bad the car is such a pig.” “Looks like an Oldsmobile that sucked a lemon.” “Like Frank Sinatra would drive an Edsel. What a joke.”
We all know the Edsel as the big failure, the record-setting money loser, the unbelievably ugly bulgemobile. So it’s hard to imagine a time when no one had ever seen an Edsel. And everyone wanted to. “E-Day”, September 4, 1957, was coming. American culture reigned supreme in the world, Detroit reigned supreme in American culture, and the fall tradition of the “all new” models was eagerly anticipated by every man and boy. This year, a month ahead of all the other new cars, something really big was coming from Ford, something mysterious, a car unlike any other. The car of the future, the car that would change everything. They said so in the papers, the magazines, on TV, everywhere you looked. E-Day was coming.
The hype was spectacular. Edsel ad man Fairfax Cone of the Foote, Cone & Belding agency (“Aren’t you glad you use Dial? Dont you wish everybody did?”) created an unprecedented amount of excitement and anticipation. Two-page ads in Life started in July. “Early this week, a group of big automotive carriers cleared the yards of six giant U.S. plants and rolled out into the night. Balling the jack. Because their steel racks held something they had never held before. They were loaded with a new kind of car. … ‘Man, would I like to have one of those.'” Super-secret Edsels, covered and hidden like flying saucers. E-Day was coming.
Advertising and ad men were riding high in the Fifties. Life was good in post-Depression post-war America. Wide, smooth new highways. See the USA! Plenty of money around, and plenty of exciting new cars to spend it on. They were all there on your new TV! In the commercials and in the shows, everyone drove wonderful new cars.
In Detroit, planned obsolescence was the business model. Crank out big cars loud and fast. Don’t spend too much on quality, it’ll be obsolete in three years anyway, once the next set of style changes and gizmos comes out. Besides, advertising has become scientific! Ad men know the psychology of the American consumer, his eight essential needs that can never be completely satisfied. Status, excitement, security, these are buttons we can push as needed. Now with the power of television, we have their eyes and ears and minds every night. Finally, E-Day is here!
Heavy Turnout to see Edsels Ames (Iowa) Tribune, September 5, 1957, “A crowd estimated at some 10,000 people turned out Wednesday to view the unveiling of the completely new Edsel automobile at Larry Peterson Edsel Sales here… The viewers consumed 45 gallons of coffee and 54 dozen doughnuts during the day, Peterson said.”
The entire 1960 population of Ames, Iowa, was 27,003. 2.5 million Americans poured into Edsel showrooms on E-Day. What they saw was a bunch of ’58 Fords and Mercurys with horse-collar grilles (classic!), push-button (Teletouch!) transmissions and weird (Rolling Dome!) speedometers. Millions looked, very few bought. After ten days it was a clear catastrophe. Ultimately Ford lost $400 million on the Edsel – $3 billion in 2010 dollars.
But the show must go on…..A month later, just a week after Sputnik shocked the country, Ford put on a major TV special, The Edsel Show. Sunday night, October 13, 1957, it preempted Ed Sullivan on CBS, entirely sponsored by Ford, starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Louis Armstrong and Rosemary Clooney.
This was a top-quality production. Only three Edsel commercials, about 2 1/2 minutes each, came between some of the best jazz and pop music ever seen on television. The Edsel Show was a great success, with 50 million viewers, 30% of the whole US population! Too bad nobody cared about the car.
Rosemary Clooney said the afternoon of the show, “I came out of the CBS Building, up those little steps to the street where my purple Edsel was waiting, like the Normandie in drydock. Mr. Ford was right behind me, heading for his Edsel. I opened the door of my car and the handle came off. I turned to him, holding it out to him. “About your car…””
Unlike the Edsel, the Edsel Show was in fact something the world had never seen, something that did change the world forever. It was the first network entertainment program to be videotaped.
Hard to believe in the age of pocket camcorders, but the networks operated for a decade, and sent programs from coast to coast, without any way to record TV. Some sitcoms like “I Love Lucy” were filmed, but everything else was live. Live in the East that is. On the West Coast, all they could do was film the live show right off a monitor screen, rush the film to be developed, and run the film three hours later. These were called kinescopes, they were expensive, and they looked terrible. In 1956 the gang at Ampex in what’s now called the Silicon Valley, developed the first broadcast-quality video tape recorder.
Bing and the gang actually did the show live for the east at 4pm Pacific, and the west got a crisp, clear videotape at 7, which they all watched at a big party at Bing’s house. You can watch the entire Edsel Show at the Internet Archive. Between the solid gold musicians and the solid lead advertising, I recommend it.
After such a catastrophe, you would think anyone proposing another E-Day-type promotion at Ford would get a swift bullet in the neck. Not Lee Iacocca. Less than seven years after E-Day came another big date: April 17, 1964. Huge anticipation. Crowds in the showrooms. M-Day went a little better.