Car Show Classic: 1958 Edsel Corsair – Failure Is A Five-Letter World

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Edsel. Could there possibly be another car in all of history that is more notoriously associated with failure? Famously referred to as “the wrong car at the wrong time” in retrospect, the very full-sized Edsel debuted amidst a sharp economic downturn lasting from mid-1957 to mid-1958. In that time, new car sales in the U.S. had fallen nearly 50% compared to the levels in 1955.

The whole trigger for Edsel’s creation resulted from Ford’s desire for an additional brand to fill the price gaps in its hierarchy, with the hope of retaining more customers under the Ford umbrella as they moved up the ladder to more expensive cars. With the addition of Edsel, as well as making Continental a separate marque positioned above Lincoln, Ford would have a five brand strategy equivalent to GM and Chrysler.

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Initially, the idea was to introduce a separate Mercury companion line that was priced above the existing Mercury, similar to Continental was with Lincoln. A concept car, the Mercury XM-800, was paraded around in 1954, and was reportedly ready for production as a 1956. However, the car and idea were rejected by Henry Ford II, who wanted an entirely new car created from scratch.

Development for this new experimental “E-Car” began in 1955, with four model lines planned – two based on the larger Mercury platform and two based on the smaller Ford platform. Ford claimed that its extensive marketing research enabled it to build the perfect car, with broad appeal and universal acceptance, capable of selling on its own merits and thus guaranteeing its success in the market. If only things had gone that smoothly.

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You see the whole Edsel venture was flawed from the very beginning. Through all the claimed extensive market research, pre-production Edsel designs were never tested with focus groups of consumers to gauge their opinions, and even Edsel dealers did not catch a glimpse of the car they’d be selling until it arrived on their lots, wrapped in covering until Edsel’s official launch.

The fact that Ford was so overconfident Edsel would be an astounding success and had invested some $400 million into Edsel (roughly, $3.2 billion in 2015) speaks to how conceited (and clueless) Ford was with the whole program. Ford generated a significant amount of hype leading up to the Edsel’s launch, marketing is as something that was completely new and exciting. Promotional material referred to it as “never before a car like it”. Needless to say, buyers were disappointed when they arrived at dealers to find that Edsels were only heavily restyled Fords and Mercurys.

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The initial MX-800 concept was conceived with the notion of slotting between Mercury and Lincoln. However, with the Edsel, Ford sought to dually target young, upwardly-mobile professionals “moving up” from both Ford and Mercury, to Mercury and Lincoln, respectively. As a result, Edsel’s pricing structure encompassed that of Mercury, with the Ranger and Pacer priced below Mercury and the Citation and Corsair priced higher. This excluded Mercury’s newly introduced flagship Park Lane that rode on a three-inch longer wheelbase and was also, rather confusingly priced into Lincoln territory.

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More so, when equipped with options, Edsels and Mercurys competed directly with each other in terms of price. If Edsel was intended to provide buyers with something to step up into, why would they want to go from Ford to Edsel to Mercury, and then back to Edsel again before moving up to Lincoln? This was hardly the process buyers who cared about “keeping up with the Jones'” wanted.

Additionally, Ford’s marketing of the 1958 Edsels didn’t do much to resolve this confusion either, as promotional materials referred to the Edsel as priced from “just above the lowest to just below the highest”. One brochure compares Edsel to everything from Plymouth to Cadillac. In retrospect, the positioning strategy behind Edsel doesn’t seem so far-fetched, as in today’s world, cars from mainstream and luxury brands seem to overlap more than ever in price and features. But for 1958, this idea was just a little ahead of its time.

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Rather quickly, the 1958 Edsels also earned the unfortunate reputation of poor build quality and reliability. With no dedicated assembly plant or even production line, Edsels were assembled on the very same lines as either Fords or Mercurys. Autoworkers were forced to switch to different tooling, components, and mechanics for the lower volume Edsels, which was both challenging and inconvenient.

Quality control comprised of assigning each Edsel that rolled off the assembly line a numbered score. If the average score of all cars produced during the day was of acceptable levels, then every single Edsel was sent out to dealers, regardless of how the build quality of each individual car varied. In some cases, Edsels actually left assembly plants incomplete, with missing or unassembled parts, leaving it up to dealers to complete assembly with given notes of instruction.

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Of course, the Edsel’s most infamous flaw (whether or not it was actually its most detrimental flaw) was its styling. Ford’s initial market research showed that Edsel’s target market wanted a car that was easily recognizable from any angle, with a prominent hood and grille, and a jet-age inspired cockpit. At the very least, Ford delivered on those requests, but unfortunately the final product was not so welcomely embraced.

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While most of the car’s styling was inoffensive enough, the chosen front fascia with its prominent “impact ring” vertical oval grille was the subject of much disdain and controversy. Combined with the horizontally oriented twin headlights, split lower grilles and bumpers, it was admittedly not the most beautiful face on a car in 1958. But that grille was, and remains to this day, the most talked about feature of the Edsel, besides its catastrophic failure of course.

While more positive comparisons referred to it as a “horsecollar”, it drew less flattering comparisons to “an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon”, or more explicitly, a distinctive part of the female anatomy – not something that Ward and June Cleaver wanted Wally and the Beaver to think of every time they pilled into the family car for a Sunday drive.

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Between these and other more minor issues, such as Edsel’s confusing and trouble-prone “Teletouch” pushbutton automatic transmission (as seen on this Corsair), the Edsel failed spectacularly. Combined U.S. and Canadian sales of 1958 models totaled just 68,045 units. All things considered, this was not a bad number, but it was only a fraction of the 200,000 units Ford had projected and actually needed in order to break even on their investment.

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Despite a simplified lineup and greatly toned down styling for 1959, Edsel sales dipped to just 47,396, even as the economy was improving and nearly every other automobile brand posted sales gains over 1958. For the 1960 model year, the Edsel’s product range was further trimmed to just one car line and wagon, and cleaner styling did away with the vertical oval grille completely. However, this was merely too little too late for the death-marked Edsel brand, and Ford pulled the plug in November 1959, after just 2,846 completed 1960 models had rolled off assembly lines.

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The whole program was a colossal failure for Ford, costing the automaker an estimated $250-350 million in losses (represented in 1958 U.S. dollars), and given Ford’s significant investment and total confidence that it would be an incredible success, Edsel has become synonymous with the word “failure”.

In truth, apart from some build quality issues, the Edsel wasn’t a horrible car. It offered several innovations, among the most powerful V8 engines in its class, and a long list of available features. Nevertheless, it was ill-timed and most people just couldn’t get past that unusual grille. With many Edsels likely seeing the scrapyard within a decade, and low interest during their more formidable years, very few Edsels survive today.

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However, this hasn’t stopped a loyal following of collectors from preserving and restoring the small percentage of Edsels left. Given their rarity, the entry costs for Edsel ownership are generally steep, even for examples in need of a full restoration. It’s nice to see that this Corsair’s owner has a lot of enthusiasm for it, although it could benefit from an interior detailing and its exterior isn’t perfect. I also can’t say I agree with all the Edsel stickers that line the dash, and certainly not with the very pickup-like rear window decal, no matter how patriotic it may be.

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This gold 1958 Edsel Corsair is one of just 6,355 4-door hardtops produced, and in all honesty, the first one I can recall seeing in person in my adult life. Riding on Mercury’s 124-inch wheelbase which it shared with the costlier Citation, the Corsair was positioned as the next rung down, above the Ford-based 118-inch Pacer and Ranger series. Bermuda, Villager, and Roundup wagons rode on a shorter 116-inch wheelbase shared with other FordMoCo wagons. Total 1958 Corsair series sales (9,987) were positively correlated to its price; excluding wagons, it was the third costliest Edsel and the third best seller.

The Corsair was one of just three of Edsel’s original seven model names to survive into 1959. Now as Edsel’s sole higher-end model, the Corsair lineup was expanded to include a 2-door convertible and a 4-door sedan. Even with the additional body styles, Corsair sales fell, a result of many Edsel dealers closing shop and the public’s general lack of faith in the car.

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Personally, I have always fancied myself as somewhat of an Edsel fan. The ’59 models are by far more attractive, and the 1960 models are downright beautiful. Still, there’s something about the 1958 Edsel that I find very appealing, and I have difficulty turning my eyes away from that front end. The ’58 Edsel sure isn’t pretty, but neither are bulldogs, and plenty of people like those.