Curbside Classic: 1959 Edsel “Eco-Boost” – Reversing Old Habits

(first posted in 2010 at the other site; in 2011 here at CC. I still see it in traffic from time to time)

There’s a big difference between creating and re-creating. The proto-hot rodders of yore scoured the junk yards for new solutions, not to replicate. The competition was as much in creativity as it was pure speed. Much of that has given way to endless replication, whether it’s a perfect restoration or a 1000 hp resto-mod. But creative juices are irrepressible, and they were certainly at work here. Want a daily driver Edsel, but not its 1950’s fuel-gulping ways? The solution was just a $200 junkyard engine away. But it had to be imagined first. Now that’s creativity, and a harbinger of the future. Which is exactly what the old car hobby needs: a new model, like this “Eco-Boost” Edsel.

If there was room for a third CC logomobile at the top of our homepage, this would be it. But not just because it’s an Edsel, although daily drivers of that brand are hardly common even here in Havana, Oregon. It’s because this car actually manages to bridge the two extremes the two cars at the top of our page embody: The 1950 hot-rod Caddy represents the glorious past, but it’s hardly the thing for a run to The Laughing Planet cafe, where I found the Edsel. The 1980 Datsun 210 is a highly-practical daily driver, but a mundane living cockroach.

This Edsel is some of both, in a brilliant and refreshingly unlikely combination. In a reversal of the traditional engine swapping protocol, its heavy inefficient V8 was tossed overboard like the proverbial anchor it is, and a 1988 Ford 2.3 liter turbo four has taken up residence behind the distinctive anatomically almost-correct grille. The result is the best of both worlds: a highly unique but practical daily driver. What more could a lover of old cars ask for?

For the record, this is not the sort of mega-bucks green-washing display that appear at SEMA; this Edsel’s owner, Randall, built it on a very tight budget, and has done all the work himself. The car was found in Portland in reasonable shape, and the body got treated to a low-bucks paint job. After driving eighties FWD turbo-four Chrysler products, he wanted something more distinctive, and its hard to beat an Edsel for that. He was also hooked on a turbo-four’s unique potential for economy and performance, so the two had their unlikely encounter here.

We’re not going to recite the whole Edsel bucket-of-tears story verse-by-verse here; most of you know it well enough. Ford’s ambitious attempt to create five full divisions to go mano-a-mano against GM fell apart in 1958 when the gaudy Edsel arrived in the midst of a nasty recession. 1958 Edsels came in two distinct sizes; the smaller Pacer shared a Ford body shell, and the larger Corsair a Mercury shell.

For 1959, Edsels were decidedly toned down, and all of them shared a slightly lengthened Ford body shell. One could even get a Pacer with the 232 cubic inch six, as a delete option. But the standard engine was the old Y-block 292 cubic incher, a heavy and notoriously inefficient lumpen-element. Together with the cast-iron housing Fordomatic, there was probably close to a half ton of iron sitting over the front wheels.

And a notoriously inefficient half ton. A vintage Popular Mechanics review of a ’59 Edsel yielded 12.1 mpg (20 L/100km) on the highway and 8.5 mpg (28 L/100km) in city driving. Randall says the Eco-boost Edsel can get 24 mpg (9.8 L) in gentle driving, and 20 mpg (12 L) comes quite readily. That’s a solid 100% improvement. Or more accurately, a 50% reduction in fuel used.

Speaking of weight, this Pacer sedan was listed as weighing some 3800 lbs, which probably translates to about 4000 real-world pounds. I don’t have ready access to what a 2.3 turbo four and T-5 manual weighs, but I’m guessing about half, if not less. That made the Edsel’s sit pointed skyward. Randall’s solution:

The front was still sitting up too high so I used an oxy acetylene torch to selectively add many thousands of calories into the bottom three coils on each side. I carefully wrapped the rest of the springs with water soaked rags to help isolate heat transfer. The car is now perfectly level.

That, and lots of other details comes from one of his blog posts at eco-modder, where he describes the journey of his Edsel’s inner transformation. A reader had sent me the link some time ago, and I tried vainly to contact him, but I knew it was just a matter of time before I ran into it.

As soon as he started it, the sound was very familiar indeed: I bought a Thunderbird Turbo-Coupe in 1983, the first year for this engine. And its strengths and vices were well known to me. I could easily hit 30 mpg in the aerodynamic T-Bird. So the Edsel’s 24 mpg seems perfectly credible.

The Edsel probably weighs about 3300-3500 lbs now, a bit more than the T-Bird, but not much. But then maximum performance was not the goal here, although the Edsel is undoubtedly brisker than in its V8 incarnation. The 292 was rated at 200 gross hp, which equates to some 165 net hp. The 1988 turbo four was rated at 190 (net) hp, although it’s not quite making all of that here.

Randall purchased the engine and transmission for $200, but not all the electronics came with it. So it’s currently being controlled by a 1984 computer, and the intercooler is still missing (for now). It probably makes closer to the 145-155 hp of the earlier versions. A mega-squirt set-up is high on the wish list, but it runs quite fine in the meantime.

The Edsel’s 3.11 rear axle gearing were an obstacle, since the little four doesn’t have the low end grunt of the big V8, at least until the boost comes up. A rear end swap would have been pricey, and a new set of tires to replace the old tall 800×14″ bias ply donuts were necessary anyway, so the solution was to, once again, go against the grain. A set of low-rolling resistance 195/70 14 inchers, painted white, increased the effective ratio by 7.3%. Not quite perfect, but fifth gear is now very usable by 55 mph, and starting out on a hill no longer raises beads of sweat.

Curbside Classics is all about honoring cars still at work on the streets. And every time gas shoots up, I start worrying about finding that Mark III or some other gas hog I’ve yet to encounter. Its given impetus, along with a bit of anxiety to my documentation of the survivors. But finding this Edsel was like a giant boost to my all-too often lagging optimism: this is the way forward.

After decades of stuffing ever bigger and more powerful monster V8s into old cars, that past time has reached its obvious limits. 600 cubic inches and a 1000 hp? Sure, why not? Everybody can have their idea of fun. But if the old car hobby is going to be more accessible and affordable, not to mention drivable, than a new paradigm is needed.

The earliest hot-rodders were truly creative in their search for speed and power: GMC truck engine sixes with five carburetors. Or Buick nailhead V8s with their porting completely reversed. Writing a check for a 600 hp crate engine ain’t exactly the definition of creativity or originality.

My hat’s off to Randall and his “Eco-Boost” Edsel. It’s as good of a role model for the next generation of old-car car hobbyists as it gets. And he’s infected with me with thoughts of slipping a turbo four to slip into my ’66 F-100, and beating Ford with an Eco-Boost four cylinder full-sized truck.

Despite my fertile mental ramblings, in 1983 I certainly didn’t ever imagine that my T-Bird’s engine would someday be powering an Edsel, or mentally powering a pickup. Now it seems so obvious. That’s how paradigm shifts work; they sneak up, and suddenly they’re the next big thing. Maybe Randall will transplant the batteries and drivetrain from a Tesla one of these years.