Where did you last see an Edsel? Most likely, it was at a museum or car show. So imagine my surprise when I happened upon this 1959 sedan for sale at a small-town used car lot. The sight of an Edsel for sale got me thinking about the original batch of Edsel dealers. After all, while it’s well-known that Ford Motor Company lost over a quarter-billion dollars on the Edsel brand in one of the 20th century’s biggest corporate flops, the plight of individual dealers who optimistically invested in the Edsel concept faded from memory long ago.
Using this particular car as a starting point, we can briefly retrace the history of Edsel and its dealers, and look at three representative dealers in more detail, examining this often-overlooked aspect of a well-known story.
There’s no easy answer to the question of what went wrong with Edsel. Fairfax M. Cone, an advertising executive who headed the Edsel ad contract, reminisced a decade later that “The trouble with the Edsel was almost everything.” Almost. One of the few well-executed aspects of the Edsel program was how a handful of employees built a dealer network from scratch in just a few months. Those dealers, however, while set up with a solid-looking path to profitability, never stood a chance, as their signature product foundered immediately.
The saga that eventually culminated in the Edsel began shortly after World War II when Ford Motor Company studied adding a new mid-priced car line. Ford – it was thought – had meager offerings in the mid-priced range. Increasing prosperity in the 1950s amplified this concern, as more buyers looked at cars priced above the Big Three’s entry-level offerings. Ford’s existing mid-priced Mercury line captured surprisingly insufficient move-up sales of existing customers. According to the company’s own studies, just 26% of Ford brand buyers who traded up to mid-priced cars stayed with Ford Motor Co. products – a paltry number compared to the 78% of Chevrolet’s move-up buyers who stuck with GM makes. Ford customers simply drifted to other companies’ cars, leading Ford Vice President Lewis Crusoe to remark “We are growing customers for General Motors.” A new car line – aimed squarely this mid-priced market – was considered a remedy to this situation.
In April 1955, Ford established a “Special Products Division” to create a new mid-priced car line to compete with the likes of Oldsmobile and Buick – and these cars were to be made available in under three years. What followed was a staggering $250 million investment, and an expectation of 200,000 annual sales to recover this investment. Given customers’ growing affluence and optimism, that seemed reasonable.
Development advanced quickly and – despite intense public interest – largely secretly. However, in November 1956, one of the first major public announcements about this new car turned out to be rather curious. Ford and its advertising team had been studying what to name the car for months, and the company discarded countless intriguing and evocative names in favor of… Edsel. The Ford family initially opposed naming a car after then-president Henry Ford II’s father, and few others advocated for it either, but ultimately a handful of Ford executives and directors who favored the name gained sway. While meaningful to the company’s inner circle, the frumpy and self-adulatory “Edsel” didn’t exactly spark excitement among most people – an unfortunate misstep, but one that was not, by itself, hard to overcome.
Also in late 1956, Henry Ford II made an announcement that would greatly impact his new car’s distribution, proclaiming that “The new Edsel line will be introduced and marketed by a completely new dealer organization.” Selling Edsels would have been far easier using existing Ford or Mercury dealers, but Ford took a dim view of “dualled” dealerships, preferring instead to style its growing family of nameplates after General Motors, which offered mostly single-brand dealers. This business model, it was thought, would benefit Edsel by providing it with a more loyal sales force. But pursuing this course also meant that, within Ford’s newly-named Edsel Division, a relatively small cohort of employees needed to build a nationwide sales organization from scratch… within about a year’s time.
That task fell to Kansas City native J.C. “Larry” Doyle, who had worked for Ford since 1916, eventually becoming the company’s sales and advertising manager. Somewhat unwillingly chosen in 1955 to become the Special Products Division’s General Sales and Marketing Manager (he didn’t view this as much of a promotion), Doyle nonetheless plunged into the role of creating over 1,000 Edsel dealerships. He performed this job magnificently, though hardly anyone noticed.
Developing a dealer network from scratch was a colossal and complex job. Notably, success hinged upon convincing businessmen nationwide to gamble on a franchise for vehicles no one had seen, or knew about beyond just a sentence or two of corporate-speak. The work to accomplish this feat took every minute of time that Doyle and his small staff had; it was a remarkable bit of business alacrity ultimately betrayed by an unpopular product. But when Edsel failed, it wasn’t because of Larry Doyle.
Doyle’s first mission was to figure out just where dealerships should be. By examining demographics, vehicle registrations, migration patterns and areas of rapid growth, rough maps were pieced together. Ten employees devoted themselves to plotting county-by-county vehicle sales in 60 metropolitan areas. None of these men was an economist, statistician or product planner; instead, they were all salesmen. But their exacting work compensated for their lack of direct experience. By the end of 1956, with a rough outline of where, Doyle moved on to the question of who his dealers should be. But first, he would need to explain to potential dealers just what kind of car they’d be selling. Doyle, of course, knew many details that the public did not, since work had been progressing behind closed doors for over a year – though he could share precious little of it. Chief among those details was what the Edsel would look like.
In the booming, suburbanizing mid-1950s, Ford assumed that “move-up buyers” wanted a distinctive car that bellowed prosperity from every surface. Therefore, Edsel’s designers – citing how mid-1950s cars tended to look similar – envisioned a car readily identifiable at all angles from one city block. The new car couldn’t be too different, though, since it needed to maintain parts interchangeability with other Ford Motor Co. products. Merging these demands necessitated designing distinguishing features on the front, sides, and rear, but on a relatively conventional vehicle.
Designers unveiled their preliminary clay model to Henry Ford II and his select Forward Product Planning Committee in August 1955. A few awkward moments of silence greeted the unveiling, as the small crowd got their first glances of an unusual-shaped grille and other design flourishes… and then applause followed. That applause signified that the designers were on the right course. The future car’s style was then on track to proceed. What that select group of Ford VIPs previewed in 1955 was largely the same design that would appear in showrooms two years later.
As the Edsel’s details coalesced, Doyle’s crew firmed up their plan to recruit 1,200 dealers by the fall of 1957, when the cars were expected to go on sale. To do this, Doyle hired dozens of employees who worked mostly in the field – many of these employees had held regional-sales positions with GM, Chrysler or the Independents (though Henry Ford II eventually forbade Edsel from poaching any more employees from the Independents). This experience helped in talking with, and understanding the needs of, prospective dealers.
These employees traversed their territories seeking qualified future Edsel dealers, but instead of cold-calling or hard-selling, they took a back-door approach. Teams of Edsel marketing staff arranged for meetings with bankers in locations around the country, asking them to point out financially healthy auto dealers or other local entrepreneurs. Approaching recruitment through bankers was shrewd. For example, when the Edsel folks met with new prospects, being able to tell businessmen that they were recommended by a prominent banker gave credence to the Edsel sales pitch. Using the financial industry as a matchmaker made prospective dealers feel honored to be contacted. Just as importantly, local financial leaders saw that Ford was practicing due diligence in selecting its retailers… this favorability would help when new Edsel dealers returned to those very bankers looking for financing.
When prospective new dealers became seriously interested in starting an Edsel franchise, they would apply to one of 24 district offices. Each application was then forwarded to one of five regional offices, and finally to Dearborn. Each did a round of vetting. As noted, Ford minimized the number of US Ford or Mercury dealers receiving Edsel franchises, but such dealers would be permitted as Edsel dealers under some circumstances, and assuming they set up discrete Edsel facilities. A separate round of vetting in these cases ensured that only Ford dealers with good reputations within the company were included. (The situation differed in Canada, where Edsels replaced the Monarch brand, and were sold by Ford dealers.)
Franchisees were not limited to those recommended by local bankers. The Edsel Division received a great deal of unsolicited inquiries on starting a franchise… both from new and used car dealers, and also from business owners unconnected with the auto industry.
The Division also advertised in business-oriented magazines extolling the benefits taking on an Edsel franchise. Unsolicited applicants were vetted similarly, with Edsel valuing applicants with access to capital and a solid understanding of the business world. Among other things, Edsel promised “elbow room” for new dealers – a boon, since many car dealers at the time complained about an over-population of competitors.
Occasionally, the Edsel Division would become aware of an otherwise solid prospect who was hesitant to commit. For such cases, Doyle stored a handful of Edsel prototypes under lock and key at the five regional offices, and provided a peek at the new cars to fence-straddling prospective dealers. Given the secrecy surrounding Edsel, this was a major enticement. It worked marvelously; most such prospects ended up committing to a franchise.
Of course, opening a car dealership was expensive, generally costing between $100,000 and $200,000 in the late 1950s. To convince seasoned businesspeople to make such an investment on a car with no track record was quite a mission. Accordingly, Doyle came up with a strategy to supplement his Division’s recruitment efforts by getting Edsel news in local newspapers.
This strategy consisted of speaking at business events throughout the United States. For about 8 months starting in the fall of 1956, a handful of Edsel executives travelled the country promoting their upcoming product to local business leaders. Logging hundreds of Jaycees luncheons, Chamber of Commerce banquets and Rotary Club meetings, the Edsel men chased multiple goals.
For one, these meetings resulted in newspaper articles, demonstrating that Ford was making progress with its highly-publicized new car line… and a local byline was more intriguing than a wire-service article from Dearborn. But satisfying the public’s appetite for Edsel news wasn’t the only aim of these presentations. In-person audiences at such events represented a region’s business leadership – including car dealers and finance professionals… that crowd was the real target. These presentations sought to generate excitement from those who might open new dealerships, and to present a positive image for Edsel’s financial health, which would, in turn, benefit nascent dealers seeking loans in the coming months.
While largely the same script repeated in dozens of localities, occasionally the featured speaker would drop a new tidbit of information. For example, during a February 1957 talk in Des Moines, Larry Doyle said “The Edsel will be a distinctive car. It will be a low, wide, roomy car. But it won’t be a sensational departure in style. And we’re not trying to out-fin anybody.” Speculation of the fin-less soon Edsel ran high.
Edsel management signed its first franchise agreement in early April 1957, with more than a thousand following in the five months until the cars’ public debut. To obtain a signed agreement, prospective Edsel dealers needed to prove that they owned or leased a site (with a building, or one under construction) in a location approved by Doyle’s staff, and the franchisee assumed responsibility for equipping the building with fixtures and tools. Recognizing that dealers would remain with little income until they could begin selling Edsels, Doyle urged newly-approved dealerships to start selling used cars immediately, as a way to bring in cashflow. For existing dealerships rebranding to Edsel, he recommended that they continue to operate service departments for their former brands… it would provide income, and (hopefully) a source of future Edsel customers.
Doyle’s organization accredited about 1,100 dealers by Edsel’s September 1957 introduction, remarkably close to his original goal of 1,200. Many more were still in the pipeline. He could have had still more (5,000 applications were submitted), but the Edsel Division favored maintaining their rigorous standards, and accepting only the most qualified applicants. Those accepted dealers came from diverse business backgrounds: nearly half had switched from a “competitive brand” (i.e., Buick, Oldsmobile, Dodge, Studebaker, etc.), while 30% were existing Ford Motor Company dealers that created separate Edsel sales and service operations. Eight percent were used car dealers, 7% former dealers re-entering the auto sales world, and 6% non-automotive business owners.
Public curiosity about the upcoming Edsel ran high. By the summer of 1957, much more had been written about the Edsel than had actually been divulged. Edsel Division spokesmen revealed bits of information on a regular basis… enough to keep the public interested, though being careful to save the vast majority of details for as close to Introduction Day as possible.
Finally, in late August 1957, the Edsel folks allowed press writers to see the car in the flesh. After a two-year wait, this was big news. Magazine and newspaper articles from late August and early September showed the Edsel’s styling, described its features and overall price points, but were generally uncritical. Splashy headlines and effusive prose ended the public’s wanton speculations, though enthusiasm and curiosity to see the car in person were uncurtailed. Rarely has a consumer product attracted so much pre-release attention.
The Edsels themselves arrived at dealers at around the time those newspaper articles published. Dealers (who had to pay for them upon delivery) were ordered to keep them under wraps until Wednesday, September 4, 1957 – the long-awaited Introduction Day.
Introduction Day morning was probably the last time that Edsel’s future looked optimistic. Most dealers were swamped with people looking at their cars – each US dealer telegrammed Dearborn estimating how many people visited their showrooms, and this added up to 2.8 million customers. But by the end of the day, only 6,649 of those customers bought cars.
Despite some witty telegrams, Edsel executives probably knew right then that the project had flopped.
Some Major Reasons for Edsel’s Failure
To better understand how dealers dealt with the intense discouragement that followed, it’s helpful to take a brief look at some of the reasons that led to Edsel’s eventual failure. Among many reasons, a few stand out:
Recession: The summer of 1957 saw worrisome economic signs: Inflation increased, interest rates rose – and Americans began to curtail their enthusiastic consumer spending that characterized the preceding five years. Eventually, this would be known as the 1958 recession, and its timing couldn’t have been worse for Edsel.
The recession hit quickly, and new car sales suffered, particularly the middle of the market, since the recession hit the middle class hardest. When asked about the disquieting economic trend, Edsel General Manager Richard Krafve was hardly reassuring, saying “I don’t think that anyone is smart enough to evaluate what is happening this year in the medium-priced field.” In fact, new car demand quickly slumped, causing excess inventory at many dealers, who responded by discounting their prices. This was awful timing for Edsel dealers, who had assumed they’d sell cars at, or above, the asking price. Furthermore, every Edsel sale must, by nature, have been a “conquest sale” where the customer was won over from a competitor. That’s the toughest type of sale, particularly in recessionary times when people are less likely to take chances.
Though few foresaw the upcoming change, the recession did have a significant impact on carmakers… for customers developed a sudden interest in compact, value-oriented cars, turning their backs on “older” 1950s designs, like Edsel. Between September and October of 1957, just when Edsel sales launched, America’s fastest-growing nameplate was… lowly Rambler, whose sales increased a staggering 131%.
Pricing: Edsel’s reason for existence was to capitalize on the mid-price market, which was hit badly by the recession. But Edsel faced further disadvantages regarding price. Ford naturally assumed intense interest at introduction and a likelihood of Edsel’s higher price range models being particularly popular. Additionally, dealers assumed that a year’s worth of hype would lead customers to buy cars with little haggling.
Neither of these turned out to be true – customers wanted bargains, and Edsel’s early-September launch unfortunately coincided with close-out specials at other dealers offloading their slow-selling ’57 models. Consequently, Edsel quickly developed a reputation for being overpriced, which was a death knell in a price-sensitive, recession-induced market.
Couldn’t Live Up to Its Own Buzz: The Edsel project was hyped for years – making this one of the most newsworthy new car introductions of all time. But consumers ultimately viewed Edsels as little more than gussied-up Fords. Other than the ’58 model’s novel pushbutton transmission (with buttons on the steering wheel hub), the car introduced no innovations, and the overall styling looked like an accessorized Ford product. The public was far from impressed.
Internal Bureaucracy: Many in Ford Motor Company’s upper echelons viewed Edsel as an unwanted stepchild. This made it difficult for the Edsel Division to recruit existing Ford employees, challenged the development and manufacturing processes, and ultimately hastened the brand’s demise.
Of all Ford employees, it was Vice President Robert McNamara who emerged as the Edsel’s most formidable nemesis. He was never enthusiastic about creating a new mid-price brand, and as soon as Edsel stumbled out of the gate, McNamara put his full weight and oppressive personality behind an effort to eliminate the brand as soon as possible. McNamara got his way, and anyone who offered a means to save Edsel found himself browbeaten into submission.
Quality: Edsels developed a reputation for poor workmanship. Cars were delivered to dealers with improperly fitted panels, malfunctioning electrical accessories, and even disassembled pieces for the dealer to finish the job. The acronym “Every Day Something Else Leaks” became a fitting moniker for a car that was obviously assembled with indifference.
Much of this had to do with the manufacturing process whereby Edsels were produced alongside Fords or Mercurys, which resulted in production line workers and management resenting Edsel’s intrusion and the accompanying complication of their assembly lines. However, the real fault for these embarrassing defects upon delivery lay with Ford upper management, who was aware of the problem and did nothing to rectify it. That brings us to the Edsel’s most well-remembered problem…
Styling: As mentioned earlier, Edsel’s stylists aimed for a car with distinguishing features when viewed from every angle. Given the heady 1950s, these ended up being rather exaggerated styling features.
Most notably, of course, was The Grille. Obviously planned as the car’s Most Distinguishing Feature, the vertical, oval grille was intended as a counterpoint to the prevailing 1950s theme of horizontal car designs. Apparently, some people complained that all those new cars looked alike, so lead designer Roy Brown, Jr. incorporated a vertical grille to stand out from the crowd. Said Brown just before the Edsel’s release: “It is crisp and fresh-looking; that grille could become a classic.” The public, however, disagreed.
The horse-collar-shaped grille attracted quite a bit of ridicule. Within a month of Edsel’s introduction, comedian Danny Thomas quipped that it looked like “an Oldsmobile Sucking a Lemon.” That saying, and many others, stuck. Edsel was branded as ugly, and it was doomed.
Edsels had other distinctive styling features. Doyle’s subtly-dropped assertion that Edsel wasn’t out-finning anyone really meant that the Edsel’s fins were horizontal, gullwing style.
And on the car’s sides, concave scallops, intended to convey a sense of motion, extended for nearly half the car’s length, accentuated by available two-tone paint.
But other than these main features, Edsels had a long, low look corresponding to the era’s prevailing trends, not terribly dissimilar to contemporary Mercurys. In other words, many prospective customers viewed the much-anticipated Edsel as just a typical car with an odd grille. While styling alone didn’t doom Edsel, it certainly contributed to the public’s nonacceptance of this newcomer, and is the attribute of these cars that is most remembered today.
All in all, Ford simply misjudged the market – led astray by a combination of a suddenly souring economy, overly optimistic thinking, poor quality, and flawed consumer research. Rarely has one car’s introduction been met with such a combination of poor luck and poor planning.
With that introduction, we can take a closer look at a few Edsel dealers, and their unique perspective that’s often overlooked when telling the well-known Edsel story.
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