QOTD: 1959 Edsel–How Did Ford Sell 40,000 of These Things?

Note:  This post is an expansion on a previous 1959 Edsel post and a comment I made on it.

A LOT has been written about the Edsel.  But there is one aspect of the story that I have never been able to understand:  In 1959, after everyone knew Edsel was a loser and a lemon-sucking flop, how did they still manage to sell 44,891 copies of the ’59s?   A total of 63,110 of the initial 1958 Edsels were sold, but 54,607 of them were sold in calendar year 1957, leaving only 8,503 sold in calendar ’58!*  The ’59 Edsel was advertised as the car that “Makes History by Making Sense”, but to me these sales figures don’t make sense.  Why the big bump in sales during calendar 1959? Was the ’59 model that much better?  What am I missing here?

*Source:  Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-75

Now before the Edsel Lovers come after me with machetes for using the “lemon-sucking” crack, I want to say that I actually like Edsels!  I understand why Ford Motor Company introduced the Edsel line, and I’m glad they did, because it gives us another fascinating late ’50s car to look at, drive, and talk about.  I think the oval grille could have been done better–I don’t believe the story that they had to make it wider to allow more air flow.  ’55 Chryslers and ’59 Pontiacs had split grilles, and no one complained about air flow.

The Predictor show car produced by the now-defunct Packard Motor Car Company undoubtedly influenced the Edsel, but Packard did the vertical grille idea in a much more pleasing way.  So the theory is Edsel had to change the look in order to not to be accused of copying the Predictor.  (Incidentally, former Packard president James Nance was now heading up the new Edsel Division.)

I can see why someone in late 1957 might buy a 1958 Edsel.  The line is all-new, and people love newness and excitement.  The looks?  Well, that oval grille is quite startling, but shock value is part of the appeal of newness–“Wow, lookit that!  New things often look unexpected and strange.

Then there were the unique engineering aspects.  Two new V-8 engines, the E-400 and the E-475 (named for the foot-pounds of torque they develop) took the world by storm:  “It is unlikely that you have ever driven a car with as much real, usable power as the Edsel!”  Plus all the neat-o new features like Teletouch Drive (transmission push-buttons on the steering wheel hub), the dashboard key that opens the trunk, the self-adjusting brakes, the contour seats, the aircraft-inspired instruments with drum speedometer that lights up red if you exceed a certain speed, push-button power lubrication, and special warning lights to inform the driver about low oil level, low fuel level;  plus some other things an Edsel salesman would be sure to point out!

A tachometer and a compass neatly integrated into the dash panel were among the unique optional extras.


And then there’s the fact that Edsel brackets the entire medium-priced field with four series in all body styles including convertibles and station wagons.  If you want a car with a firmer “Ford” feel, you buy the Ford-based Ranger or Pacer.  If you want a super-soft “Cadillac-Buick” type ride, choose the Corsair or Citation.

For example, if you select an E-475 Citation hardtop with its ocean waves of smooth, flowing power, plus the super-soft ride, the roominess, all the gee-whiz features, the “classically modern” styling, you have (according to Edsel publicity men) a car that rivals Cadillac, yet priced so much lower!  What an achievement!  Populuxe at its finest!  This car can’t miss!

As a matter of fact, at a car show I recently got to sit behind the wheel of a ’58 Citation hardtop.  The owner graciously let me try pressing the Teletouch buttons for the first time.  Oh, they work so nice!  I’m used to the Chrysler push buttons which are mechanical and work just fine, but they don’t operate with this clean, satisfying “snap” with no waste motion at all!  It is, as the Edsel TV commercial says, “like switching on a light!”  And the P R N DR LO symbols glow different colors in the dark.  This is fantastic stuff!


Unfortunately, Teletouch proved to be rather unreliable.  Many owners, unable or unwilling to make repairs, bypassed the Teletouch controls by installing a floor shift.   Hacking up the car this way ruined the “World of Tomorrow” ambiance that was a major draw of the Edsel in the first place.  There were other quality control problems too, leading to the acronym E D S E L (Every Day Something Else Leaks).

There’s something about that grille that just triggers people.  Every car has a face, and when I see these Edsels I always imagine the car is calling out “Ooooooo!” or “Ohhhhhhh!”  It’s goofy!  Comedians started to make Edsel jokes like “An Oldsmobile sucking a lemon” and other unflattering references which I won’t repeat here.  I’m sorry, but once your car becomes a running joke in popular culture, the game’s over.  People are very status and image conscious–they want to “stand out” but “fit in”.  They don’t want to appear abnormal or strange.  And Edsel sales just collapsed.

This is a horse collar.  I have to admit, when I read that people compared the Edsel grille to a horse collar, I didn’t know what a horse collar was!  But back in the ’50s there were a still lot of people who remembered horse drawn vehicles clip-clopping along city streets, and horses were more commonly seen in rural areas.  More people owned horses and knew how to take care of them.

Speaking of horses, all kinds of wacky promotions were tried to get customers into Edsel showrooms, including a “win a free live pony” contest just for stopping in.  Yes, not even a cute pony like this one could get people to buy Edsels.  Now if Edsel dealers would throw in a free horse collar with every pony, now that would be funny!



Are they kidding? Maybe not . . .


The 1958 model year is finally over with 63,110 Edsels sold (a lot less than the 200,000 expected) and as mentioned, only 8,503 of them were sold in calendar 1958.  Where do we go from here?  Well, no matter how badly it bombs, the show must go on.  So on Halloween (how appropriate), the “all-new” 1959 Edsels are introduced.

You know we live in a screwed-up world when you can make history by making sense!


But what kind of car IS this 1959 Edsel?  Well, the “distinctive” oval grille is still there, but it’s been re-worked.  But all the things that were uniquely Edsel have been stripped away:  the E-400* and E-475 engines, the Teletouch, the four series based on two separate bodies, the unique options, all gone.  All Edsels are now strictly Ford-based, with standard Ford engines.  Except for a fancier instrument cluster and few more inches in length, this is just a Ford with different (and polarizing) styling.

*The “E-400” stayed on as extra-cost optional equipment (now called “Super Express”), but advertised torque was down to 390.


This incredible “gorpy” dashboard is perhaps my favorite thing about the ’59 Edsel.


Edsel prices were cut, but the fact remains that you could buy a much more popular and better looking 1959 Ford Fairlane 500 or Galaxie for the about the same money as this Edsel.  Resale value would be much higher too.  (Edsel owners really got creamed on resale!)  So why would over 44,000 people choose a ’59 Edsel over the Ford?  I don’t know!

The Edsel story just gets more weird as time goes on.  On October 15, 1959 Edsel introduces another “all-new” car, but this one really is all-new and actually looks pretty sharp!  The hated “horse collar” is now gone, thus alienating the few Edsel fans who remained true to its offbeat look (certainly a small minority by now).  But again, this car is strictly Ford, with a few styling touches that won’t be enough to entice anyone to select the damaged Edsel brand over another make of car.  The laughing had stopped, but no one cared anymore–the whole saga was just too ridiculous.  So after only a month, company planners pulled the plug on Edsel for good, with only 2,846 1960 models produced.  If the Edsel hadn’t been prematurely killed off and production continued at the same rate, perhaps 34,000 1960 Edsels could have been made.  But would it have been worth it?

Ironically, it’s harder today to find 1958-59 Ford sedans than Edsels, even though Ford out-produced Edsel by about 20 to 1.  And I’ve seen more ’59 Edsels around than ’58s, even though a third more ’58s were made than ’59s.  In the late ’70s/early ’80s there was a white ’59 Edsel parked in a driveway near my house.  It looked a lot like the photo above.  And a friend of mine had a ’59 Edsel wagon into the 1990s!

But the question remains:  How did Ford sell over 44,000 ’59 Edsels (by this time, without the ponies) when the car was generally despised and, unlike the ’58, there was nothing really special about it?