As Americans celebrate Thanksgiving today, we’ll be grateful for family, friends and abundant food. In addition, the car nuts among us can give thanks for the bounty of automotive offerings that are uniquely American. We’ve been blessed with an unprecedented choice in vehicles since the dawn of the automotive age. Whether good, bad or ugly, there have always been 4-wheeled creations available to satisfy almost any car craving. Some of these cars were spectacularly successful, while others were total turkeys.
While we now view the Edsel as the poster child for automotive failure, there was some logic (along with a lot of hubris and bad timing) to its development. As the 1950s progressed and the world worked to leave the horrors of WWII behind, U.S. automakers focused on satisfying the growing American affluence with a dizzying array of mid-priced offerings. Ford felt the need to broaden their upmarket range of cars. So with great fanfare and expense, the new Edsel division was launched. Did the hype and publicity extend to Motor Trend’s reviews of the new cars? Let’s go back in time and take a look.
The early renderings accurately captured a lot of the styling cues that would come to define the Edsel. Arguably, the illustration of the “E car” front view on page 40, with a smaller scale grille and no “horse collar” inset, was better looking than the final product.
Right off the bat, Motor Trend expressed skepticism about the new Edsel division, noting how challenging it would be for the car to break into the highly competitive mid-priced segment and immediately command a large share of sales. Little did Motor Trend realize the accuracy of their predictions. Edsel did not even come close to selling the 200,000+ units needed to break even: first year production topped out at only 61,925 units. In the mid-priced bracket, only DeSoto, with 49,445 units sold and already starting its death throes, did worse.
Other aspects of the new car didn’t seem particularly revolutionary, and there was little new ground broken from an engineering standpoint, other than the steering-wheel-mounted automatic transmission controls, known as “Teletouch,” which were standard on the more premium Corsair and Citation models, optional on the Ranger and Pacer. As the editors tip-toed around the politically correct way to assess the new car, they couldn’t help going back to the car’s—ahem—“distinctiveness” as the Edsel’s main raison d’etre.
There was more to come, as Motor Trend would soon conduct an extended-use test, driving two Edsels cross-country. The first car tested was a Ford-based Pacer, one of 20,097 built for 1958, representing the first step up in the model hierarchy from the entry-level Ranger. The second car tested was a Corsair, one of only 9,233 produced, which used a Mercury body and was positioned as more premium than the Pacer. Each car was picked up in Detroit and driven around the country, ultimately ending up in Los Angeles. The Pacer, after heading to New York, took a Southern route through New Orleans (fun to think of that car plying the streets of my hometown in late 1957). The Corsair also went east to New York City, then took a more northerly trek to California.
As 1950’s-era automotive reviews went, this write-up was about as negative as it got. The Edsel Corsair was singled out for especially poor assembly quality and myriad mechanical issues. The handling of the Corsair was also harshly criticized with some rather colorful language. The Pacer fared a bit better, since it seemed to have been more carefully built, though Motor Trend noted that it wasn’t that much different than the Ford on which it was based.
The Edsel’s styling came into question as well, with a few anecdotes about reaction from folks across the country, not all of it favorable. It was implied that Motor Trend’s Editor, Walt Woron, didn’t care for the design, though William Carroll, the article’s author, said he did like the Edsel’s looks (typical Motor Trend, trying to keep everyone happy). However, Motor Trend clearly stated they were unsure about the Edsel’s mission and the product’s merits.
Motor Trend’s coverage was in keeping with the marketplace reaction—tepid at best. By the time the extended-use test was underway, it had to have been quite clear that Ford’s new baby was a dud. The public wasn’t buying, Ford itself was rapidly backing away, and Motor Trend simply let the car slip off its radar.
But we should be grateful for the many good ways the Edsel did leave its mark. First, the Edsel earned a small but loyal following of automotive masochists, who collected and preserved the cars, warts and all.
My son and I found one of these beautifully maintained specimens at Hershey in October 2014. According to the owner, this Spring Green Ranger was used as an actual press car back in 1957. In addition to the unique Edsel press kit materials showcased on the sun visor, there is further evidence to support this car’s yeoman-like beginnings: in the Edsel section of the book The Cars of Lincoln Mercury, author George Dammann notes that Ford Motor Company designated green as the official color for the Edsel promotional fleet. I can easily imagine that this car did complete a tour of duty with the media. Could it possibly be the actual Edsel Ranger that Walt Woron drove across country?
Another potential beneficiary of the Edsel was Pontiac. Yes, Pontiac! A mere ten years after the styling fiasco of the Edsel’s unfortunate vertical grille, Pontiac adapted the look into a more palatable style. Ever since the Packard Predictor show car, Detroit designers just weren’t going to give up on capturing that “classic” look from the 1930s on a production car. The Edsel demonstrated what not to do, something that GM stylists must have kept in mind.
Even in the rear, the Edsel’s unique, boomerang-shaped taillights were conceivably reinterpreted by Pontiac into hockey sticks for their late-1960’s full sized cars. Perhaps I’m in a pre-Thanksgiving dinner delirium, but to my eyes both the ’58 Edsel and the ’68 Pontiac sported some very attractive, unusual—and similar—taillight shapes.
I’d further argue that in the long-term, perversely enough, another beneficiary of the Edsel bust was actually the Ford Motor Company. Obviously not for the enormous loss suffered (the estimated Edsel development cost of $250 million equals $2.1 billion adjusted—ouch!), but rather in the strategic retrenchment following that loss. As the Edsel was dying on the vine, Ford was busy developing the Falcon, which would represent a very different kind of car. The new compact became the best selling of the “small” offerings from Detroit and was very successful in taking Ford back to its more humble roots.
Nor did the lessons from the Edsel fiasco stop there for Ford. When the inevitable lure to go upmarket started calling again, FoMoCo was much more disciplined and strategic in their approach. They placed a much smaller, much better bet on a well-targeted, slightly-upscale specialty product with cost-effective underpinnings. The result, the 1964 1/2 Mustang, proved to be an enormous game changer in the marketplace, and one we can still be thankful for in 2015.
Happy turkey day to everyone!