Collectible Edsel '57 To '60

by Bob Hagin

January 1, 2001

Some weeks ago we did a semi-historical feature on the assorted vehicles that have carried Ford-built engines under their hoods. In all we found around 120 of them; some famous and some very obscure. But we neglected the a Ford-powered brand that was one of the most famous flops in automotive history, the Edsel. The company was named after the only son of the original Henry Ford and the father of Henry Ford II, the man who pulled the family-owned company from the brink of collapse during and after World War II.

The research and planning that went into the Edsel project was extensive. In 1948, Ford research determined that the General Motors concept of having a vehicular Ladder of Success was working well. Chevrolet owners could step up to a Pontiac, then on to an Oldsmobile, through to a Buick and perhaps eventually even into a Cadillac as their personal fortunes dictated. In fact, Ford found that nearly 90-percent of Chevrolet buyers were doing just that.

Across town, Chrysler was having the same kind of success, putting Plymouth owners into Dodges, through DeSotos and on to the lower-tier Chryslers at a near 80-percent rate.

On the other hand, not quite 30-percent of Ford owners were opting for the company's much more expensive upscale Mercury, preferring instead to defect to Chrysler and G.M. brands when a step up was indicated. It was obvious that Ford needed an intermediate stepping stone to bridge that gap and keep Ford owners in the fold.

Although it was only known by it's code name, the E (for experimental) Car, the Edsel was to be that steppingstone. and it was the subject of the most intense marketing research done on a new brand up to that time. In the beginning stages, the Edsel car was to be an original, from the body to the engine to the transmission. The plan was that the car would be easily identifiable as something "different" to even casual observers who saw it on the street. This proved to be prohibitively expensive, so Ford body shells were tapped for the smaller Edsels, the Ranger and the Pacer, while the larger Edsels, the Corsair and the Citation, utilized body shells in common with those used by Mercury. The design step started in 1955 with a launch date of June 1957 as a 1958 model.

The body design was meant to convey the feeling of speed and power. The forward thrust of the hood and dual headlight bezels did this, but the vertical "horse collar" grille was included simply to be "different" from other cars on the road.

On the other hand, the interior in general and the driver's controls in particular were the result of intensive research into the ergonomics of driving a vehicle. Pushbutton automatic transmission controls were selected because of a styling trend at Chrysler, but they were put in the center of the steering wheel because drivers didn't have to take their eyes off the road as long as with other systems. These control buttons stayed stationary as the steering wheel itself was turned.

Ford engineers spent countless hours determining the shortest distance those drivers had to reach to operate dash mounted controls for the radio, air conditioning system and other ancillary units. A large rotating "drum-type" speedometer was also found to be quicker to read than a conventional sweep-needle type found in other cars of the day.

Since there were two distinct models, the smaller of the two carried an enlarged version of the Ford 292 cid V8 while the larger cars used a Lincoln engine that had been de-tuned via a smaller bore. Both gave their respective models outstanding performance.

I recall the Edsel pre-introduction publicity as being very intense early in 1957 and pictures of the car (now named the Edsel ) was almost as closely guarded as those of America's U2 spy plane of the same period. I'm not sure what we expected in the new car but what we got was just another big American car but with a strange grille.

In truth, the Edsel was a case of being the right car at the wrong time. By the time it hit the market late in 1957, the sale of medium-priced cars had diminished. Such icons as Buick and Oldsmobile were suffering from loss of market share and Chrysler soon discontinued the DeSoto line entirely. Within a month, Ford executives knew that the Edsel was a complete flop. It wasn't a bad car per se, it just wasn't different enough to be able to withstand the minor recession that was going on at the time. In contrast, the Volkswagen Beetle, also a relatively new vehicle, was enjoying remarkable success and one of the reasons was that it was as "different" as the Edsel was common.

The Edsel name soon became synonymous with failure and was the butt of countless jokes by comedians. Ford had been very selective about signing up selected dealers to sell the Edsel, but franchise holders bailed out immediately. By 1960, the Edsel was gone, the victim of circumstances, bad timing and promotional overkill.

Today the Edsel has a large national club base of enthusiastic owners, one of my neighbors being among them. He takes great pleasure in his weekend jaunts and couldn't be more proud of his maroon beauty. There are always a half-dozen for sale in Hemmings Motor News and Old Car Weekly and the most expensive I've seen is going for around $14,000.

That seems a small price to pay for a piece of American automotive history.

 

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