The Edsel – A Legacy of Failure

1958 Ford Edsel Ranger
1958 Ford Edsel Ranger. Photo by Mark Gittelman

At the end of 1950 Chevrolet had a stranglehold on the No. 1 position as the best selling car brand in America. In fact, the Chevy division sold 1 million more units than second-place Ford.

However, the next three spots in the top five also went to General Motors car companies that year. In the mid-1950s the Ford Motor Company decided an additional car line could double their efforts to compete with GM.

After all, General Motors Corp. had grown into six separate divisions since its merger with the Oldsmobile Motor Company back in 1908. Ford would use this same strategy to grow their footprint in the marketplace. They would name the new line of automobiles after Edsel Bryant Ford, the only son of the company's founder Henry Ford.

The Edsel is Coming

When spring sprung in 1957, Ford began a highly successful ad campaign tapping into the human emotion of curiosity. The first ads to hit the airway simply stated "The Edsel is Coming.” However, you couldn't see the mystery car. This made people ravenous to see it.

As the campaign progressed, they allowed an obscure view of the car's shadow and a glimpse of the hood ornament. Anyone involved with the Edsel was sworn to secrecy not to leak a word about what was being claimed to be a radically new and innovative motor car.

Dealers were required to store the Edsel undercover and would be fined or lose their franchise if they showed the cars before the release date.

All the hype brought a curious public in record numbers to see its unveiling on “E-day” Sept. 4, 1957. And then they left without buying.

The Edsel Succeeded in Disappointing

Car buyers didn’t purchase the Edsel, because it was a bad or ugly car. They didn't buy it because it didn’t live up to the expectations the company created in the prior months with the epic advertising campaign.

So actually the first failure occurred for the Ford Edsel before anyone even saw the automobile.

And for those who did buy an Edsel found that the car was plagued with shoddy workmanship. Many of the vehicles that showed up at the dealer showroom had notes attached to the steering wheel listing the parts not installed. In addition to the car not living up to the marketing hype, the United States was in a recession and Edsel offered its most expensive models first while other carmakers were discounting last year’s models. This was their second failure.

Failure Despite Some Unique Features

The Edsel actually had some great innovations for its time such as a rolling dome speedometer. And its Teletouch transmission shifting system in the center of the steering wheel worked well at first.

Other design innovations kept pace with the cutting-edge accessories and trim features growing in popularity in the mid-50s. These Included ergonomically designed controls for the driver and self-adjusting brakes.

More Edsel Miscalculations

Ford launched the Edsel as a brand-new division, but they didn’t give the car line its own manufacturing facility. Edsel relied on Ford employees to produce their cars. Unfortunately, Ford workers resented assembling someone else's vehicle.

Therefore, they took little pride in their work. Not having a separate and dedicated work force to build Edsel cars would prove to be the third and biggest failure.

The Edsel’s quality control issues became compounded by the Ford dealership mechanics. No additional training would lead to their unfamiliarity with the car’s state-of-the-art technology. The automobiles biggest problem was its automatic “Tele-touch” transmission. The driver selected the gears by pushing buttons on the center of the steering wheel.

Introducing a complicated system without training the dealership level mechanics how to fix it became failure number four. With Ford wanting Edsel as a separate division, they made sure nothing tied the car line back to the Ford products. The word Ford couldn’t be found anywhere on the car.

This was failure number five. Without an established customer base, it’s no surprise Edsel sold only 64,000 units in its first year.

One thing that comes to our mind about what might have been the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back” is the car’s name. The advertising agency involved in the rollout, provided 18,000 names for Ford executives to pick from. In the end they ignored all of these and went in their own direction.

Yes, they named it after the first child of Ford’s founder Henry and his wife Clara. However, it’s just not a name that rolls off the tongue easily. When people tell their friends and neighbors what kind of car they bought, they either want name recognition or at least one that sounds cool.

Frankly we love the look of the 7 different models built by Edsel. Maybe in a different economy, with a good support system, and an honest marketing plan, the Edsel would still be around today. The company struggled for 3 years before admitting total defeat. "Those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it," warned philosopher George Santayana. Ford, are you listening?

Edited by Mark Gittelman