Whatever Happened To...Edsel?

Glenn Arlt

September 10, 2013

Was it the name, the styling or was Edsel really just the wrong car at the wrong time? In the second installment of this new series looking at short-lived automotive marques and models, Glenn Arlt takes a look at Ford’s most infamous market failure. 

Edsel Ad

Shortly before Ford became a publicly traded corporation in 1956, executives decided more dealers and a wider range of cars were needed to tempt customers to move gradually up the ranks from one brand to another. 

Both General Motors and Chrysler had five models for this purpose against Ford’s three brands. But the price gap between Mercury and Lincoln was so large that buyers began moving-up (and moving on) to G.M. cars at an alarming rate. Ford decided something new was needed to fill the void and hold onto their market share.

A Car by Any Other Name… 

The Ford Motor Company never intended to call their all new, mid-priced car make “Edsel” (after Henry Ford’s deceased son). The planning name used starting in April 1955 was “E-car” (as in “Experimental”). Several other names were also initially considered, including Altair, Ventura, Ranger, Pacer, Corsair and Citation. Executive indecision and a deadline requiring that something be selected eventually prompted executives to go the “easy route” by honoring Edsel Ford. 

Earlier, in 1954-1955, Benson Ford, the younger brother of Henry Ford II, had wanted a proposed second car line given to Mercury to fill the bill and a prototype was built. Dubbed the Mercury XM-800, it was paraded around the show circuit. Priced above the standard Mercury cars (and entirely different in looks) the XM-800 was fully engineered and ready for production (including various body styles) for 1956 as the Mercury Monterey, however Henry Ford II shot the idea down. 

1958 Edsel Pacer Convertible

A Rising Cost of Fame 

Instead of suggesting that the already “baked and ready to come out of the oven” XM-800 car become the basis for a new brand sitting between Mercury and Lincoln, Henry Ford II (President of Ford Motor Company at the time) declared a different car would be developed from scratch, massively adding to costs and delaying the introduction by two years. Instead of being placed between Mercury and Lincoln, there would be two entirely different cars and one would be slotted between Ford and Mercury the other between Mercury and Lincoln. This was the “E-car” program that became the Edsel Ranger and Pacer (on Ford platforms) and Corsair and Citation (on Mercury platforms) for 1958. 

Unfortunately, no one in the boardroom seemed to see the shortsightedness of trying to sandwich Mercury with another brand both above and below it. If they did, they were too afraid to contradict the boss. Nor did anyone, stop to consider that Ford’s plan to promote the release of the Edsel two years ahead of time may leave customers feeling let down when they saw the vehicle was “just another car” when it finally made its debut. 

Edsel

Market Success: A Moving Target 

Ford scholar Jan Deutsch famously called the Edsel, “the wrong car at the wrong time." In the winter of 1957 (just after the new Edsels were introduced) the U.S. experienced a recession and by 1958, mid-priced car sales in the U.S. were down. Additionally, the public was confused and uninspired by Ford’s over-hyped (and some argued “overpriced”) new offering. 

Despite Ford’s market research critics struggled to determine where the car fit into the market hierarchy. But perhaps the final nail in the coffin was Edsel’s styling, which some considered “too daring” (namely the horse-collar grille. After three model years, only 116,000 Edsels had been and Ford reportedly lost nearly half a billion dollars. On November 21, 1959 the car was discontinued. 

1958 Edsel Pacer

Edsel Today 

Looking back, it’s clear that Edsels were not really “bad cars.” In fact, contrary to what contemporary buyers and critics may have thought, they were just about on par with every other American car from 1958-1960. 

So why is the Edsel so collectible now after trade-in and resale values were so low throughout the 1960s? Perhaps it’s because the Edsel is visually unique and mechanically equal to any other car of its era.

Comments

  1. Gerrye Pittsburg, TX

    May I send you 2 pictures - one of the '58 Edsel Citation my parents bought in 1958, and one I purchased in early 2000 - a not that great restoration - please then, tell me why they are slightly different?

  2. grant kennewick

    Interesting.

  3. Daniel L Rochester, NY

    The Edsel turned into the Mercury Comet. They changed the front grill and the 1960 Edsel Became the 1960 Comet (with no branding). In 1962 it was brought under the Mercury line to become the Mercury Comet. That's part of the history as well and I'm surprised you didn't cover that. After all it answers the question "Whatever Happened To...Edsel? "

  4. Daniel L Rochester, NY

    The Edsel turned into the Mercury Comet. They changed the front grill and the 1960 Edsel Became the 1960 Comet (with no branding). In 1962 it was brought under the Mercury line to become the Mercury Comet. That's part of the history as well and I'm surprised you didn't cover that. After all it answers the question "Whatever Happened To...Edsel? "

  5. Cal Las Cruces, NM

    Why no pictures or mention of the 1960 models in this article? They were entirely different in appearance, though it was already too late to save the Edsel.

  6. Randy R. Louisiana

    I have read that the Edsel manufacture was forced on Ford and Mercury assembly plants, and they did not want to assemble the car and hated it, so they gave it no more attention than necessary during assembly. Also, Ford did have soem quality control problems in the late 1950s which had a negative effect on owners' opinions of their cars. With that said, I agree they seem no better nor worse than any car of the period, either wuality or styling-wise. I wonder also: did it embarass HF II because of the way he forced it through the Ford organization only to see it fail to live up to the sales projections, to the point that he killed it off before it could develop a following and maybe get on its feet? It's a shame that the name of Edsel Ford who was a gentleman of refined taste and a very capable automotive executive (despite his cranky Father) had his name attached to this thing, though.

  7. Jack Derouin Sterling Hts, MI

    The 1960 Edsel was a rebadged Ford Galaxie. Its main differences were a different grille and taillights.

  8. Don C. Oakland, NJ

    A couple of thoughts here... The Comet was a slightly upscale Falcon, originally intended to be marketed thru Edsel dealers. Many of these went back to selling Mercurys, and got the Comet. Mechanically, The Edsel was manufactured with the same assembly techniques and engineering guidelines that prevailed at the time. It's styling was "way out" but that was a reflection of the times. Placed next to a contemporary Olds, Buick, Dodge or Pontiac, the Edsel looked tasteful and attractive! What really killed the Edsel was the '57 Eisenhower recession. Remember, DeSoto and Packard - brands with long histories and a loyal buyer base - went south at the same time (and in the same manner) the Edsel did! The REAL disappointment is that Ford had a great opportunity to do something really special - A Falcon, A Corvair, A Minivan - but gave us more of the same!,

  9. Steve Tucker NW Ohio

    I own two 1960 Edsels. Even with it's ties to the Ford Galaxie in 1960 it still retains its own look in the front grille, rear lighting, and the tops of the rear quarter panels. A recent 4300 mile trip to Nevada and back brought curious questions at every gas stop. Everyone knows the 58 and 59 models but few remember the 60's

  10. Bob Newmann NYC

    In October of '59 my Dad purchased a deeply discounted brand new '59 Edsel. It was pink with a stick shift on the column. Obviously a canceled special order that the dealer knew he would be stuck with in light of the fact that the car, much to my Dad's chagrin, would be discontinued a month later. So much for a great buy. But, I was in high school at the time and was able to talk my Dad into letting me put matching pink cruiser skirts on it. Now it was truly unique, I was the kid with pink Edsel with cruiser skirts. The ladies liked it and I liked the ladies. It worked out well for me, it was a great car and I have lots of fond memories of it.

  11. Craig McAllister Boise, Idaho

    I've long felt the biggest tragedy of the Edsel was it's name. It was named after a man who was a styling genius and most likely saved the Ford Motor Company during times when 'Ol Henry was acting quite stubborn and opinionated. Edsel, and some others, finally convinced Henry the Model T's time had come and gone. If this change in course had not taken place, Henry would have built Model Ts into bankruptcy. Edsel's tasteful styling is reflected in the Lincoln of the '20s and 30's; particularly the Lincoln K. Edsel's greatest styling accomplishment is probably the Model A. Even Henry grudgingly admitted his son 'knew how a car should look' after the Model A was placed into production. He also made a large impact with the V8. And now in the minds of many, he is remembered for a failed car that was introduced some fifteen years after his death. Unfair to say the least.

  12. Cal Las Cruces, NM

    >Jack D.> Yes, you are correct about the '60 being a nearly exact car as the Ford. In addition to the badging, grille and taillights, the hood and rear bumper are also different. I once thought the rear windshield was different too but not sure about that. I own a 1960 Ranger, 4-door sedan and I have had lots of fun over the years finding certain "60 Edsel Only" parts! Equally difficult for parts is my 1967 AMC Marlin which, from the windshield back, is a one year, one body only vehicle. From the windshield forward its basically an AMC ambassador. Ouch for parts!! I mainly thought it would be nice for those who are not familiar with the look of the '60 to be able to see a picture along with this article.

  13. Michael marconi New York

    My father collected Edsels for years. I was 7 when bought his first, He had a 1958 pacer convertible , 58 citation hard top, and a 1959 ranger hard top. And restored them all to number one condition. The Edsel is an amazing car and the more you look at it the more you love it. The Edsel was way a head of its time. To bad it was a flop because I must say everyone that sees the Edsel loves it and admires the car. Just keep your repair manual with you. LOL

  14. gary d Parman United States

    I have two 58 Edsels and I loved the look when I was a kid and I love them still. They are both Rangers and I know they are on Ford bodies,but soo much more cool than any 56 Ford. They were unique then and now.

  15. daryl judd spokane, washington

    Most of the above comments are incorrect. As a longtime Ford fan I have read many historical accounts by actual experts on this subject. The fact that the Edsel failed falls completely on an inept board of directors and top tier executives who could not or would not respond in a timely manner and because of that the launch was delayed until the public interest had long ago piqued, in addition to the fact that the price difference between the various models compared to the existing Ford and Mercury offerings at the time did not exist. The lower priced Edsels were priced very close to the higher priced Fords and the higher priced Edsels were very close to the higher priced Mercurys. The styling was not well received and quality control at Ford at that time was not the best either. The comment about the Edsel supposedly being the Comet has little merit. The Falcon and Comet development were already in progress as division twins, as smaller economy cars to compete with products from American Motors' Rambler American which was gaining market share where Ford had no comparable product lines. If as originally planned as a more expensive line between Mercury and Lincoln had been adhered to the car might have been more successful, but the launch was delayed by the executives and this is why it failed.

  16. Rich Sparman Tracy, CA

    I had a '59 Edsel in high school. 4 door sedan Ranger. We bought it for $35.00. My dad rebuilt the engine. It was a cruising machine. I could load 5 to 6 friends inside. We could cruise all night for $2.00 worth of gas. A lot of fond memories. Wish I could have kept it.

  17. OldBuckaroo Colorado

    My dad always said that the front end of the '58 Edsel appeared to be "looking for something" while the rear end seemed to have "found it". How that silly "horse collar" grill ever made it out of the design studio is the question.

  18. Chris Hammelef Northville, Michigan

    The Collectable Automobile magazine does stories detailing the styling history of various automobiles. An older issue featured the Edsel. The design evolution of the front end is interesting in that it was very attractive until Ford executives lost their nerve and ruined it. Not the only time that has happened.

  19. MIKE GRAVES Little Rock, AR

    No one has mentioned the fact that the first Edsels came out with a controversial Push Buttom transmission with the buttons located in the center of the steering wheel. I seem to remember that they also had some quality control problems with it and soon discontinued it. Also, someone coined the comment "it looks like a Mercury sucking a lemon" and a great deal of people were turned off. All of that along with the recesion and it never had a chance.

  20. E. G. North Jersey,USA

    Often wondered about the styling of the 1960 Galaxie 500. One writer was right about the push button trans control in the middle of the steering wheel. they had big issues with that. Another writer was right. The Edsel never became the Comet. The Falcon and Comet were entirely different cars.

  21. Bob Dailey Alliance, Ohio

    I have owned a 1958 Edsel Pacer for 31 years and think its a great car. Anyone who has ever seen one knows what they are, so they met the stylists objective to design a distinctive new car. Edsels seem more popular today than new. Wherever I go with my Edsel, most people say they like it and don't know why it didn't succeed. I agree.

  22. Jim Lanning Burlington,Wa

    There is a farmer in Beulah, ND that has 261 Edsels in his field.

  23. Daniel Rochester.

    Hey >daryl judd < who said "The comment about the Edsel supposedly being the Comet has little merit. " Well you'd better inform Hagerty, Wikipedia and the 100's of other internet sites making this claim. Also explain why the Comet was not branded in 60 & 61. Not a Mercury, Lincoln or Ford.

  24. Tim Daniels Spokan

    Although the Edsel had a great style, what I noticed as a youngster at the time was that any Edsel that was a few years old, much like the Corvair, smoked. My grandfather's Edsel had the same malady, a smokey tailpipe. That set a stereotype for me that Fords had great bodies and interiors, but weren't too great in other areas. It lasted until I bought my '64 Tbird in 1982, but that's another story. Anyway, my thoughts have changed and the only American I own is a Ford which I have owned for more than 10 years, but it's not an Edsel.

  25. stan rakowski Kalamazoo Mi

    It was the name !!!!

  26. Al Henry Mishawaka, Indiaana

    I cannot believe there are so many comments on here by people who do not really know or are misinformed about the auromobiles they are commenting on.

  27. Pete Johnson Rochester Hills Mi

    The 58 Edsel wagon had one of the coolest tailights ever made. They were very popular with customizers and would fit any 57 Ford with minor fitting adjustments. The 60 model Edsel rear-end treetment was also very cool, The front end had only a trace of the horse collar grill, to have a 60 model convertable, you would be in very rare company.

  28. ron osborn snohomish-maltby, washington

    september 30th, 2013. hello to all you edsel lovers. i've read all of the comments and would like to add my comments. i was 10 years aol when ford introduced the edsel to an anxious waiting public. there had not been a new make of car since back in the 1930's. i thought it was the neatest looking car on the road. as you can imaging i have owned over 20 edsel's in my lifetime. i currently have 7 in my collection. and cover all 3 model years. i'm the wagon master in washington state as i own wagons for all 3 years. yes the push button in the '58 model were a pain, but most edsel owners want the '58 edsel for the teletouch controls. the '58 were made on 3 different platforms. the wagon, the ford( ( junior series), anf the mercury platform (senior series) and yes, it's a real pain to restore these cars because almost nothing is inter changable because of the size different of the various series,if you ever see a car model in any year next to a wagon from the same year you will see what i mean. wanted fins on your edsel, buy a wagon as the car models in '58 & '59 didn't have them. the '60 had fins on the car model & wagons. i built two building on my property to house my collection and edsel memrobilia. i belong to all 3 national edsel clubs, and have a large article on edsel ford posted on the internet. ok, lets take a look at the edsel comet. i have lots of edsel design photos showing the comet with all the edsel names on it, right along side the 1960 edsel full size cars being developed. ford's falcon came out in september 1959 as a new '60 model. the edsel division was making the comet for it's edsel dealers to debut in march 1960. the mercury division was working on there own car, the meteor, that would be out as a1961 model.. the idea behind all of this was edsel full size cars to be made until the comet was ready to go and then drop the full size edsel and the comet would take over. there are a few comets out there where club members have re attached the edsel badges back onto the cars, and re-attached the "E" logo's back on the car seats. Mercury finally put a small mercury logo on the rear in 1962. the word mercury is no where on the '60 or '61 comets. the original front end of the edsel comets were to match the 1960 edsel front end, but were changed. the mercury division was in serious problems as was edsel. the comet going over to mercury dealers litterly pulled the mercury division out of the red .the comet was sold for 18 years anfd over 2 1/2 million were sold during that time. the meteor did not sell well and was discontinued after the 1963 model year. if you really want to find out more about the edsel, go on line and look for gayle warnock's books-" the edsel affair", and "the rest of the edsel affair". mr. warnock was the PR director for the edsel. enjoy and happy edseling.......

  29. Jere Gauss Fresno, CA

    Ron is 100% correct. The 1960 Comet tail lights even have Edsel identification letters molded into them. They're even shaped the same as a 1960 Edsel's, except longer and canted at an angle when installed. Ever notice how the "C" in "Comet" looks exactly like the "E" in Edsel, but without the center bar? That made it fairly easy for dealerships with the Edsel "E" included in their signage to begin selling Comets in their place. The Edsel was cut from production in November, 1959, and the Comet debuted spring of 1960. I'm wondering what was in the photos Gerrye of Pittsburg TX tried to post. It may be the Edsel purchased in 2000 was a Ranger or Pacer, which was smaller, lighter, and except for most of the front end pieces (bumper, grilles, head light doors, gravel pans, etc.) didn't share many parts with the Corsair and Citation models. The Edsel was produced along side Mercury and Ford everywhere except at Somerville, a suburb of Boston in Massachusetts. The workers in Somerville built Edsels exclusively from the third week of July, 1957 until about the end of the second week of October 1957. After that, 1958 Fords were assembled until the outdated plant closed March 31, 1958. In Pico, a suburb of Los Angeles in California, Ford built a brand new plant to replace the Rosemead Mercury plant. Pico's first product was the Edsel, and it assembled Edsels exclusively for about two months from the middle of August until the middle of October 1957, when 1958 Mercury production began there. (Since Rosemead was already tooled up for the 1957 Mercury, that model's production remained there until the 1957 model year build out.) Pico didn't even have a paint booth yet and a sheet metal worker's strike delayed the installation of one. For a short period, Edsel bodies "in white" (meaning bare metal) were trucked over to Rosemead so they could be painted, then trucked back to be decked and the assemblies finished.

  30. Jere Gauss Fresno, CA

    BTW, as far as that article goes, there are inaccuracies. The Edsel was discontinued on November 19, 1959, not November 21. The actual final production total was not 116,000, but 118,287 counting world-wide production.

  31. Jere Gauss Fresno, CA

    Correction: substitute "Maywood" for "Rosemead" above.

  32. Mark Rogers, Arkansas

    I now proudly own two 1959 Edsels, a Ranger 2 door hardtop and a 6 passenger Villager wagon and I smile big every time I think and look at them. They are just project cars right now but won't take nearly as much work as some cars I've seen at the project stage. Most '59 parts are interchangeable with '59 Ford models. The tail light lenses are the same as 1958 Lincoln and there's a seller that has a cache of them reasonable priced, so that problem was taken care of. The parking light lenses are the same as a 1960 Comet,,lots of NOS pieces floating around. What I didn't like was that most automakers switched to 14 inch tires in 1957 and they are getting expensive and hard to find so if I want to run the stock spinners (which I will on the hardtop) I'm stuck with that. The wagon will have 15 inchers that I can buy at any Walmart or Discount Tire, so it will get the 10 inch "poverty" hubcaps. The Ranger has a Y block and the Villager has an FE engine. I LOVE MY EDSELS !! Anyone I've talked to who originally owned an Edsel has said repeatedly that they were just as reliable as any other new car that they had owned.