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.
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.
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.
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.
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.