Built between 1958 and 1960, the Edsel is often considered one of the greatest failures in automotive history. But today, Edsels are highly respected by collectors and enthusiasts. What was all the hubbub about? Let’s take a quick look at the history of the world’s most infamous car.
Part of the failure of the Edsel was obviously that it didn’t live up to the initial hype. You know, the Edsel was not a “Ford.” This was a completely new division at Ford Motor Company; a stand-alone car brand. And they promoted the pudding out of it. Edsel was touted as an all-new kind of car, the likes of which no one had ever seen before. So when it actually was revealed on September 4, 1957, people had extremely high expectations.
What they got was a, well, thinly disguised Ford or Mercury. For the most part, nothing was all that radical. The body styles, tops, overall shape, and even the dashboards were nothing more than tinseled-up Ford designs. If this was the car of the future, the future looked a lot like what Ford was doing a year before.
And then there was that grille. When you look at it today, it just seems like fun ‘50s kitsch, but things were different when that was on a new car. You’ve probably heard it before—people called it a horse collar, toilet seat, lemon-sucker, or an unmentionable part of the female anatomy. Whichever ridiculous comparison you want to make, it added up to something that people didn’t want to have in their driveway.
This wasn’t the first Edsel that didn’t survive at Ford Motor Company. The car was named after Edsel B. Ford, son of company creator Henry Ford. Edsel Ford loved flashy, colorful cars. As a result, he was always at odds with his father, who clung to the success of the Model T. Edsel did help steer the company, however, making many of the final styling decisions on the successful Model A, creating the Mercury division, and pushing through designs like the swoopy Lincoln Zephyr. Edsel died in 1943 due to complications with stomach cancer at only 49 years old. Many have cited his contentious relationship with his father as part of the reason he had so many health problems.
The Edsel car kind of made sense on paper. General Motors had Chevy, Buick, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac, and they certainly seemed to know what they were doing in the 1950s. Why couldn’t Ford have Ford, Mercury, Edsel, and Lincoln and do just as well? But really, what was the Edsel? Sort of a weird Mercury? Why did they even need it? And the burden they put on their dealers to build new facilities to sell this car was quite intense. Some even went out of business because of it.
In ’58, when expectations were high, there were four models. The Citation and Corsair were built on the larger Mercury platform. The Pacer and Ranger were Fords. By 1959, the grille was toned down a bit, but the lineup was shrinking. Now they only had the Ranger and Corsair, both Ford-based. And by 1960, the horse collar was replaced completely by a Pontiac-esque split-grille treatment, and styling mimicked the redesigned Ford Galaxie.
118,287 Edsels were produced during their three years, but there were only 2,846 in 1960. That should give you some idea how much people were clamoring for them at the end of their run. Ford lost $350-million on the venture, which was a huge sum in 1950s dollars.
Today, the sales failure of the Edsel doesn’t really matter much, though. It’s easy to retell this history based mostly on hearsay and old reports. But the cars themselves have aged rather nicely. Collectors like them. They have all the flash and glamour that people love from 1950s automotive styling. And if you didn’t know anything about them, you’d probably just think they were cool old cars through today’s rose-colored glasses.
Designer Roy Brown Jr.’s legacy may include the often-written history of the Edsel’s failed expectations, but among enthusiasts, all that matters are the glamorous, chrome-drenched reminders of one of the most flamboyant periods in automotive design.
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