They Built It, They Hyped It, It Flopped
Millions in ads couldn't sell 'an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon'
Dearborn, Mich.Have you driven an Edsel lately?
To most Americans, it's a preposterous question. The Edsel, of course, is the most notorious bomb in transportation historynot as tragic as disasters like the Hindenburg or the Titanic, but a colossal flop compared with the lofty expectations set by its manufacturer, Ford Motor Co. Despite unprecedented hype, Edsel sales fell far below Ford's projections from the day of its launch on Sept. 4, 1957. Barely two years later, Ford pulled the plug. In record time, the Edsel went from wundercar to laughingstock.
Yet the ungainly automobile has enjoyed a reputational resurgence in recent years. Here in Ford's hometown last month, the owners of 169 restored Edsels gathered to celebrate the car's golden anniversary, swapping stories about the scavenging required to refurbish their cars. (Ford destroyed many of the components and spare parts after axing the Edsel, adding to the challenge of restoring one.) A few pristine models have even sold for over $100,000. And from the remove of 50 years, the Edsel seems less an actual lemon and more a victim of bad corporate judgment and unhappy timing. "It wasn't a bad car," insists Mike Brogan of West Falls, N.Y., who owns six Edsels and organized the Dearborn event. "It had some pretty neat features."
The Edsel had a big gap to fill when it was conceived in the early '50s. In the postwar surge of consumerism, General Motors, a conglomeration of several brands, had emerged as the No. 1 automaker. Consumers who outgrew utilitarian Chevrolet could move up to Pontiac, Buick, or Oldsmobile, then to Cadillac. Ford customers could upgrade to Mercury or Lincoln, but a middle rung was missing. The Edsel division would offer midpriced family cars that would keep Ford customers from defecting to GM and other competitors.
The economics invited boldness. In 1950, there were 1 million families that could afford two cars. By 1960, there were expected to be about 7 million. Ford was thriving, too. The introduction of the Thunderbird helped make 1955 the most successful year in company history. Flush with cash and optimism, the automaker set aside $250 millionnearly $2 billion in today's dollarsto research and build the Edsel.
Homely. One mandate was to make the car a visual standout, which led to the car's most, well, notable features. The vertical grille was meant to evoke European luxury cars. (Or even, some surmised, female genitaliaa plausible theory given that GM was producing pointy bumper guards that distinctly resembled bras.) But the grille also called to mind a bird's beak, and before long the Edsel was said to look like "an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon." Instead of taillamps set into vertical finsas on Chevys and CadillacsFord gave the Edsel horizontal "wings." To some critics, they looked more like bushy eyebrows. A homely creature was taking shape in Ford's labs.
Edsel had been a provisional name for the car, while researchers probed other possibilities. A few priceless duds emerged, like Elkherd and Utopian Turtletop. Pleasant-sounding nominees like Phoenix, Altair, and Citation were also on the table. In the end, however, a Ford committee decided it was fitting to name the car after Henry Ford's son, even though research showed that consumers associated the word with "diesel" and "weasel."