One of the most intricate, yet obscure, stories in American automotive history is that of the creation of the Edsel. The 1960 Edsel, the brief final act in the tragicomedy that was Ford Motor Company's attempt to break into the lower medium-price market and more closely compete with General Motors.

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The 1960 Edsel Ranger line sold only 2,571 cars.
The 1960 Edsel Ranger line sold only 2,571 cars.
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That the 1960 Edsel existed at all was due to Henry Ford II, who felt a sense of obligation to the dealers who sold the car that bore his father's name. That it was so short-lived can be attributed to then-Ford Vice President Robert S. McNamara.

A number of factors have traditionally been cited in the demise of the Edsel: an unanticipated downturn in the U.S. economy at the time of its introduction; a dramatic turn to small European imports; the realization that, despite its breathless build-up, the Edsel was a curiously styled but otherwise conventional car.

However, a strong argument can be made that none of these events really played as much of a role as did McNamara's firm conviction to scuttle the Edsel from the outset. At the car's press preview in late August 1957, McNamara casually told Fairfax Cone of Foote, Cone & Belding, the agency handling Edsel advertising, "We have plans for phasing it out."

Even before the Edsel was the Edsel, it was already a political football at Ford. In 1952, John R. Davis, the company's vice president for sales (and an ally of Edsel Ford in creating the Mercury in the 1930s), was charged with making a study of Ford's product positioning vis-a-vis its competitors. Study recommendations included the creation of a new top-end Continental Division and a new upper-medium-price nameplate.

Since medium-price at Ford meant Mercury, the Lincoln-Mercury Division was handed the study for review, a task that fell to Assistant General Manager Richard Krafve. The Krafve team's 1954 report suggested a new medium-priced make that could be produced by Lincoln-Mercury and sold through its existing dealers.

But this didn't sit well with Lewis Crusoe, who was promoted from general manager of the Ford Division to group vice president of car and truck operations in January 1955. He had long envisioned a division-to-division competition with General Motors. To make a case for his grand plan, Crusoe enlisted Francis "Jack" Reith to work up a presentation to support such a corporate organization.

Reith, like McNamara, one of the 10 professorial "Whiz Kids" hired by Henry Ford II in 1946 to help him revive the doddering company, made his pitch to Ford directors on April 15, 1955.

They wholeheartedly embraced the plan, which, among other things, called for separate Lincoln and upwardly mobile Mercury divisions and the creation of a Special Products Division. Special Products was given the task of creating a new medium-priced "E" car; Krafve -- ironically -- was named general manager for the new division.

The "E" car had one influential opponent, however. McNamara, who succeeded Crusoe as head of Ford Division, was quietly appalled that the corporation would budget hundreds of millions of dollars to bring out a car, indeed a division, to compete head-on with General Motors. He was convinced the car would not turn a profit for three years or more.

Many will argue that McNamara not only saw the cheaper range of Edsels as a threat to his Ford Division, but that he had a pathological compulsion to destroy it. There's more to it than that. McNamara had a sixth sense for what the company could and could not market profitably in the 1950s. While his methods and ambition may have rubbed some at Ford the wrong way, McNamara almost never made a wrong decision, armed as he always was with mountains of information and analysis.

One of the main factors that caused the 1960 Edsel to fail was internal strife at Ford.
One of the main factors that caused the 1960 Edsel
to fail was internal strife at Ford.

One of the first steps McNamara took to put a stumbling block in the Edsel's path was to prevent Special Products (later the Edsel Division) from recruiting the best talent within the company, especially from within his own division, the performance of which he always stressed as critical to the health of the entire corporation.

In this and other decisions, McNamara had strong support from Ernest R. Breech, chairman of the Executive Committee, and others in top management at the Ford corporate level. In the end, half of the personnel in the new division came from outside the company.

Another problem for the Edsel was where to build it. It was decided to build all Edsels, and nothing but Edsels, in one plant at Louisville, Kentucky. Then, very late in 1956, a decision was made to assemble Edsel Rangers and Pacers in Ford plants and Corsairs and Citations in Mercury plants.

As a result, it was virtually impossible for Edsel management to maintain an acceptable degree of quality control on the Ford and Mercury assembly lines. And McNamara, who, upon Crusoe's retirement, became group vice president of all vehicle operations in May 1957, was not inclined to put his imprimatur on Krafve's request to allow Edsel inspectors into the other divisions' plants.

Frankly, this was a time when all Ford products, save Lincoln, were at a low point in quality control. (The 1957 Ford arguably was the poorest-assembled Ford of all time.) The problems were only magnified when one to three Edsel Rangers and Pacers were added to the nearly 60 Fords coming down the lines every working hour. Further problems with suppliers likewise bedeviled both makes. It really wasn't until the 1959 model year that Ford began to get its quality control in order.

Continue to the next page to learn about the introduction of the Edsel in 1957.

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