1950s and 1960s Edsel Concept Cars

Image Gallery: Concept Cars The unappealing vertical grille is already apparent in this early Edsel sketch from 1953. See more concept car pictures.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

You can't ignore lead times if you want to understand why some cars succeed and others fail. Consider Edsel, arguably the biggest automotive flop of all time, whose 1950s and 1960s Edsel concept cars came too late to save the brand.

Edsel was conceived in heady 1953-1954 by a Ford Motor Company then bounding back strongly from near collapse in the late 1940s. Led by board chairman Ernest R. Breech, optimistic Dearborn managers laid expansionist plans to match General Motors model-for-model with a GM-style five-make hierarchy involving a separate new Continental Division and a second middle-class brand to bolster Mercury.

The latter made appealing sense at a time when the medium-price field was booming. In record-setting 1955, for example, Pontiac, Buick, and Dodge built nearly two million cars combined.

But with the three-year development cycles then customary in Detroit, Edsel didn't arrive until late 1957 -- by which time the entire market was depressed and the medium segment had shriveled from 25 to some 18 percent. Though hoping to sell 100,000 of its debut 1958 models, Edsel Division built only a little more than 63,000, which was actually fair going for a new line in a recession year.

This clay model from August 1955 is very close to what the first production Edsel would look like when it hit showrooms in late 1957 as a 1958 model.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

But from there it was all downhill. After just under 45,000 for 1959 and a mere 3,000 for 1960, Edsel was canned on November 18, 1959 as a colossal blunder and object lesson in the limitations of "motivational research."

Edsel's here-today gone-tomorrow existence might imply that Ford gave up too easily, but it isn't so. Before the end, Dearborn planners contemplated many ideas for 1959-1960, one of which was actually a great success -- as the Mercury Comet.

Learn about Edsel offerings by continuing to the next page.

For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out:

1958-1959 Edsel Concept Cars

This proposal for a top-of-the-line 1959 Edsel
This proposal for a top-of-the-line 1959 Edsel
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Though first envisioned as a more expensive and powerful "super Mercury," the 1958-1959 Edsels ended up positioned between Ford and Mercury. Some 1958-1959 Edsel concept cars, however, were based squarely on Mercury designs.

The initial 1958 Edsel production offerings comprised Ranger and step-up Pacer series sharing chassis, running gear, and bodyshells with the 1957-1958 Fords, and a smaller group of senior Corsair and Citation models bearing like relationships to contemporary Mercurys.

But the poor showing of the 1958 Edsel in the recession of that year -- and indeed the similar poor showings of most middle-priced cars -- caused Ford top brass to reconsider the role of its new car. As a result, model offerings were cut drastically from 18 in 1958 to 10 in 1959, and the base price now topped out at $3,072, as compared to $3,801 in 1958.

Those 10 models in the 1959 lineup spread among Ford-based Rangers and Corsairs, plus Villager wagons. But the original plan had been to continue the broad 1958 lineup that owed much to Mercury.

The stillborn big Edsels would have been quite different from their 1958 forebears because of the all-new platform decreed for that year's 20th anniversary Mercurys. Typical of the times, it was longer, lower, and wider, but also much cleaner than the 1957-1958 design. It was more practical too, with a space-making, slimmed-down dash and huge new expanses of glass for outstanding visibility.

Naturally, the 1959 Merc-based Edsels would have shared these features, as well as a wide-track "cowbelly" chassis. Wheelbase would have been the same 126 inches used for all 1959 Mercs save the opluent Park Lane (128), up two from the 1958 Citation/Corsair.

To set all their 1959s apart, Edsel stylists toyed with variations on established themes. Surviving photos show the stillborn seniors combining a Mercury greenhouse with distinct Edsel faces. Designers were evidently satisfied early on with lowered headlights and a blunted version of the infamous "horse-collar" grille, for both survived to the Ford-based 1959s.

But the big 1959 Edsels were ultimately dropped, though not until fairly late in the game. The reason, of course, was dismal sales of the 1958 models -- barely a third of the model-year total, which itself was a mighty disappointment to Dearborn.

All this doomed Edsel to a quick end. To find out about the last model year, in 1960, keep reading on the next page.

For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out:

1960 Edsel Concept Cars

This Edsel concept car envisions a unique Corsair as the top-line 1960 Edsel, but more prosaic Ford-based models were used instead.
This Edsel concept car envisions a unique Corsair as the top-line 1960 Edsel, but more prosaic Ford-based models were used instead.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The 1960 Edsel concept cars promised a unique line of cars, but the production 1960 Edsel turned out to be nothing but a restyled version of that year's bigger, all-new standard Ford.

As later recorded by Edsel public relations director C. Gayle Warnock in his book, "The Edsel Affair," this decision had come way back in April 1958, when it was abundantly clear that the Edsel experiment had gone awry.

The man behind it was none other than the no-nonsense Robert S. MacNamara, then a Dearborn vice-president, who declared the 1960 Edsel should be merely "a variation on the Ford car, using the same major components with modified front and rear ornamentation."

Even so, "instant recognition" was still deemed important to Edsel sales when work on the 1960 began. Special Interest Autos magazine suggested as much in 1970 with a rescued photo of the front-end treatment originally intended.

This was somewhat like the final production design save a prominent bright central bar running up from the bumper into a chrome-edged nacelle. Both bar and nacelle were roughly triangular, with the latter blended smoothly into flanking cross-hatched sub-grilles. The hood formed its top portion, and continued its line rearward in Edsel's customary tapering-vee bulge.

If not exactly timeless -- the effect reminds one of TV's Ollie the Dragon -- the treatment was at least identifiably Edsel and far less prone to joke-making than the original horse-collar.

Trouble was, it meant unique hood and grille stampings, and that was too much for the sales-conscious MacNamara. His cost concerns also overruled 1960 Corsair models (which would have worn a wide, tapering swath of brushed metal on their lower flanks), as well as a rear-end treatment that used Ford's new flat-fin rear fenders to revive a 1958 Edsel hallmark: "gullwing" taillights.

An Ohio Edsel fan restored an Edsel Ranger hardtop to look like the never-to-be 1960 Edsel Corsair.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The 1960 Edsels thus bowed in October 1959 with just five Rangers and two Villager wagons bearing a split grille remarkably like that of the previous year's Pontiac, plus four vertical ovals stuck awkwardly onto the Ford rump for tail- and backup lights.

There were also bullet-style parking-lamp housings an big E-D-S-E-L lettering on the lower rear fenders, but most everything else was 1960 Ford. Not that it mattered much, for Edsel's plug was pulled barely a month after the 1960s went on sale.

To learn what might have been if Ford had kept the brand, read about the Edsel Comet on the next page.

For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out:

1960 Edsel Comet Concept Car

The Edsel brand was ultimately a huge disappointment for Ford. But before the brand folded in 1960, and before Ford found instant success with the new 1960 Falcon compact, Ford had been working on the 1960 Edsel Comet concept car. It was to have resutled in a slightly larger, plusher version of the Falcon.

Whether it would have replaced or merely supplemented the standard-size models is unclear. What is clear is the rationale behind it: Edsel was going nowhere along with other medium-price cars while smaller economy models were selling like crazy, so perhaps Edsel might still have a future with a compact.

Sound thinking except for one thing. Though "Edsel" honored the only son of old Henry Ford and the artistic force behind great Classics including the first Lincoln Continental, few people had really liked the name -- and they liked it even less once Edsels earned their reputation as poorly built, gimmick-laden, slow-selling gas guzzlers.

Mercury, on the other hand, came through the recession battered but with its honor intact, so it made far more marketing sense to put that name on the new "grownup" compact. Which is how the erstwhile small Edsel came to bow on March 17, 1960 as the Mercury Comet.

Its one real styling change was a full-width two-tier grille instead of a modest vertical schnoz with horizontal sub-grilles. Even the slanted oval "cat's eye" taillamps were retained-a visual remnant of Edsel's 1960 standards.

How Comet would have fared as an Edsel is anyone's guess, but it was a huge success as a "Mercury" (though it didn't bear that nameplate until 1961). Despite an abbreviated season, Comet racked up 116,331 sales in its debut 1960 model year, about 5,000 more than Edsel had managed over three years.

That should put the lie to the old saw about Edsel losing some $250 million, which was actually what it had cost just to launch the make and was more than offset by high early Comet sales. Then too, Ford wouldn't have been able to build so many Comets or Falcons had it not been for Edsel plants, which were quickly retooled once Edsel was dropped to the benefit of compact sales.

Comet wasn't the only car in the works when Edsel folded. To learn about the Corsair convertible planned for 1960, continue to the next page.

For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out:

Edsel Corsair Convertible Concept Car

Ford destroyed this full-size mockup of the 1960 Edsel Corsair convertible.
Ford destroyed this full-size mockup of the 1960 Edsel Corsair convertible.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

There's an interesting postscript involving Edsel's intended 1960 styling. Though Ford built at least one full-size mockup, the Edsel Corsair convertible concept car, it was destroyed per company practice, leaving only record photos to confirm its existence.

But one Ohio collector, Charles O. Wells, saw those pictures and decided to replicate what Ford had planned, if only for history's sake. He did it by restoring a 1960 Ranger hardtop coupe as a never-was Corsair complete with "dragon's tooth" front and brushed-metal side trim, all hand-fabricated, of course.

But he could do nothing with the back, as photos of the rejected rear-end styling have yet to surface. Even so, his project won a People's Choice Award at one Edsel Owner's Club meet in the late Eighties.

As for the entire Edsel experiment, historians agree that it failed for two reasons. The main one was plain old bad timing. As Art Railton of Popular Mechanics said at the time, "Edsel was born too late."

Special Interest Auto's Michael Lamm later echoed this view, saying the car's "aim was right, but the target moved." Ford's cynicism also played a part. Because it was "researched to death," as Lamm observed, the Edsel was a triumph of marketing style over automotive substance, and was thus almost designed to fail.

Charles O. Wells restored his 1960 Edsel Corsair hardtop using cues from the convertible picture.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Yet one wonders whether Edsel might still be around had it arrived three years either side of 1958 and been truly different. One long-overlooked factor in Edsel's quick demise is the product's unintended "overselling" a good two years before it appeared. This came mostly through "rumor mill" reports that seemed to promise all manner of exotic features, thus setting public expectations far above what any Detroit maker could have met at the time.

Ultimately, the Edsel was not just too late but too little -- not a "car of tomorrow" but just another "car of today." If no worse than its rivals, it was certainly no better, so its rejection was perhaps a foregone conclusion. After all, nobody likes broken promises.

For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out: