A comedy of errors or a good idea at the wrong time? The Edsel was both -- proof that what seems sound today may not be so tomorrow. As one historian later wrote: "Its aim was right, but the target moved."
That target was sighted in the heady days of 1954, when Ford Motor Company was strongly recovering from its near-collapse in the late '40s. Led by board chairman Ernest R. Breech, optimistic Dearborn managers, determined to match General Motors model for model, laid expansionist plans for a GM-like five-make hierarchy involving a separate new Continental Division and a second medium-price make to bolster Mercury.
The latter made appealing sense at a time when the medium-price market was booming. In record-setting 1955, Pontiac, Buick, and Dodge built nearly two million cars combined.
But with the industry's usual three-year lead times, Edsel didn't arrive until late 1957, by which time the entire market was depressed and the medium-price segment had shriveled from 25 to 18 percent. Hoping to sell 100,000 of its debut '58 models, Edsel Division built only a little over 63,000, though that was fair going for an all-new line in a recession year. But from there it was all downhill. After fewer than 45,000 for '59 and a mere 3000 of the token 1960 models, the make was canceled at the end of November '59. The name, of course, honored the only son of company founder Henry Ford and the father of then-president Henry Ford II. Not that it was supposed to be the choice. Ford solicited monikers from all over -- including free/thinker poet Marianne Moore, who came up with stunners like "Mongoose Civique," "Turcotinga," and "Utopian Turtletop." Ranger, Pacer, Corsair, and Citation were the top finishers among 6000 names considered by the ad agency, and were ultimately adopted as series designations. But Breech didn't like these or any of the other suggestions. "Edsel" had popped up as an early prospect, probably because the project was widely known as the "E-car." But the Ford family was against it, and even publicly denied that Edsel would ever be used. But when a decision lagged, Breech stepped in. "I'll take care of Henry," he declared. He did, and Edsel it was.
Though originally conceived as a more-expensive and powerful "super Mercury," Edsel was positioned between Ford and Mercury. It was also far from the radical all-new design rumored for some two years before introduction, which might also have affected first-year sales.
1958, 1959 and 1960 Edsels
The 1958 line comprised entry-level Ranger and step-up Pacer series on the 118-inch wheelbase (116 for wagons) of the 1957-58 Ford; further up were Corsair and Citation on the 124-inch Mercury chassis.
Bodyshells were similarly shared. Ranger offered two- and four-door sedans and hardtops, two-door Roundup wagon, and four-door Villager wagons with seating for six or nine. Pacer deleted the two-door wagon and sedan but added a convertible; its two wagons were tagged Bermuda. Corsair was confined to two- and four-door hardtops; Citation offered those plus a soft-top model. Prices ranged from $2500 to $3800.
Styling was the 1958 Edsel's most unique aspect -- and the most controversial, especially the "horse-collar" vertical grille and slim horizontal taillights (which one cynic termed "ingrown toenails"). But fins were mercifully absent, and the package was tastefully restrained next to the glittery '58 Buick and Olds.
Typical of the day, gadgets abounded: optional "Teletouch Drive" automatic transmission controlled by pushbuttons in the steering-wheel hub, "cyclops eye" rotating-drum speedometer, and power assists for most everything but the rearview mirror.
Power comprised two V-8s from Dearborn's new 1958 "FE-Series" big-block family. The two lower series carried a 361-cubic-incher with 303 horsepower; Corsair/Citation used a massive 410 with 345 horsepower. With that, Edsels were quite rapid, but roadability, braking, and workmanship left much to be desired -- also typical of the times.
Disappointing first-year sales dictated a reduced platoon of 1959 Edsels on a single 120-inch wheelbase -- all basically reskinned Fords. Offerings comprised six- and nine-seater Villager wagons; Corsair convertible; Ranger two-door sedan; and Corsair/Ranger four-door sedans, hardtop coupes, and hardtop sedans.
Engines proliferated. Ranger/Villager came with a 200-bhp 292 Ford V-8, but a 145-bhp 223 inline six, also borrowed from Ford, was a new no-charge option, a nod to the market's sudden concern for fuel economy with the '58 recession. Corsairs had a standard 225-bhp 332 V-8, again from Ford Division. The 361 returned unchanged as a $58 linewide option, but in the lighter '59s it delivered 0-60 mph in 10 seconds or less.
Styling was toned-down from '58, with grille-mounted headlights, taller windshields, and more-conventional taillights moved into the back panel. Prices were trimmed along with models and weight. The costliest '59, the ragtop Corsair, started at about $3100.
Dearborn halted Edsel production in November 1959 after a halfhearted run of downpriced, "decontented" 1960 models that were even more Ford-like than the 1959s. Corsairs and the 361 V-8 disappeared, leaving two Villagers, five Rangers, a 292 V-8 detuned to 185 horsepower, and a new 352 V-8 option with 300 bhp.
Working with that year's all-new Ford design, stylists abandoned the vertical-grille motif for a split-horizontal affair looking suspiciously like that of the '59 Pontiac, though this was pure coincidence. A quartet of vertical ovals housed tail and backup lamps, and slim chrome moldings graced the upper bodysides.
Two- and three-speed automatic transmissions, power steering, and air conditioning were all still available. The Ranger convertible listed at $3000, but could be optioned up to $3800. The inexpensive Ranger two-door started at $2643.
But everyone knew Edsel was finished, so it's a wonder that any of the '60s got built. Some almost didn't. The ragtop Ranger saw but 76 copies, the nine-passenger Villager a mere 59. Thus ended Detroit's biggest and most public flop since the Tucker.
"Edsel" now shows up in dictionaries as a synonym for "loser" -- unfortunate considering the great legacy of Edsel Ford. But though Dearborn reportedly spent $250 million on the project, it wasn't a total loss. Expanding plants for Edsel production left Ford with surplus capacity that came in mighty handy when its new 1960 Falcon immediately ran away with the compact market.
Had it been a truly different car introduced three to five years either side of 1958, the Edsel might be with us yet. Instead, it's become a monument to the cynicism of an age when Detroit thought buyers didn't know -- or care -- about the difference between style and substance.
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