How Edsel Cars Work

1958, 1959 and 1960 Edsels
The 1958 Edsel Pacer sedan showed comparative design restraint for the era.
The 1958 Edsel Pacer sedan showed comparative design restraint for the era.

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.

This 1959 Corsair Convertible came with a 225 horsepower Ford V-8.

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.

This 1960 Edsel Villager is one of only 59 produced before the Edsel line folded.

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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