Ford Edsel

Ford Edsel outside the Ritz-Carlton on California Street, San Francisco.

Agent Triple P was walking up (and very much up it is too) California Street in San Francisco last month when he came across a well known car he had never seen in real life before. Yes, it was a Ford Edsel! Now, one of Triple P's relations was a very senior executive of Ford in Detroit and had often regaled us with tales of the Edsel (which just pre-dated his time there).

"Isn't that the car that didn't sell because its radiator looked like a cunt?" observed Triple P's Canadian friend, S, in her usual ladylike manner.

Ah, but it was all more complex than that...

The idea for the Edsel came about because of one of those brand banding ideas that executives in large corporations often have. Ford, which had made a lot of money from the Thunderbird, were awash with cash but were concerned that Ford owners, once they had the money, tended to trade up to a Pontiac or Buick. What Ford needed was a slightly up market brand for young executives between their Ford and Mercury brands. The project was given the go-ahead and christened the "E-car" (for experimental) whilst Ford searched for a proper name. They asked their employees and got a staggering 18,000 suggestions.

Edsel Ford

By the time they had hacked this down to 10 names, Edsel was on the list. Edsel Ford was Henry Ford's son but by this time Ford was no longer a family firm but had gone public. The name "Edsel" was eventually picked by Ernest Beech, the Ford Chairman, in a calculated move to curry favour with the Ford family. This, however, backfired as Edsel's son, Henry Ford II, hated the idea. C.Gayle Warnock, Ford's head of public relations sent a memo to Richard Krafve the man running the Edsel project telling him that the name would lose 200,000 sales. People missheard the name as "pretzel", "dead cell" or mistook it for "Edson", a type of tractor.

Nevertheless, Ford pushed on with a huge campaign for what would actually be 18 models of car; using some of the names, such as Corsair, Ranger and Citation that came up in their top 10 from the suggestions from employees. It was the biggest publicity build up since Ford's Model A of 30 years before. Ford spent a staggering $10,000,000 on advertising including a $400,000 TV show featuring Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and Rosemary Clooney.

The car itself had a few interesting technological twists such as push button transmission in the centre of the steering wheel, electric bonnet release, ergonomically designed controls and self-adjusting brakes. The problem was that in their teaser style advertising, which never showed the car itself, Ford over-hyped the technological aspects to the point where the public was expecting something radical and not the rather run of the mill vehicle that emerged. Run of the mill apart from the radiator, of course. Roy Brown, the original designer wanted a thin, delicate slit but the Ford engineers determined that not enough air could enter the engine compartment through it and so the vertical opening got wider and wider until it reached its final Hustler magazine centrefold type proportions.

Ford reckoned they would sell 200,000 cars in the first year; an optimistic 5% of the market. Nearly 3 million Americans visited Ford dealers the first week of the car's launch in September 1957. The problem was hardly any of them bought the car. One of the biggest issues, of course, was the radiator. This was a time when all American cars had wide horizontal radiators.

1960 Oldsmobile.

Although Ford said that it was horse collar shaped or "like a Norman shield" others compared it to a toilet seat. Time magazine famously said that it "looked like an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon". Where the vagina allusion came from is not clear but the design of the grill does even seems to have labia majora and labia minora. There were a number of other problems with it other than its looks, although Ralph Nader commented; the Edsel is "Un-stylish at any speed".

There was never a dedicated Edsel factory; the cars were produced on the same assembly lines as Fords or Mercurys. The line had to be continually stopped and then production switched from the Ford or Mercury to the Edsel and then back again. This played havoc with build quality and many Edsells left the factory incomplete and dealers had to finish the installation of some components. Drivers didn't like the fact that the gear change was where the horn usually was; in the centre of the steering wheel.

The price banding didn't work out too well either. Designed to fit between the Ford and Mecury ranges the cheapest Edsell was actually cheaper than the most expensive Ford and the most expensive Edsel was more expensive than 2 out of the 4 Mercury models. Possibly more fatal was the fact that it was launched right at the beginning of the first recession Post War America had faced. People just weren't going to upgrade their cars at this time. It was also heavy on (premium grade) petrol at a time when even Americans were looking to fuel economy more than before. Despite disappointing sales of only 63,000 in the first year Ford persevered using incentives like cash back and even offering the chance to win a pony if you took one for a test drive. But in 1959 they only sold 45,000 cars. In the end Ford spent $400,000,000 on developing the Edsel and it sold just 111,000 cars before Ford pulled the plug in 1960.

Today only around 6,000 Edsels survive and, as is often the way, mint examples fetch over $100,000 each. Rare models like the 1960 convertible go for $200,000. They are almost too valuable to drive and the Washington Post said that "the car famous for its ugliness is now a rare and valued collector's item, like a Faberge egg." Ironic, given that during the name search in 1957, David Wallace, Fords' director of planning, asked pre-eminent America poet Marianne Moore for her ideas on possible names. Ford Faberge was one of her suggestions. Rather better than some of her other names which, given its reception, might have been more appropriate: Intelligent Whale, Bullet Cloisonne, Mongoose Civique and Utopian Turtletop.

Still, we were pleased to see this wonderful example of late-fifties automative styling (and in beautiful condition too) on the street.

"It doesn't look too bad", mused S, walking around it and stopping at the radiator. "But then I like cunts". Quite.
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