Edsel is an automobile marque that was planned, developed, and
manufactured by the Ford Motor Company for model years 1958–1960. With
the Edsel, Ford had expected to make significant inroads into the market
share of both General Motors and Chrysler and close the gap between
itself and GM in the domestic American automotive market. Ford invested
heavily in a yearlong teaser campaign leading consumers to believe that
the Edsel was the car of the future – an expectation it failed to meet.
After it was unveiled to the public, it was considered to be
unattractive, overpriced, and overhyped. The Edsel never gained
popularity with contemporary American car buyers and sold poorly. The
Ford Motor Company lost $250 million on the Edsel's development,
manufacturing, and marketing.
The very name "Edsel" became a popular symbol for a commercial failure.
Ford Motor Company became a publicly traded corporation on January 17,
1956, and thus was no longer entirely owned by members of the Ford
family. The company was now able to sell cars according to current
market trends following the sellers' market of the postwar years. Ford's
new management compared the company's roster of makes with that of
General Motors and Chrysler and concluded that Lincoln was competing not
with Cadillac, but with Oldsmobile, Buick and DeSoto. Ford developed a
plan to move Lincoln upmarket, with the Continental broken out as a
separate make at the top of Ford's product line, and to add a
premium/intermediate vehicle to the intermediate slot vacated by
Marketing research and development for the new intermediate line had
begun in 1955 under the code name "E car" which stood for "experimental
car." Ford Motor Company eventually decided on the name "Edsel", in
honor of Edsel B. Ford, son of the company's founder, Henry Ford
(despite objections from Henry Ford II). The proposed vehicle marque
would represent the start-up of a new division of the firm alongside
that of Ford itself and the Lincoln-Mercury division, whose cars at the
time shared the same bodies.
Ford later claimed to have performed more than adequate, if not
superior, product development and market research work in the planning
and design of the new vehicle. Particularly Ford assured its investors,
and the Detroit automotive press, that the Edsel was not only a superior
product (as compared to its Oldsmobile/Buick/DeSoto competition), but
the details of its styling and specifications were the result of a
sophisticated market analysis and research and development effort that
would essentially guarantee its broad acceptance by the buying public
when the car was introduced.
The Edsel was introduced amid considerable publicity on "E
Day"—September 4, 1957. It was also promoted by a top-rated television
special, The Edsel Show, on October 13, but the promotional effort was
not enough to counter the adverse initial public reaction to the car's
styling and conventional build. The day after its launch, the Edsel was
described as a "reborn LaSalle," a brand that had disappeared in 1940.
For months, Ford had been telling the industry press that it "knew"
(through its market research) that there would be great demand for the
vehicle. Ford also insisted that, in the Edsel, it had built exactly the
"entirely new kind of car" that Ford had been leading the buying public
to expect through its pre-introduction publicity campaign for the car.
In reality, however, the Edsel shared its engineering and bodywork with
other Ford models, and the similarities were apparent once the vehicle
was viewed firsthand.
The Edsel was to be sold through a newly formed division of the Ford
Motor Company, as a companion to the Ford Division, Mercury Division,
Lincoln Division and (newly formed but also short-lived) Continental
Division. Each division had its own retail organization and dealer
network. The free-standing Edsel Division existed from November 1956
until January 1958, after which Edsel sales and marketing operations
were integrated into the Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln division (referred to as
M-E-L). Initially Edsel was sold through a new network of approximately
1,187 dealers. This briefly brought the total number of dealers of all
Ford products to 10,000. Ford saw this as a way to come closer to parity
with Chrysler, which had 10,000 dealers, and General Motors, which had
16,000. As soon as it became apparent that the Edsels were not selling,
many of these dealers added Lincoln-Mercury, Ford of Britain, or Ford of
Germany franchises to their dealerships with the encouragement of Ford
Motor Company. Some dealers, however, closed.
For the 1958 model year, Ford produced four sub models of Edsel: The
larger Mercury-based Citation and Corsair, and the smaller Ford-based
Pacer and Ranger. The Citation was offered in two-door and four-door
hardtop and two-door convertible versions. The Corsair was available in
two-door and four-door hardtop versions. The Pacer was available as a
two-door or four-door hardtop, four-door sedan, or two-door convertible.
The Ranger was sold in two-door and four-door hardtop or sedan versions.
The four-door Bermuda and Villager wagons and the two-door Roundup wagon
were based on the 116-inch wheelbase Ford station wagon platform and
shared the trim and features of the Ranger and Pacer models.
The Edsel offers several features that were considered innovative for
the time, including its rolling-dome speedometer; warning lights for
such conditions as low oil level, parking brake engaged, and engine
overheating and its push-button Teletouch transmission shifting system
in the center of the steering wheel (a conventional column-shift
automatic was also available at a reduced price). Other Edsel design
innovations include ergonomically designed controls for the driver and
self-adjusting brakes (which Ford claimed for the Edsel as a first for
the industry, even though Studebaker had pioneered them earlier in the
decade). The Edsel also offers such features, advanced for the time, as
seat belts (which were available at extra cost as optional equipment on
many other makes) and child-proof rear door locks that could only be
unlocked with the key.
Edsel Ranger interior, showing the Teletouch system and Rolling Dome
Unlike Ford and Mercury, the Edsel division never had any dedicated
manufacturing plants. All Edsels were built in Ford or Mercury plants on
a contract basis.
In the first year, 63,110 Edsels were sold in the United States, and
4,935 were sold in Canada. Though below expectations, this nevertheless
represented the second-largest launch for any new car brand to date,
exceeded only by the Desoto introduction in 1929.
Edsel and its failures
Historians have advanced several theories in an effort to explain the
Edsel's failure. Popular culture often faults the car’s styling.
Consumer Reports has alleged that poor workmanship was the Edsel's chief
problem. Marketing experts hold the Edsel up as a supreme example of the
corporate culture’s failure to understand American consumers. Business
analysts cite the weak internal support for the product inside Ford’s
executive offices. According to author and Edsel scholar Jan Deutsch,
the Edsel was "the wrong car at the wrong time."
"The aim was right, but the target moved"
The Edsel is most notorious for being a marketing disaster. Indeed, the
name "Edsel" became synonymous with the "real-life" commercial failure
of the predicted "perfect" product or product idea. Similar ill-fated
products have often been colloquially referred to as "Edsels". Ford's
own Sierra model, which launched almost 25 years later, is often
compared to the Edsel owing to initial buyer antipathy to its perceived
radical styling, even though, unlike the Edsel, it ultimately became a
sales success. Since the Edsel program was such a debacle, it gave
marketers a vivid illustration of how not to market a product. The
principal reason the Edsel's failure is so infamous is that Ford had
absolutely no idea that the failure was going to happen until after the
vehicles had been designed and built, the dealerships established and
$400 million invested in the product's development and launch.
Incredibly, Ford had presumed to invest $400 million (well over $4.0
billion in the 21st century) in developing a new product line without
attempting to determine whether such an investment would be wise or
The pre-release advertising campaign promoted the car as having "more
YOU ideas", and the teaser advertisements in magazines only revealed
glimpses of the car through a highly blurred lens or wrapped in paper or
under tarps. In fact, Ford had never “test marketed” the vehicle or its
unique styling concepts with potential, “real” buyers prior to either
the vehicle’s initial development decision or the vehicle’s shipments to
its new dealerships. Edsels were shipped to the dealerships undercover
and remained wrapped on the dealer lots.
The public also had difficulty understanding what the Edsel was,
primarily because Ford made the mistake of pricing the Edsel within
Mercury’s market price segment. Theoretically, the Edsel was conceived
to fit into Ford’s marketing structure as the brand slotted in between
Ford and Mercury. However, when the car debuted in 1958, its least
expensive model—the Ranger—was priced within $73 of the most expensive
and best-trimmed Ford sedan and $63 less than Mercury’s base Medalist
model. In its mid-range pricing, Edsel's Pacer and Corsair models were
more expensive than their Mercury counterparts. Edsel's top-of-the-line
Citation four-door hardtop model was the only model priced to correctly
compete with Mercury’s mid-range Montclair Turnpike Cruiser model, as
illustrated in the chart below.
1958 Ford Motor
Company Pricing Structure
Park Lane $4,280–$4,405
Fairlane 500 $2,410–$3,138
Galaxie 500 $2,196–$2,407
Custom 300 $1,977–$2,119
Not only was the Edsel competing
against its own sister divisions, but model for model, buyers did not
understand what the car was supposed to be—a step above the Mercury, or
a step below it.
After its introduction to the public, the Edsel did not live up to its
preproduction publicity, even though it did offer many new features,
such as self-adjusting rear brakes and automatic lubrication. While
Ford's market research had indicated that these and other features would
make the "E" car attractive to them as car buyers, the Edsel's selling
prices exceeded what buyers were willing to pay. Upon seeing the price
for a base model, many potential buyers simply left the dealerships.
Other customers were frightened by the price for a fully equipped
The wrong car at the wrong time
One of the external forces working against the Edsel was the onset of an
economic recession in late 1957.
Compounding Edsel's problems was the fact that the car had to compete
with well-established nameplates from the Big Three, such as Pontiac,
Oldsmobile, Buick, Dodge and DeSoto, as well as with its own internal
sister division Mercury, which itself had never been a stellar sales
success. To make matters still worse, as a new make, Edsel had no
established brand loyalty with buyers, as its competing makes had.
Even if the 1957–1958 recessions had not occurred, the Edsel would have
been entering a shrinking marketplace. In the early 1950s, when the "E"
car was in its earliest stages of development, Ford Executive Vice
President Ernest R. Breech had convinced Ford management that the
medium-priced market segment offered great untapped opportunity. At the
time, Breech's assessment was basically correct; in 1955, Pontiac, Buick
and Dodge had sold a combined two million units. But by the fall of
1957, when the Edsel was introduced, the market had changed drastically.
Independent manufacturers in the medium-priced field were drifting
toward insolvency. Hoping to reverse its losses, Packard acquired
Studebaker, which was also in financial difficulty. The board decided to
stop production under the venerable Packard badge after 1958. The
1957–58 Packards were little more than Studebakers badged as Packards
(also known as "Packardbakers"). Attempting to capitalize on the
emerging consumer interest in economy cars, American Motors shifted its
focus to its compact Rambler models and discontinued its pre-merger
brands, Nash and Hudson, after the 1957 model year. Sales of Chrysler's
DeSoto marque dropped dramatically from its 1957 high by over 50% in
1958. When DeSoto sales failed to rebound during the 1959 model year,
plans were made in Highland Park to discontinue the nameplate by 1961.
Indeed, sales for most car manufacturers, even those not introducing new
models, were down. Among domestic makes, only Rambler and Lincoln
produced more cars in 1958 than in 1957. Customers started buying more
fuel-efficient automobiles, particularly Volkswagen Beetles, which were
selling at rates exceeding 50,000 a year in the U.S. from 1957 onward.
Edsels were equipped with powerful engines and offered brisk
acceleration, but they also required premium fuel, and their fuel
economy, especially in city driving, was poor even by late-1950s
Ford Motor Company had conducted the right marketing study, but it came
up with the wrong product to fill the gap between Ford and Mercury. By
1958, buyers had become fascinated with economy cars, and a large car
like the Edsel was seen as too expensive to buy and own. When Ford
introduced the Falcon in 1960, it sold over 400,000 units in its first
year. Ford's investment in expanded plant capacity and additional
tooling for the Edsel helped make the company's subsequent success with
the Falcon possible.
By 1965, the market for medium-priced cars had recovered, and this time,
Ford had the right car: the Galaxie 500 LTD. The LTD's success led
Chevrolet to introduce the Caprice as a mid-1965 upscale trim option on
its top-of-the-line Impala four-door hardtop.
Edsel, a difficult name to place
The name of the car, Edsel, is also often cited as a further reason for
its lack of popularity. Naming the vehicle after Edsel Ford was proposed
early in its development. However, the Ford family strongly opposed its
use. Henry Ford II declared that he did not want his father's good name
spinning around on thousands of hubcaps. Ford also ran internal studies
to decide on a name, and even dispatched employees to stand outside
movie theaters to poll audiences as to what their feelings were on
several ideas. They reached no conclusions.
Ford retained the advertising firm Foote, Cone & Belding to come up with
a name. When the agency issued its report, citing over 6,000
possibilities, Ford's Ernest Breech commented that they had been hired
to develop one name, not 6,000. Early favorites for the name brand
included Citation, Corsair, Pacer, and Ranger, which were ultimately
chosen for the vehicle's series names.
David Wallace, manager of marketing research, and coworker Bob Young
unofficially invited freethinker poet Marianne Moore for input and
suggestions. Moore's unorthodox contributions (among them "Utopian
Turtletop," "Pastelogram," "Turcotinga," "Resilient Bullet," "Andante
con Moto" and "Mongoose Civique") were meant to stir creative thought
and were not officially authorized or contractual in nature.
By the instruction of Ernest Breech, who was chairing a board meeting in
the absence of Henry Ford II, the car was finally called "Edsel" in
honor of Edsel Ford, former company president and son of Henry Ford.
Even though the Edsel shares its basic technology with other Ford
products, a number of issues caused reliability problems, mostly with
the 1958 models. Reports of mechanical flaws with the cars surfaced, due
primarily to lack of quality control and confusion of parts with other
Ford models. Ford never dedicated a stand-alone factory solely to Edsel
model production. The first-year (1958) Edsels were assembled in both
Mercury and Ford factories. The longer-wheelbase models, Citation and
Corsair, were produced alongside the Mercury products, while the
shorter-wheelbase models, Pacer and Ranger, were produced alongside the
Ford products. Workers assembling Fords and Mercurys often found the
task of assembling the occasional Edsel that moved down the line
burdensome, because it required them to change tools and parts bins,
then switch back to resume assembling Fords or Mercurys after completing
assembly on the Edsel. The workers were also expected to accommodate
Edsel assembly with no adjustment in their hourly quota of Ford and
Mercury production. Consequently, the desired quality control of the
different Edsel models proved difficult to achieve, even when the Fords
and Mercurys were satisfactorily assembled on the same lines. Many
Edsels actually left the assembly lines unfinished. Uninstalled parts
were placed in the trunks along with installation instructions for
dealership mechanics, some of whom never installed the additional parts
at all. Some dealers did not even receive all the parts.
In the March 1958 issue of Popular Mechanics, 16% of Edsel owners
reported poor workmanship, with complaints ranging from faulty welding
to power steering failure. In its test car, Popular Mechanics tested for
these problems and noted others, such as the trunk leaking badly in a
storm and the odometer showing fewer than actual miles traveled.
The distinctive center grille of the 1958 Edsel.
The Edsel's most memorable design feature was its trademark "horsecollar"
grille, which was quite distinct from other cars of the period.
According to a popular joke at the time, the Edsel "resembled an
Oldsmobile sucking a lemon" while automotive critic Neil Dan cites the
grille's vaginal appearance.
According to Thomas E. Bonsall's book, Disaster in Dearborn (2002), it
was assistant stylist Bob "Robin" Jones, who suggested a vertical motif
for the front end of the "E-car".
The Edsel's front-end ensemble as it eventually appeared bore little
resemblance, if any, to the original concept. Roy Brown, the original
chief designer on the Edsel project, had envisioned a slender, almost
delicate opening in the center. Engineers, fearing engine cooling
problems, vetoed the intended design, so a ring design was suggested.
Ernest Breech then demanded the grill be taller and wider, which led to
the now-infamous "horsecollar". The vertical grille theme, while
improved for the 1959 models, was discontinued for the 1960 models,
which were similar to Ford models of the same year, although
coincidentally, the new front-end design was very similar to that of the
The Teletouch pushbutton automatic transmission selector was an
extremely complex feature. It proved problematic in part because the
steering wheel hub, where the pushbuttons were located, was the
traditional location of the horn button. Some drivers inadvertently
shifted gears when they intended to sound the horn. While the Edsel was
fast, the location of the transmission pushbuttons was not conducive to
street racing. There were also jokes among stoplight drag racers about
the buttons: D for Drag, L for Leap, and R for Race (instead of Drive,
Low and Reverse). The control wires for Teletouch were also routed too
close to the exhaust manifold, which often caused unpredictable movement
of the selector mechanism and, in some cases, complete failure. The
electrical design required drivers to shift from Park to Reverse to
Neutral to Drive, in that order, to avoid overloading the Teletouch
motor. The motor was also not powerful enough to bring the car out of
Park while on a hill, so dealerships would instruct drivers to set the
parking brake before pushing the Park button.
Complaints also surfaced about the taillights on 1958-model Edsel
station wagons. The lenses were boomerang-shaped and placed in a reverse
fashion. At a distance, they appeared as arrows pointed in the opposite
direction of the turn being made. When the left turn signal flashed, its
arrow shape pointed right, and vice versa. However, there was little
that could be done to give the Ford-based station wagons a unique
appearance from the rear, because corporate management had insisted that
no sheetmetal could be changed. Only the taillights and trim could be
touched. There was room for separate turn signals in addition to the
boomerangs, but the U.S. industry had never supplied them up to that
point, and they were probably never seriously considered.
Mechanics of the time were wary of the 410-cubic-inch Edsel "E-475"
engine because its perfectly flat cylinder heads lacked distinct
combustion chambers. The heads were set at an angle, with "roof" pistons
forming both a squish zone on one side and a combustion chamber on the
other. Combustion thus took place entirely within the cylinder bore.
This design was similar to Chevrolet's 348-cubic-inch "W" engine, which
was also introduced in 1958. While the design reduced the cost of
manufacture and may also have helped minimize carbon buildup, it was
also unfamiliar to many mechanics.
Despite the Edsel's lack of sales success, several of the cars were
nevertheless raced in NASCAR's Grand National series in the late 1950s.
Type: OHV V-8, cast iron block and heads
Bore x Stroke: 4.2031 x 3.703 inches
Displacement: 410 cubic inches
Compression ratio: 10.5:1
Horsepower @ rpm: 345 @ 4,600
Torque @ rpm: 475-lbs.ft. @ 2,900
Main bearings: 5
Fuel system: Single Holley 9510-A four-barrel carburetor with tempered
air induction system
Lubrication system: Full pressure
Electrical system: 12-volts
Exhaust system: Dual, with reverse-flow mufflers and resonators
Base Price: $3,500
Convertibles were restricted to Ford-based Pacer and Mercury-based
Citation models, the latter the costliest '58 Edsel at $3801.
Type: TeleTouch Drive: three-speed planetary geartrain with automatic
Ratios: 1st 2.37:1
Type: Hypoid, straddle-mounted pinion, Hotchkiss drive
Type: Bendix recirculating ball and nut, power assist
Turning ratio: 23:1
Turns, lock-to-lock: 5.2
Turning circle: 43.2 feet
Type: Hydraulic four-wheel drums with self-adjust, Bendix Treadle-Vac
Front: 11 inches
Rear: 11 inches
Total lining area: 205.3 square inches
CHASSIS & BODY
Construction: Full-length ladder-style with center-flared boxed side
rails, all-steel body
Body style: Two-door, six-passenger hardtop sedan
Layout: Front engine, rear-wheel drive
Front: Independent, unequal length A-arms; coil springs; ball joints;
tube shocks, link stabilizer bar
Rear: Solid axle; longitudinal semi-elliptic leaf springs; tube shocks
WHEELS & TIRES
Wheels: Pressed steel disc with drop-center rims and hubcaps
Front/rear: 14 x 6 inches
Tires: BFGoodrich Silvertown bias ply
WEIGHTS & MEASURES
Wheelbase: 124 inches
Overall length: 218.86 inches
Overall width: 79.84 inches
Overall height: 56.83 inches
Front track: 59.38 inches
Rear track: 59.0 inches
Shipping weight: 4,136 pounds
Crankcase: 6 quarts
Cooling system: 23 quarts
Fuel tank: 20 gallons
Transmission: 10 quarts
Rear axle: 5 pints
Bhp per c.i.d.: 0.84
Weight per bhp: 11.99 pounds
Weight per c.i.d.: 10.09 pounds
0-60 mph: 9.7 seconds
1/4 mile e.t.: 17.4 seconds
Top speed: 120 mph
*Motor Trend, October
1957 road test