This year marks the 60th anniversary of the release of the Edsel.
Conceived in the USA in the mid 50s, the Edsel was supposed to be Ford’s medium priced car with high price features and memorable styling.
That last bit has endured.
Roy Brown was the guy who designed the thing. Brown’s career started at General Motors where he penned the dashboards for the 1939 Cadillac range.
He moved to Ford and in 1953 headed the design of the 1955 Lincoln Futura, a show car later transformed into TV’s Batmobile.
His next assignment was the Edsel, a car named after Henry Ford’s only child, who died in 1943 while President of the company.
The automobile that Brown shaped certainly proclaimed its difference.
When the covers were pulled off the full size mock-ups at Ford’s styling centre Henry Ford II (“Hank the Deuce” they called him) and his Board stood and applauded its uniqueness. Oh happy days!
Launch date was set at 4th September 1957. Ford PR folk proclaimed it would be E-Day! Pre-release adverting was intense. The public’s expectations were driven to extraordinary heights. Ford’s marketing masterminds told everyone that it was to be a revolutionary automobile. Media speculation even touted nuclear power.
Come E-Day one million Americans invaded Edsel dealers and then went home to watch an Edsel TV show hosted by Frank Sinatra. And what did potential buyers see?
Well, they saw a big, lavishly chromed car with curvaceous side sculpting, jewel-like rear lights and eye-popping two-tone pastel colours.
The interior boasted a push button automatic transmission selector – get this – in the steering wheel hub and a rolling drum speedo.
Ah, yes, and then there was the grille.
Brown had originally envisioned a narrow vertical chrome strip for a grille, much like the front of the 1964 Pontiac. Trouble was, those pesky engineers kept widening and lengthening the central void to ensure enough airflow for engine cooling.
Big mistake, guys.
So what went wrong? Simple. Buyers expected something extraordinary, something revolutionary. What they got was a 1957 Ford with a new name, extra chrome, a few gimmicky gadgets, higher prices and a confronting grille.
“Wadda ya mean, I lined up for two hours to see a Ford?” was a common response of potential buyers. “What does that grille remind you of, Mabel?” was another observation.
Even the Vice President, Richard Nixon, joked about its looks and got a laugh out of his audience. When that happened, Ford management knew it was in trouble.
First year sales were half what had been projected and it went downhill from there. The Edsel was discontinued in November 1959, after today’s equivalent of $3 billion had been spent.
Roy Brown was sent to the UK, where he styled the first Cortina, a car that was a success all around the world.
He was recalled to the USA in 1966 and designed the Econoline van which made a ton of money for Ford. Later he was boss of the Lincoln-Mercury design studio.
Roy drove an Edsel well into his eighties and said in 2007, “I call it Ford’s most successful failure.”
David Burrell is the editor of retroautos.com.au