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60 Years of the Edsel

It was a car that became a by-word for failure, one jokingly referenced in films as diverse as Peggy Sue Got Married and The Love Bug. It is, of course, the Edsel, which celebrates its 60th birthday this year.

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In the early 1950s, Ford’s management decided that it needed a new car that would appeal to middle-class buyers who might otherwise opt for a Pontiac or an Oldsmobile. After rejecting such tempting sounding names as ‘Intelligent Whale’, ‘Mongoose Civique’ and, my absolute favourite, ‘Utopian Turtletop’, they decided to name the car after Henry Ford’s late son Edsel. The firm commissioned market research concerning the various images of US car brands and eventually decided that their new marque, should be aimed at ‘the younger executive or professional family on its way up’.

Ford invested some $250 million in the Edsel project and established a separate 1,300 strong dealership chain. Salesmen were ordered to keep pre-launch demonstrators safely hidden else they would be fined or even lose their franchise and throughout 1957, there was a steady build-up of publicity. The first adverts merely saying, ‘Edsel is Coming’ but with no photos or footage of the car.

And so, on September 4th, the Edsel was finally unveiled, to a great degree of public apathy. One problem was that even by the standard of late 1950s US car advertising, they were oversold; you can just imagine a team of Mad Men-style advertising executives dreaming yet more outlandish claims. The promotional shorts are especially entertaining but after the elaborate PR campaigns, motorists would have been justified in expecting a car that was atomic powered and possibly capable of flight.

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Alas, the reality was that the Edsel was a fairly typical Dearborn product that was graced with a rather peculiar radiator grille. The smaller Pacer and Ranger were Ford derived while the Citation and Corsair were based on the Mercury and one problem was that the line-ups of the two established brands made the Edsel seem superfluous. The timing of its debut was unfortunate as the USA was about to enter a period of recession, which further limited the chances of the marque establishing itself and this was before taking the Edsel’s reliability track record into account.

Throughout 1958, Edsel owners frequently discovered the joys of boot lids that would jam and bonnet ornaments that sometimes became dislodged and flew into the windscreen. Then there was the ‘Teletouch’ automatic transmission, which was operated by push buttons in the middle of the steering wheel and was prone to sticking. Many drivers were heard to say that Edsel stood for ‘Every Day Something Else Leaks’, while dealerships either closed or added Ford or Mercury cars to their showrooms. A year after its debut the marque seemed to be on borrowed time and a sales campaign involving give-away ponies became notorious for its sheer desperation. Watch and be amazed/appalled.  

The last models were built in 1959, and the Edsel now sported a muted grille and attractive styling based on the Ford Galaxie and Fairlane -  but it was too late. After 19th November of that year, the car described by Time magazine as resembling ‘an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon’ was no more. Ford planned a small Edsel, the Comet, which was based on the 1959 Falcon but this was eventually badged as a Mercury.

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However, the Edsel was no more flamboyant than rival offerings from General Motors and had it been better promoted and launched a year earlier (in addition to being given a new frontal treatment) it might well have stood more of a chance. Indeed, had it succeeded, there might well have been a possibility of an ‘Edsel Mustang’ by 1964. As it was, the surviving examples are now all highly collectable for although the adverts’ claims that ‘the Edsel look is here to stay’ were slightly wide of the mark, they cannot be mistaken for any other car on the road. 

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