“Early this week, a group of big automotive carriers cleared the yeards of six giant U.S. plants and rolled out into the night. Balling the jack. Because their steel racks held something they had never held before.
They were loaded with a new kind of car.
With four series – eighteen models – of a new kind of car called the Edsel.
And the delivery date is urgent.”
This is the type of advertising that flooded the country leading up to September 4, 1957. E-Day. The day the world got to meet the Edsel. Fifty five years later the world still remembers it as the biggest automotive blunder ever.
There have been so many articles written about why this car failed that I’m going to cover a few key points to bring everybody up to speed. Many articles point to the unique styling of the Edsel and tease it for resembling a toilet seat. I don’t believe this is really a key reason why the brand failed. Other articles will point to shoddy build quality of the first run of cars that were rushed out the door to meet the E-Day deadline. This is certainly a contributing factor but not enough to cause the colossal failure the Edsel is remembered to be. I believe the main reason is that buyers weren’t interested in another big American car with lots of power covered with chrome.
Kaiser and Willys had shut their doors early in the 50s. Just before Edsel was introduced to the world in 1956, Hudson and Nash were both retired as brands. Even the venerable DeSoto was retired after the 1960 model year because people weren’t buying large cars any longer. In fact, Ford couldn’t have picked a worse time to launch a new brand with overall car sales dropping by 40% between 1957 and 1958 with Edsel’s targeted market being the hardest hit.
What made Edsel’s failure so memorable is how grand the display was to the world. Leading up to E-Day there was the previously mentioned advertising blitz. Many of these advertising pieces have become collectible items like the Edsel Milk Bottle Toppers that were intended to be disposable but can be found selling for $15 or more today. There were also View-Master reels created advertising each of the five models of Edsel cars. If you’re lucky enough to find one for sale, expect to pay between $30 and $100 for a single reel. There were also promotional models of the cars given away to kids along with postcards and various other printed material.
With sales far below targets, Ford put together the Edsel Show featuring special guests Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Rosemary Clooney. The hour long extravaganza that was viewed by approximately half of the country didn’t help sales but it does leave us with a great recording of some of the finest talent from the era. It also bears the distinction of being the first tape delayed show in existence. Prior to the Edsel Show, delays were accomplished through a inferior process known as Kinescope.
Trying to save the brand, the front end was radically redesigned in 1959 to downplay the unique bumper but sales failed to improve. Another massive redesign was made to the 1960 models with only the green ‘pickle’ in the center of the hood remaining from the original design. Of course, when people mention Edsel, it’s the original 1958 design that people remember rather than the later versions.
Something I want to correct is the perception that the Edsel was a model of Ford when it was actually a separate brand owned by Ford. Similar examples would be Chrysler’s ownership of Dodge or GM’s ownership of Cadillac. Edsel’s initial offerings included seven different models. There were the Ford based “mid-size” sedans Rangers, Pacers and station wagons Bermuda, Villager and Roundup. Then the larger Mercury based Citation and Corsair models completed the line up. All of these cars are collectible today with award winning examples selling for as much as $124,000. In spite of the high price brought by a show-ready car, it’s fairly easy to find a Edsel in decent condition for under $20,000. Running 1959 and 1960 models can be obtained for as little as $3,000.
The fine folks over at Edsel.net have put together a thorough list of scale models that has models sorted by scale and model of car including pictures of almost every model. It is notable that I have been unable to find a paper model of any Edsel.