In “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel, he quips that the “Edsel is a no-go.” He was referring to a colossal flop by Ford Motor Company in the late 1950s that incurred heavy financial losses for the company and served as a negative example for future endeavors by Ford and other companies. The Edsel was such a failure that on the fiftieth anniversary of its unveiling, Time magazine made a list of the fifty worst cars of all time in its honor.
Numerous factors combined to make the Edsel a colossal failure. Described frequently as “the wrong car at the wrong time,” it was a large, gas-guzzling car at a time when consumer preferences were shifting toward smaller cars. Sales trends in the years preceding its release suggested that the automobile market had nowhere to go but up. With the onset of a recession in 1958, the Edsel’s release was hardly opportune; only two cars saw an increase from 1957 production in that year. Moreover, the Edsel was released in September, a time when most dealers were discounting 1957 models. In 1958, Ford first released its most inexpensive model of the Edsel, the Citation, causing its later-released model, the Corsair, to seem excessively expensive by comparison.
A certain mystique surrounded the Edsel’s release as a result of an intense advertising campaign by Ford. The car was billed as a revolutionary design, and in some ways it was: Its self-adjusting rear brakes and automatic lubrication were unprecedented features. However, leading up to its release, the Edsel was presented as a car of the future. All ads featured only blurred images of the car or pictured only its hood, stating, “The Edsel is coming.” As vehicles were shipped to dealers, the dealerships were required to keep the cars covered with tarps. Ford created a television program called the Edsel Show, featuring big-name celebrities like Frank Sinatra. Ford advertising heralded the day the car would be unveiled as “E-Day.” Consumers expected an auto that could drive on water and brew coffee; they got, in their view, a rehashed version of other Ford models. Members of the media derisively referred to the vehicle as “an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon” or “a Pontiac pushing a toilet seat.” While many people flocked to dealers to see for themselves what this new model looked like, few bought the car. Internally projected to sell 200,000 vehicles, the Edsel sold only about a third of that. The company lost about $250 million, equivalent to more than $2.25 billion today. The only possible silver lining was that technological advances in the Edsel were incorporated in future Ford vehicles. Moreover, on the strength of other sales, Ford still maintained a profit in the years the Edsel was in production.
Problems existed beyond Ford’s marketing strategy, however. By establishing a new division for the Edsel, Ford would use brand-new dealerships rather than relying on dealerships that had already delivered for the company. Unfortunately, Ford did not establish new manufacturing facilities for the Edsel. The Edsel division had to rely on manufacturing facilities for other divisions, such as Mercury. There was no incentive to ensure quality in Edsel vehicles, since the division benefited from selling its own vehicles; in fact, there was some interdivisional competition, which resulted in deliberate sabotage of Edsel vehicles. Cars would arrive at Edsel dealerships with parts missing or the brakes not working. Another problem was a complicated “Tele-touch” gear-shifting mechanism that many drivers and mechanics had difficulty understanding. Design flaws such as a poorly secured hood ornament also became a hazard that gave Edsel a bad reputation; at speeds of about 70 mph, the ornament on the original model was known to fly off the hood.
Other issues stemmed from internal disputes at the top of the Ford food chain. Robert McNamara (later secretary of war), a prominent figure in the company, was generally unsupportive of the endeavor and was instrumental in getting the Edsel nixed in 1960; his argument was that the Edsel was bleeding the company dry. There were even intense disputes about the name. In the early 1950s, Ford had become a publicly traded company, no longer exclusively owned by the Ford family. While Henry Ford II, the original Henry’s grandson, was president, his will was not inviolable. Though he was opposed to the automobile being named after his father, a meeting from which he was absent resulted in the decision to dub the new car the Edsel. Numerous studies and surveys by Ford to determine what name should be used yielded no conclusive results. The company even hired a prominent poet, Marianne Moore, to offer input; her suggestions, including “Utopian Turtletop” and “Mongoose Civique,” were rejected. Though Edsel was settled on, it was learned after its release that consumers associated the name with negative phrases such as “weasel,” “dead cell,” and Edson (a tractor), which tempered demand for the car. Moreover, many thought the designers’ attempts at making the car physically distinguishable from others merely resulted in an ugly vehicle.
The Edsel’s legacy exists as the archetypal flop. Though it is a collectible for some, a stigma is still attached to the car. In the early 1990s, Saturn Corporation used Edsel’s failure as an example of what not to do when developing and marketing their flagship car. Rumor has it Skip LeFauve, former president and CEO of Saturn, distributed books about the Edsel to his executives and had them underline everything Ford did wrong. Some described Saturn as “the next Edsel.” Evidently they were wrong, considering the company’s success.
It is unclear whether there ever will be a “next Edsel” because pains have been taken to avoid that dubious distinction. Regardless, the Edsel will forever be memorialized as a huge disappointment to the car-buying public, a huge embarrassment for the company, and a huge lesson for corporate America.