The Mistake That Was The Edsel

Have you ever heard of the Edsel? Probably not, as they only manufactured for three years during the fifties, but if you work in car manufacture it is hard to forget them.

The Edsel was to compete against the Buick and the Dodge. They were marketed as cars of the future at medium price. In hindsight this seems mad, they were the same price as a Ford Mercury but not considered to be for the same market sector, so why?

It’s possible you do need to innovate during a recession but creating a luxury product?

Ford claimed at the time that was adequate product development involving sophisticated market analysis. In reality no such research had been carried out. The manufacturer of cars was a fairly new enterprise so maybe they should have known better, but they didn’t.

What’s in a name?

Ford Motor Co named this giant mistake after Henry Ford’s own son, which added weight to their claims that they didn’t do this as a joke. Then they created several different versions of the vehicle (four sedans and three station wagons), which had strange working names– for example the Edsel Citation.

The strange names, indirectly because of the influence of comic poet Marianne Moore who worked for the company at the time. Although her names were not used, they still leant the cars a tongue in cheek aura that didn’t help people take the project seriously.

Buzz and Foreshadow.

When Ford previewed beforehand pictures of the Edsel to promote it they appeared slightly blurred, which was probably an accident or an attempt to create an air of mystery, but it felt almost as if the company knew what was going to happen. When the pictures were shipped to the sales agents they were always done under wraps as if it was something illicit. Again, this was likely a sales tactic, but it struck many as if they were postponing the inevitable.

Looks that Kill.

Although the station wagon version had a superficial similarity to other station wagons but with innovative designs such as a rotating dome speedometer and a deep ditch steering wheel, the “horse collar grille” and powertrain features to the hood struck people at the time as bazaar. (It wouldn’t really move the needle by today’s standards but cars at the time were classy and fashionable not “other worldly.”)

September 4, 1957 was known as E-Day. This is where the first inklings of what the public felt about the vehicle was discovered; that it was far too unconventional a build.

It was thought to be reborn “LaSalle” a car also known for its design problems; it didn’t seem to be like any other car. And if it’s not like a car you know, how can you drive it?

Although some of the body panels were toned down in 1959 and it was given a vertical central grille the car still had trouble with its teletouch transmission system, no one could understand it. So still the sales numbers remained extremely small and it was eventually removed from the market.

Where did they Go Wrong?

It’s probably a case of hubris. Ford had a strong record of innovation and leading the car market. To some degree they may have believed that whatever they thought was cool and edgy would be adopted by the public as the next great thing. They may have been hoping that people in the market for a new car during a tough economy were advanced thinkers who would want a car that reflected their iconoclastic success. The truth is when people get their fingers burnt they get a bit cautious for a while.

They leapt to far beyond what people were accustomed to and at the worst possible time. However, looking at pictures of this car one wonders if there was ever a good time for the Edsel.

Given the amount of money involved it seems ludicrous that Ford employed none of the usual business safety procedures, such as getting the proper amount of feedback from the public including or having average consumers test drive it before it hit the market. Although Ford may have learnt its lesson, there will be further disasters masquerading as vehicles to come…

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