1953 WAS A MOMENTOUS YEAR for the Ford Motor Company, which celebrated its fiftieth birthday on 16 June. With the end of the Korean War, sales had taken an upswing, and the company could begin to think about implementing the expansionist policies which had been proposed by Henry Ford II a couple of years earlier.
Aiming at a range which would be fully competitive with the General Motors line-up, Henry Ford the Second had tentatively forecast that a suitable programme 'might require the introduction of another car name, a new dealer organisation and an additional car division', and had appointed John R. Davis (who had helped the late Edsel Ford create the company's Mercury Division in 1939) to head a committee to look into the viability of such a project.
The Davis Committee
The Davis Committee reported that 'there is a gap in our range. We need a model to compete with the higher-priced Buicks and Oldsmobiles. But there is no need for a new model name or dealer network - call it a Mercury or a Mercury-Monterey - as this would involve unnecessary marketing risks, as General Motors have found to their cost in the past.'
Their findings were backed up by R. J. Eggert, head of Ford's Consumer Research Department: 'As the general standard of living has increased, the consumer has tended to purchase a better car', he reported to the company's executive committee. 'To the average American our present car and its size represent an outward symbol of prestige and well-being.'
The successful launch of the Thunderbird 'personal car' in 1954 gave added strength to demands for a new up-market model and, on 18 May the same year, the Lincoln-Mercury Division put their findings before the Executive Committee. They thought that the new car should use a Lincoln body-shell on a Mercury chassis, and should sell in the price bracket immediately above the Mercury.
For 'identification purposes', they referred to the model as 'the Edsel' (the name of Henry Ford II's father). Everyone present, it seems, agreed, and the decision to proceed with the new model was taken, though no-one, apparently gave Robert S. McNamara, newly appointed Assistant General Manager of the Ford Division, a clear answer when he queried: 'What is the new car intended to offer the car-buying public?'
In that heady sellers' market, with Ford missing the first place in US new car sales by only 9000 units in 1954, it seemed that the Lincoln-Mercury formula met every requirement. 'Today's average buyer,' commented Automobile Topics, 'clearly wants, and is willing to pay for, that "something extra" that will set his car apart'. Ford sales figures supported this opimon.
McNamara's immediate boss, Lewis Crusoe, had found that the most basic Ford model, the Mainline, was practically non-saleable. Enter F. C. Reith, wearing in his buttonhole the ribbon of the Legion d'Honneur (awarded him by an admiring French government for his attempts to place the foundering Ford-France SA factory, at Poissy, on a profitable basis), freshly returned to Dearborn, and appointed to the Ford Product Planning Committee.
A Better Balanced Car Range
Reith had already proposed certain changes to the design of the 1957 Mercury range which the Committee had approved and now he was dealing with the projected E (for Edsel) Car. On 15 April 1955, he presented his findings for a better-balanced car range with two E Cars - a low-priced model, and a high-priced model-bracketing the middle-range Mercury.
The cheaper E Car was a rival for Dodge and Pontiac, while the more expensive one rivalled Buick, De Soto and Oldsmobile. The board of directors was agreed: the E car was essential to the success of the company.
R. E. Krafve, formerly Assistant General Manager of the Lincoln-Mercury Division, headed the Special Products wishbone independent front suspension. There were, as Reith had proposed, two price levels for the new car, with a choice of two power units: both V8s, with swept volumes of 361 and 410 cu in respectively.
The cheaper range, consisting of Ranger and Pacer series Edsels, was available with a choice of manual, over- drive or automatic transmissions, but the costlier Corsair and Citation models only had the automatic.
Something, however, had gone wrong, and the market gaps the two ranges were intended to fill no longer existed. In the few months since the project had been initiated, the entire picture of car-sale trends had changed, and the euphoric period of boom had Division set up to develop the E Car. Between conception and realisation of the new car, a time-Iag had to be allowed for research, development and tooling; marketing policies, too, were firmly shaped.
Searching For An Identity
An added feature during the E Car's two-year gestation period was the search for an identity for the new model: Ford hired the poetess Marianne Moore to dream up possible names for the vehicle. However, the fair versifier's titles drew a blank, and the company returned to the original patronymic - 'Edsel'. A new dealer network was organised, and a publicity and advertising campaign set in motion.
In September 1957 the new model was unveiled amid vast publicity. Its styling was arguably over-fussy - certainly the front end, with its curious 'horse collar' radiator grille, heavy bumpers and quadruple headlamps. Some protagonists knew the new car shared much of its bodywork with other Ford models, even though the manufacturer had gone to great lengths to convince people otherwise.
Needless to say the new model aroused a lot of discussion, and not a little sales resistance, while the wrap-round windscreen and heavily sculptured tail-fins were reflections of current styling trends.
Beneath the debatable attractions of its exterior, however, the Edsel offered a worthwhile package of engineering innovation - self-adjusting brakes, safety-rim wheels and a new luxury automatic transmission, controlled by push-buttons on the steering-wheel spokes - and all these were allied to such proven features as independent front suspension.
There were, as Reith had proposed, two price levels for the new car, with a choice of power units - both V8's with swept volumes of 361 and 410 cubic inches. respectively. The cheaper range, consisting of the Ranger and Pacer series Edsels, was available with a choice of manual overdrive or automatic transmissions, but the costlier Corsair and Citation models only had the automatic.
The Timing Couldn't Have Been Worse
Something, however, had gone wrong, and the market gaps the two ranges were intended to fill no longer existed. In the few months since the project had been initiated, the entire picture of car-sale trends had changed, and the euphoric period of boom had been succeeded by a mild depression, one in which the rapid growth of the post-Korean war years had given way to a more restrained expansion, and one in which the lower-priced automobile was once more playing a major role - at the expense of that carefully researched 'something extra' car.
In this restricted market, the Edsel collided head-on with the Mercury - and the older marque won. Only 35,000 Edsels were sold during the first six months and the bold sales campaign dwindled away. Discouragement, it seems, set in too easily, perhaps as a result of the newness of the division controlling the fortunes of the Edsel.
Had the campaign been re-doubled, the marque might have established itself successfully. As it was, an attempt to widen the Edsel market with a low-cost, in-line, 223 cu in, straight-six engine came too late, and only weeks after the restyled 1960 models had been introduced in November 1959, the Edsel Division ceased operation.
It had been a costly demonstration of the fickleness of the car-buying public; estimates of the amount lost on the Edsel project vary between $250 million and $350 million, but it was a sum which the otherwise successful Ford Motor Company could take in its stride with hardly a falter.
And, indeed, when that curious period, when the press claimed that 'Detroit is flying by the seat of its pants', had passed, the fundamental soundness of the new marketing policy was amply proven by the fact that the company was offering an eight-car line-up in 1963 that covered the market - and sold profitably.
The Joker In The Pack
The joker in the pack that trumped the Edsel had been the compact car, represented in the 1960 line-up by the new Falcon and Comet models; when the Edsel was planned, compacts represented only one-twenty-fifth of US car sales - four years later, they had a third of the market. Yet the models which filled that supposedly non-existent gap left by the Edsel also sold well. So was it the time or the car that was wrong? Nobody can ever be really sure.
Ford announced the end of the Edsel program on Thursday, November 19, 1959. However, production continued until late in November, with the final tally at 2,846 1960 models. Total sales were approximately 84,000, less than half the company's projected break-even point. The company lost $350 million ($2.45 billion in 2009 values) on the venture.
Only 118,287 Edsels were built, including 7,440 produced in Ontario, Canada. By Detroit standards, these production figures were dismal, particularly when spread across a run of three model years. On Friday, November 20, United Press International's (UPI) wire service reported that book values for used Edsels had decreased by as much as $400 (approximately $2,800 in 2006 values) based on condition and age immediately following the Ford press release.
In some newspaper markets, dealers scrambled to renegotiate newspaper advertising contracts involving the 1960 Edsel models, while others dropped the name from their dealerships' advertising "slugs." Ford issued a statement that it would distribute coupons to customers who purchased 1960 models (and carryover 1959 models) prior to the announcement, valued at $300 to $400 toward the purchase of new Ford products to offset the decreased values. The company also issued credits to dealers for stock unsold or received following the announcement.
Also See: Lost Marques - Edsel (Aus Edition)
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