Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Edsel designer Roy Brown, Jr., dead at 96. A look at the history of the infamous Edsel

I read an article this week that Roy Brown, Jr., the designer of the Edsel, died on February 24 at the age of 96. Of course, that got me thinking about the infamous car, which was produced with much fanfare between 1958 and 1960. Now, I wasn’t even alive when this car was new, so I have a hard time imagining what all the hubbub was about. Today, the Edsel doesn’t really look that much better or worse that many other offerings from the late 1950s. Still, the car had a rough history. Let’s take a look.

Part of the failure of the Edsel was obviously that it didn’t live up to the initial hype. You know, the Edsel was not a “Ford.” This was a completely new division at Ford Motor Company; a stand-alone car brand. And they promoted the pudding out of it. Edsel was touted as an all-new kind of car, the likes of which no one had ever seen before. So when it actually was revealed on September 4, 1957, people had extremely high expectations.

What they got was a, well, thinly disguised Ford or Mercury. For the most part, nothing was all that radical. The body styles, tops, overall shape, and even the dashboards were nothing more than tinseled-up Ford designs. If this was the car of the future, the future looked a lot like what Ford was doing a year before.

And then there was that grille. When I look at it today, it just seems like fun ‘50s kitsch, but things were different when that was on a new car. I’m sure you’ve heard it before—people called it a horse collar, toilet seat, lemon-sucker, or an unmentionable part of the female anatomy. Whichever ridiculous comparison you want to make, it added up to something that people didn’t want to have in their driveway.

This wasn’t the first Edsel that didn’t survive at Ford Motor Company. The car was named after Edsel B. Ford, son of company creator Henry Ford. Edsel Ford loved flashy, colorful cars. As a result, he was always at odds with his father, who clung to the success of the Model T. Edsel did help steer the company, however, making many of the final styling decisions on the successful Model A, creating the Mercury division, and pushing through designs like the swoopy Lincoln Zephyr. Edsel died in 1943 due to complications with stomach cancer at only 49 years old. Many have cited his contentious relationship with his father as part of the reason he had so many health problems.

The Edsel car kind of made sense on paper. General Motors had Chevy, Buick, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac, and they certainly seemed to know what they were doing in the 1950s. Why couldn’t Ford have Ford, Mercury, Edsel, and Lincoln and do just as well? But really, what was the Edsel? Sort of a weird Mercury (although I would contend that there was some really weird stuff going on with Mercury styling during this time period too)? Why did they even need it? And the burden they put on their dealers to build new facilities to sell this car was quite intense. Some even went out of business because of it.

In ’58, when expectations were high, there were four models. The Citation and Corsair were built on the larger Mercury platform. The Pacer and Ranger were Fords. By 1959, the grille was toned down a bit, but the lineup was shrinking. Now they only had the Ranger and Corsair, both Ford-based. And by 1960, the horse collar was replaced completely by a Pontiac-esque split-grille treatment, and styling mimicked the redesigned Ford Galaxie.

118,287 Edsels were produced during their three years, but there were only 2,846 in 1960. That should give you some idea how much people were clamoring for them at the end of their run. Ford lost $350-million on the venture, which was a huge sum in 1950s dollars.  
 
After I originally posted this story, I got an e-mail from HMC reader Steve Scudder. Steve’s dad Bruce Scudder was a foreman at the Wayne, Mich., factory where the Edsel was assembled. This particular Citation convertible was extra special, because it was built for none other than President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Steve explains that quality control for most Edsels left something to be desired, so this car was hand-built to exacting specifications. His dad told him that they spent two days after assembly adjusting panel gaps, and it was “given a full polish treatment with show-car protocol.” This photo was used in press releases in 1958, and that’s Bruce behind the wheel. I think it’s pretty cool that Steve was willing to share his photo and story with us!

Today, the sales failure of the Edsel doesn’t really matter much, though. It’s easy to retell this history based mostly on hearsay and old reports. And I suppose there is still something companies can learn from it. But the cars themselves have aged rather nicely. Collectors like them. They have all the flash and glamour that people love from 1950s automotive styling. And if you didn’t know anything about them, you’d probably just think they were cool old cars through today’s rose-colored glasses.

Designer Roy Brown Jr.’s legacy may include the often-written history of the Edsel’s failed expectations, but among enthusiasts, all that matters are the glamorous, chrome-drenched reminders of one of the most flamboyant periods in automotive design.

When I was putting this slideshow together, I realized that I really don’t see Edsels that often. So I tried to dig up as many of my own pictures as I could, but I didn’t think that was enough to constitute a whole slideshow. So in addition to my pics, I also pulled some contemporary Edsel advertisements and promotional pictures, and I included a few rare models that I couldn’t find from Wiki Commons. All told, I think the slideshow conveys the glitz and excitement of the infamous Edsel. Check it out below, or click this link for a better version.


4 comments:

  1. Edsel was the first car to be 'designed' by focus group[s] ; sorta tells you what THAT particular theory is worth! [yet automakers still use it; and their products show it]

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  2. You didn't mention that the '58 Edsel had the transmission shift buttons on the center hub of the steering wheel (right where you needed them), or that the speedometer was a rotating 'flying saucer' with speed gradients on it, behind a glass panel... space-age cool. The thing also was among the fastest offerings in the mid-price field that year; a 364 cu. in. 4bbl was standard; a 410 cu. in. 4bbl optional. They moved.

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  3. Thank you for the very interesting post as well as the inclusion of the photo. I call that "proof" that there has been more than one "Edsel" in the White House during my lifetime! ;-)

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  4. Thanks for the picture and story Steve! Great stuff!

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