Ford’s Edsel Car – The Big Fin Failure of the 50s: Its Horsecollar Grill Inspired Jokes About An Olds Sucking a Lemon

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A 1958 Edsel Corsair

In 1957 Ford introduced its Edsel as the car of the century. It turned into a financial disaster for the company, but a jewel for antique car collectors.

With some of the heaviest promotion ever witnessed to that date, the Ford Motor Company advertised September 4, 1957 as “E-Day,” the day it would finally introduce its mysterious Edsel cars. Even while it was creating a star-studded new television show to promote the new model, Ford kept the Edsel itself covered in D-Day type secrecy.

When the day finally arrived, Americans flocked to new car dealers in record numbers to see what Ford had wrought. Many looked. But after a brief spurt, few bought.

CBS Television Edsel Show

Even a new CBS television special called the Edsel Show, starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Bob Hope and Rosemary Clooney failed to stimulate the 200,000 sales that Ford had projected. It sold only 64,000 the first year.

Ford discontinued the Edsel in 1959, inspiring an avalanche of jokes.

Most of the jokes focused on the Edsel’s “horsecollar” grill that Ford designed to replace the horizontal grill of the 1950s. It was intended to make the Edsel “instantly recognized from a block away.” TV comedians said it looked like an “Olds(mobile) sucking a lemon.” That was one of the kinder comparisons.

Failure Magazine Summarized the Problems

The most cruel cut, however, may have come in 2002 when Failure Magazine published a lengthy article on the Edsel. In that article, Kathleen Ervin summarized the views of some of the people most familiar with the Edsel failure: Bob Ellsworth, owner of edsel.com; Phil Skinner, an Edsel historian; and Mike Brogan, president of the International Edsel Club.

They listed many reasons Ford lost a reported $250 million (more than $2 billion in 2007 dollars) on the Edsel, including these:

The 1958 model Edsel was introduced in September, when the market was still trying to clear out 1957 models at lower prices, Ervin said.

The Edsel was conceived years earlier when the car market was booming with big vehicles. By late 1957 consumers were looking for smaller, more economical cars, Skinner said. “The public’s interest in huge, big fin cars with glitzy chrome was just about over,” Ellsworth added.

The Edsel was built in other Ford divisions which had little interest in its success. Some cars were still missing parts when they reached the dealers. Skinner said there were even rumors about “intentional vandalism” within the Ford plants that were forced to make Edsels.

The car easily revved up to 70 miles per hour, but at that speed the hood ornament might fly off, Ellsworth said.

Critics said the company failed to capitalize on Ford’s well established marketing strength. The Ford name was nowhere on the car. Instead of using its proven Ford dealers, the company established a chain of new dealerships to sell the Edsel.

Automatic Transmission Intimidated Drivers

Brogan said the car’s new automatic transmission, with push buttons in the center of the steering wheel, intimidated some drivers and many mechanics did not know how to repair it.

The car was named after one of the little known Ford family children, which didn’t add the kind of excitement a Mustang-type name brings. But even “Edsel” was probably better than “Utopian Turtletop,” which was suggested by a poet the company invited to suggest a name.

“The public thought there was something radically new coming out. But it was really just another 1958 car. It had more gizmos and gadgets on it but it wasn’t anything that lived up to the hype,” Ellsworth said.