June 07, 2005

Today in Automotive History

1954 The Immortal Edsel

On this day in 1954, the Ford Motor Company formed a styling team to take on the project of designing an entirely new car that would later be named the Edsel. The decision came as Ford enjoyed its greatest historical success in the 1950s. The 1955 Thunderbird had outsold its Chevy counterpart, the Corvette, and the consumer demand for automobiles, in all price brackets, was steadily increasing.In exuberant Ford plants, signs that had once read "Beat Chevrolet" were changed to a more ambitious tune, "Beat GM (General Motors)." The Ford Motor Company consisted of four brand names: Ford, Mercury, Lincoln, and Continental, listed from lowest to highest in price range. Ford executives believed that there was a gap in the marketplace between the Mercury and the Lincoln, where a new car would compete against GM's Oldsmobile and Buick lines.

In the mid-1950s, Americans seemed to have an insatiable hunger for high horse-powered, heavily styled cars, with lots of chrome and many accessories. So Ford planned to fill the public's appetite with a suitable answer. The company spared no expense in the development of its new car, even going so far as to employ famous American poet Marianne Moore to supply possibilities for its name. After an extensive name search and no satisfactory result, somebody suggested that the car be named after Henry Ford II's father, Edsel. Ford balked at the suggestion initially and later relented, on the grounds that his father deserved a tribute; he urged the car's designers to live up to his father's name. Edsel had always had a knack for design, even if his business sense hadn't always lived up to his father's expectations. The Edsel project was launched with great fanfare and vigorous advertising. During the years between the car's conception and its production, the American economy took a downturn.

By the time the Edsel was released in 1957, the high end of the car market had once again contracted. Public reaction to the car's exaggerated styling was tepid at best, with particular objections aimed at the Edsel's awkward-looking "horse collar" grill. Sales for the car started slowly and foundered. Newly appointed company Vice President Robert McNamara was charged with the task of salvaging the operation. Had McNamara held the position years earlier, historians point out, the Edsel project may never have been taken on, as McNamara strongly believed Ford should concentrate on the economy car market. McNamara attempted to improve the car's construction and appearance, but when the attempt failed, he was forced to halt production of the car at a disastrous loss of $250 million.

To this day, the Edsel remains the biggest failure in American car history, "a monumental disaster created for tomorrow's markets created by yesterday's statistical inputs." History has treated the Edsel more kindly, as its looks are now considered to be an attractive example of 1950s flair. Like its namesake, Edsel Ford, the Edsel has come to be known as an unfair victim of circumstance.

Posted by Quality Weenie at June 7, 2005 08:29 AM