The Edsel: Story of a Flop

Front view of the 1958 Edsel, showing the car’s distinctive “horse collar” grille

Within the automobile industry, failure is an all too common occurrence. Even the largest automobile companies experience the occasional failure from time to time. In 1957, Ford Motor Company introduced a new line of mid-priced cars to the American public for the 1958 model year: the Edsel. In the course of its short and unhappy life, the Edsel acquired an unfortunate distinction of being one of the most highly publicized flops in automotive history.

Named after Edsel Ford, the son of company founder Henry Ford and father of the then reigning company president Henry Ford II, the Edsel was the product of extensive market research by Ford during the mid-1950s. It was designed to fill what Ford believed to be a price range gap between its lower-priced Ford line and its more-expensive Mercury line. The new cars were sold by the company’s newly established Edsel Division.

Ford sought to market the Edsel as a completely new kind of car. Outwardly, the 1958 Edsels were distinctive-looking cars, sporting a vertical “horse collar” grille and “seagull” taillights. Mechanically, they offered a handful of innovative features, including a rolling dome speedometer, dashboard warning lights, and most notably, the “Teletouch” automatic transmission (in which gears were changed by push buttons in the middle of the steering wheel). But in terms of overall design, Edsels were actually quite conventional by American standards of the time, being large and powered by a choice of V-8 engines. They also shared platforms and body panels with other Ford products.

Side view of the 1958 Edsel

After an extensive preliminary marketing campaign, Ford introduced the Edsel line to the American public on September 4, 1957. Almost immediately, it became apparent that Ford had an expensive and highly publicized flop on its hands. The American public was not impressed with the new cars and few people bought them. This resulted in Ford losing hundreds of millions of dollars on its investment and suffering a large amount of negative publicity in the process.

The failure of the Edsel was attributed to a number of factors. One reason was the sharp recession that hit the United States in late 1957, which shrank the demand for new cars, and caused a market shift away from large cars towards smaller and more economical cars, including imports such as the Volkswagen Beetle and American compacts such as the Rambler. Another issue was the public’s negative reaction to the Edsel’s styling, especially its “horse collar” grille. Ford also failed to sufficiently differentiate the Edsel from the Mercury line in its product lineup. Last but not least, the Edsel earned a reputation for being a lemon. Customers complained of shoddy workmanship and the car’s Teletouch transmission proved to be troublesome.

Ford made a number of changes to the Edsel for the 1959 and 1960 model years, but the damage to the Edsel’s reputation was done. Shortly after the introduction of the 1960 models, Ford ceased production of the Edsel on November 19, 1959. A total of 110,847 Edsels were built. Surviving examples are highly collectible today.

Trade catalogs about the Edsel can be viewed in their entirety at the Vinson Digital Archive

Sources

Georgano, Nick, ed., The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile, Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 483-484.

Kowalke, Ron, ed., 4th Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1946-1975, Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1997, p. 378-381.

More than any other car you drive the Edsel by touch, Edsel: Trade Catalogs: Various Models, 1957-1961, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

This is the Edsel, never before a car like it, Edsel: Trade Catalogs: Various Models, 1957-1961, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

2012 Hagley Car Show

1940s Ford pickup truck at the 2012 Hagley Car Show

On Sunday, September 16th, I had the privilege of attending the seventeenth annual Hagley Car Show. Held on a gloriously cool and sunny day, the show was a great success, attracting about 5,000 people and a field of over 600 cars. This year’s show focused on a hard-working and much- beloved vehicle that has become an American icon: the pickup truck. This year’s theme proved to be very popular, and a large and diverse contingent of vintage pickup trucks turned up for the show.

Lineup of pickup trucks, including a mockup of Mater from the Pixar movie Cars, at the 2012 Hagley Car Show

In addition to providing automobile enthusiasts with an opportunity to show off their vehicles, the Hagley Car Show presented us with an opportunity to display items from the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection. The Vinson table was set up in front of the library building and exhibited several trade catalogs for a number of pickup trucks, including a few which were present at the show. We also displayed trade catalogs for other types of vehicles that are found in the Vinson Collection.

Trade catalog for the 1957 Ford Ranchero from the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection

Over the course of the day, a number of show attendees stopped by the Vinson table to learn more about the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection. Those who did showed great interest in the collection and were delighted to have the opportunity to look at the various trade catalogs we had on display. We had a great time talking with these automobile enthusiasts and listening to their tales about the vehicles they owned over the years.

If you are interested in learning more about the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, we strongly encourage you to regularly check back with this blog to see some of the unique and rare items in this collection and to learn about the latest project developments. If you were unable to attend the show but would like to view individual items from the collection, we encourage you to visit the Z. Taylor Vinson Digital Archives Preview on the Hagley Museum and Library’s website.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

The Trabant

Trade catalog for the Trabant 500, 1959

On November 9, 1989, in a momentous event known as the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the Communist government of East Germany opened the country’s borders and allowed its citizens to travel freely to the West for the first time.  Thousands of East Germans celebrated their newfound freedom by travelling to West Berlin and West Germany.  Many of these people drove through the border crossings in a peculiar little car that came to symbolize East Germany and the failure of its economic system: the Trabant.

The Trabant was a product of East Germany’s centrally planned economy.  Introduced in 1958, the Trabant was built by VEB Sachsenring, a state-owned automobile manufacturer whose factory was located in Zwickau, East Germany. It was essentially East Germany’s answer to the Volkswagen Beetle, which was manufactured in Wolfsburg, West Germany (ironically only a few miles from the East German border).  Much like the Beetle, the Trabant was intended to put people on wheels as inexpensively as possible.

Trade catalog for the Trabant 601, 1962

The overall design of the Trabant was unique.  It had a number of features that were reasonably advanced at the time of its 1958 introduction, including front-wheel drive, unitary construction, and four-wheel independent suspension.  But it also possessed a number of patently outdated features, particularly a small and underpowered 2-cylinder 2-stroke engine, which was notorious for being noisy, smoky, and not particularly fuel efficient.  Most prominently and peculiarly, the Trabant featured a body shell fabricated from Duroplast, a plastic material that was usually manufactured from recycled cotton fibers and recycled phenol resins.

Although the Trabant was theoretically intended to put the East German masses on wheels, it was actually very difficult for the average East German to obtain.  This was mainly due to material shortages that constantly plagued East Germany over the course of the nation’s life.  This state of affairs was further aggravated by the inefficient and labor-intensive manufacturing methods used to build the car.  As result, East Germans who purchased a Trabant usually had to wait years for it to be delivered.

In spite of its technical shortcomings, mediocre performance, and lack of availability, Trabants were frequently regarded with affection by their owners.  The cars were actually quite durable and their mechanical simplicity made them easy for their owners to repair.  Because they were so difficult to get, Trabant owners tended to keep their cars well maintained.  This combination of durability and regular maintenance gave the Trabant a remarkably long average lifespan of 28 years.

The Trabant experienced an extraordinarily long production life, lasting from 1958 to 1991.  Four of models of this car were built: the 500 (1958-1962), the 600 (1962-1964), the 601 (1963-1991), and the 1.1 (1990-1991). Throughout its production run, the Trabant’s basic design changed very little and what changes it did receive were evolutionary in nature.  It received a few minor exterior changes over the years, most notably a restyled body in 1964.  Mechanical changes included slightly larger and more powerful 2-stroke engines.  In a last-ditch effort to keep the car alive near the end of its production run, a few Trabants received 1043 cc Volkswagen inline 4 engines.

The Trabant was effectively killed off by the reunification of Germany in 1990, which encouraged former East German citizens to discard their Trabants in favor of more modern cars from the West.  VEB Sachsenring ceased production of the Trabant in 1991.  In the course of its long production life, more than 3 million examples of this car were built.

Sources

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of The Automobile Volume 2: M-Z; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 1605-1606.

“Trabant”                                                                                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trabant

Trabant 601, Trabant: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: 601, 1962-1972, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Trabant – Kleinwagen Mit Grosser Zukunft, Trabant: Media Information: Press Releases, 1959, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

The Classic Checker: Postwar America’s Taxicab of Choice

Taxicabs have long been a common sight in American cities. By providing on-demand transportation to destinations of their passengers’ choice, they serve as a vital mode of public transport, especially in larger cities such as New York City and Chicago. During the years following World War II, a number of large American four-door sedans saw service as taxi cabs. However, during the second half of the twentieth century, there was one taxicab that stood out from all of the rest: the classic Checker Taxicab. In the course of its long and distinguished career, the classic Checker served as the taxicab of choice in cities throughout the country and in the process of doing so, became an icon of postwar urban America.

The classic Checker Taxicab was a large four-door sedan built by Checker Motors Corporation of Kalamazoo, Michigan, a company which specialized in the manufacture of taxicabs. Unlike most of the other large four door sedans with which it competed, the Checker was a purpose-built taxicab. It was specifically designed in response to New York City taxi laws, which specified that taxicabs could not have a wheelbase of more than 120 inches. When it first hit America’s streets in 1956, it found immediate acceptance with both cab drivers and passengers.

Checkers were much beloved by cab drivers for their durability and ease of repair. In order to withstand a rough life on the streets, they were equipped with heavy-duty frames, brakes, suspensions, and exhaust. Their body shells featured easily removable two-piece doors and bolt-on fenders. Checkers were also mechanically simple and employed easy-to-obtain components sourced from a number of manufacturers, including but not limited to, Continental, Ford, Chevrolet, and Bendix.

Checkers were equally popular with passengers. Their large and uniquely styled body shells made them easy to spot on the street and in taxi stands. Checkers were also exceptionally roomy and comfortable, featuring generous head and leg room. When equipped with jump seats, they could hold as many as five passengers in their rear passenger compartment. They were also equipped with extra tall and wide doors that eased the entrance and exit of passengers.

The classic Checker Taxicab experienced an extraordinary long production life, lasting from 1956 to 1982. Three incarnations of these cars were built: the A-8 (1956-1958), the A-9 (1958-1962), and the A-11 (1963-1982). Throughout its production run, the Checker’s basic design remained the same, but a number of evolutionary changes were made. The most notable exterior change was a 1958 facelift featuring dual headlights and an egg crate grille, which resulted in the classic exterior most familiar to the general public. Mechanically, the most significant change occurred in 1963, when the Checkers’ original Continental six-cylinder engines were replaced by a choice of Chevrolet six-cylinder and V-8 power plants.

The last classic Checker Taxicab rolled off the assembly line in 1982, but many remained in service for a number of years after production ceased. The last Checker Taxicab in New York City was retired from service in 1999.

Sources
Checker Model A-9, No, Better Than Ever, Checker: Trade Catalogs: Fleet Vehicles: Taxi Cabs, 1948-1981, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

“Checker Motors Corporation”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Checker_Motors_Corporation

“Checker Taxi”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Checker_Taxi

Presenting two all new Checker Taxicabs: The A-8 Standard…The A-8 Driv-er-Matic Special, Trade Catalogs: Fleet Vehicles: Taxi Cabs, 1948-1981, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Wilgoren, Jodi, “Last New York Checker Turns Off Its Meter for Good”, New York Times, July 27, 1999.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.