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.

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