Friday, March 2, 2012

The Case of the Murderous Vice President

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– The Management

The case of the Murderous Vice President

(not a Perry Mason whodunit)

When it comes to cars, I have have a special place in my heart for orphans, lame ducks and fallen angels. The orphan would have to be the Edsel, the quintessential icon for a "spectacular flop," and the fallen angel has to be the DeSoto. ...Its sad tale will follow anon. And after that, I will have to cogitate on what defunct American marque is to be the next long lamented lame duck. These days, there are so many...

Image via American Automobiles 

Today is the day to remember the Edsel.

The Edsel wasn't a particularly bad car, as a matter of fact it was quite an innovative
machine for 1958. It had a push button automatic transmission and the buttons were
conveniently positioned in the hub of the steering wheel. Long, low and wide, it was
built for comfort with sofa-sized bench seats fore and aft. 
Interiors were rather lavish for a car in the medium price range and the exterior styling was daringly different. In a sea of horizontal grilles, the Edsel's was upright and completely unexpected with its chromy "horse collar" oval being part of the three-piece front bumper system. And, the Edsel also had plenty of power with the mighty Citation-Corsair E475 engine under the hood.
So with all this good stuff going for it, why did Ford's newest marque go so quickly down the dumper? Well to be blunt, it was assassinated. At the Edsel press introduction dinner, on August 28, 1957, Ford Vice President, Robert MacNamara, quietly said: "I've got plans for phasing it out." ...And so, he did.

The Edsel – FoMoCo’s 

Mechanical Murder Victim

Labour Day 1957

The Russians announced their Inter-continental Ballistic R-7 Missile could reach targets in the west. The report of a successful test flight was announced on August 26 and dominated the news headlines of the week, until September 4th when the Americans announced their own bomb. It was called "the Edsel." and the day chosen for its introduction was designated "E-Day."
The Edsel, a medium priced car offered in four series, was positioned between Ford and Mercury on the Ford Company ladder. Its lower priced series were based on Ford, the upper series based on Mercury. It was the most researched car in Ford's history. And it was a thundering flop that lived only three model years.
Many post mortems have been performed on the ill fated Edsel and blame has been assessed: the controversial styling, the inexperienced dealer body, production snafus and the deep postwar recession. All are certainly factors, and had a role in the ultimate failure of the marque. But there's even more to the story.
The Edsel arose out of a concept known as the Breech Plan. It was conceived by Ford executive Ernest Breech, who was one of Henry Ford II's "Whiz Kids" who were brought in to save the company after the death of its founder in 1946. Breech had a reputation of being a trouble shooter and strategist, and he felt that Ford was missing too many segments of the market uncovered. He was a close friend of Henry II and it was not a surprise when Breech was named Chairman of the Board in 1955.
The Breech plan called for an alignment along the lines of General Motors- the Low priced Ford, a low-mid priced offering, the Mercury (migrating somewhat upmarket), the Lincoln, and a Super Lincoln. The board approved the plan in 1955, and of course the new low-mid priced offering ultimately became the star-crossed Edsel.
Robert S. MacNamara was another of Henry Ford II's "Whiz Kids", who were brought in to save the company after the death of Henry. MacNamara was a Harvard MBA accountant whose expertise in cost management brought him huge accolades and reinforced his power within the ranks. And he strongly opposed the Breech Plan and the Edsel. MacNamara felt the Ford Motor Company should concentrate on maximizing volume on the Ford nameplate (upon whose sales he just happened to be paid) and opposed the Edsel whose success he saw as distracting from his livelihood.
He was a powerful enemy who made his displeasure known to all within earshot, both inside and outside of the company. Fairfax Cone, president of the Edsel's Advertising Agency wrote in his memoir that while in Detroit for the Edsel's launch, he asked MacNamara what he thought of the yet-to-be-introduced new car. He wrote that he was shocked that MacNamara's response was "I have plans for phasing it out."
One cannot downplay the importance of such a powerful opponent. In the early fall of 1957, when Edsel was hoping for a strong launch, MacNamara offered strong dealer cash incentives of up to $750 on Ford cars, making the Edsel effectively $1000 more than a Ford.
He succeeded in getting the Mercury, Edsel and Lincoln divisions merged and from there, steered the downfall of the brand - first with consolidating Edsel products onto the Ford chassis only for 1959, and then reducing the marque to a very slightly differentiated Ford for 1960.
Of course there were many factors going on in the market place in the late 1950's. The economy was in a deep recession. The controversial styling was a factor, but a similar look had given Studebaker record sales a few years earlier. Production quality was spotty. Dealer discounts on Fords made Edsel "intenders" into Ford drivers. And once the first comedian referred to the car as an "Olds sucking a lemon," the carefully crafted image began to crumble.
First year Edsel sales of 61,000 were well below expectations, yet nonetheless represented the second best new nameplate introduction up to that time. But MacNamara was harping daily on what a disaster it was and now it needed to be dropped, and support within the company for the Edsel eroded daily. Edsel found its budgets slashed, its staffs reduced, and its options severely limited. By 1961, the Edsel was history.

On November 14, 1959, the Edsel 

became Ford's first murder victim.

Image Via Phonecan
It's interesting to realize that the Edsel was in development a year longer than it existed as a Ford Motor Company product. The car destined to be named the Edsel went into development in 1954 and showed up in showrooms as a 1958 model. That amounted to four years of planning, researching and designing. However, it was in production for only three years, 1958-60. It was a true flash in the pan.
But back in 1954, the future looked bright and there was a market gap in the Ford lineup. The E car, research data confirmed, was just the vehicle to do the job. Here are some Edsel styling renderings. Chief stylist Roy Brown was given the task of creating a car you could recognize from two blocks away. You'll have to agree these concepts certainly fulfilled the challenge!

Designs from 1954

Clay Models From 1955

Clays from 1956

A very early rendition dated May 11, 1956 which shows a retractable roof panel, bucket seats and a console. Note the Edsel name even though this name wouldn't be official until November of that year.

The following sketches are dated from August to October 1956. They were mounted on a "story board" in the styling studio like the photo below shows.

Concept Drawings from 1957

Due to the short time frame involved, the 1959 Edsel line was designed alongside the 1958 line. These photos show the progression from concept to final product.

The final 1958 Pacer Rendering. Compared to the concept renderings, the final product was pretty mundane.

Undated 1960 Edsel Styling Rendering

An early design study, this one of a Ranger/Pacer, explores a fastback design.

This photo, dated May 4, 1956, shows a concept for a convertible boot.

Another photo, dated June 19, 1956, shows the styling of the Citation convertible was pretty well along the way.

Here, a Corsair 4-door hardtop styling clay was also close to the production model.
Front left, George Walker, VP-Styling, front right, William C. Ford, VP- Product Planning & Styling, rear, Richard Krave, VP & General Manager, Edsel Division.

A very early clay model of a proposed 1959 Citation. 

Notice the different roof lines on each side.
A Corsair clay model based on the Mercury body.

Design proposals based on the '59 Ford body.

A rather menacing Edsel front-end proposal.
A "Thunderbird-esque" rear treatment.

An early clay model continued the "gull-wing" theme of '58. Note the "Special Products" license plate and '58 Bermuda clay in the background.
This Mercury-based clay was a proposed Corsair on the left side and a Bermuda on the right side. This must have been before final approval of the model names was given as the production Bermuda was a station wagon.

A Bermuda proposal incorporates the "boomerang" tail lights from the '58 model.

A proposed Mercury-based 1959 Citation convertible that wears '58 style wheel covers. The Mercury-based models would eventually be dropped as the project was scaled back. Note the Mercury clays in the background.

This station wagon front end, dated January 18, 1957, 
carries a Caravan name script.

 These front end proposals are quickly moving toward the final 1959 production design.

Below, a truly ugly proposal.

Below is an interesting nose clip forecasting the front end of the 1970 Thunderbird.

This front end was rejected for the '59 model, but was the front runner for the '60 model before that styling was completely changed.

A Ford-based Pacer 2-door hardtop proposal for 1959 
- with Thunderbird-style roof line.

In response to the longer, lower, and wider styling reflected in the GM and Chrysler production cars, Robert MacNamara ordered a crash program to play catch up with the competition.

As a consequence, all work based on the '59 models was scrapped and replaced with designs inspired by the "Quicksilver" concept car (above). Below are some proposals based upon the new directive.

Some rear end concepts show the flat Ford fin is still being used at this time.

This photo below shows a design fairly close to the one chosen for final production.

The proposal below shows the "Impact Bar" grille initially approved for production.

1960 Edsel concept cars promised a unique line of automobiles, but the production 1960 Edsel turned out to be nothing but a reworked version of that year's all-new full-sized Ford.
As later recorded by Edsel public relations director C. Gayle Warnock in his book, "The Edsel Affair," this decision had come way back in April 1958, when it was abundantly clear the Edsel experiment had gone awry.
The man behind it was none other than the no-nonsense Robert S. MacNamara, then a Dearborn vice-president, who declared the 1960 Edsel should be merely "a variation on the Ford car, using the same major components with modified front and rear ornamentation."

Design elements are refined on this Corsair clay model, which except for the side trim and small shark fins on top of the tail lights, looks close to the approved production car. 
Further refinements of the front end are shown here.
This Corsair 4 door hardtop was a working prototype based on the approved design.

Even so, "instant recognition" was still deemed important to Edsel sales when work on the 1960 began. Special Interest Autos magazine suggested as much in 1970 with a rescued photo of the front-end treatment originally intended.
This was somewhat like the final production design save a prominent bright central bar running up from the bumper into a chrome-edged nacelle. Both bar and nacelle were roughly triangular, with the latter blended smoothly into flanking cross-hatched sub-grilles. The hood formed its top portion, and continued its line rearward in Edsel's customary tapering-vee bulge. If not exactly timeless the treatment was at least identifiably Edsel and far less prone to joke-making than the original horse-collar.

Trouble was, this design required unique hood and grille stampings, and that was too much for the sales-conscious MacNamara. His cost concerns also eliminated the 1960 Corsair models – which would have worn a wide, tapering swath of brushed metal on their lower flanks – as well as a rear-end treatment using Ford's new flat-fin rear fenders to revive a 1958 Edsel hallmark: "gullwing" taillights.

However, late in the program, well after styling for the '60 model had been approved, Ford Chairman Ernest Breech toured the Edsel Studio and saw the prototype. He walked around it several times before declaring his disapproval of the front end styling. "Make it look more like a Pontiac" he was heard to say, and so the "Impact Bar" grille was out and a '59 Pontiac grille was in.

The 1960 Edsels thus bowed in October 1959 with just five Rangers and two Villager wagons bearing a split grille remarkably like that of the previous year's Pontiac, plus four vertical ovals stuck awkwardly onto the Ford rump for tail- and backup lights.
There were also bullet-style parking-lamp housings an big E-D-S-E-L lettering on the lower rear fenders, but most everything else was 1960 Ford. Not that it mattered much, Edsel's plug was pulled barely a month after the 1960s went on sale.

Note the never-produced Edsel 4-door hardtop above and in the background below with a Corsair convertible clay model.

The 1960 EDSEL Ranger 4 door sedan.

What lies beneath...

Lots of 1958 Edsels!

1958 Edsel Ranger 2 door sedan
1958 Edsel Ranger 4 door sedan.
1958 Edsel Ranger 4 door hardtop
Front view of the same Ranger.
Here it is again on the test track.
This car also took part in the Press Preview Stunt Show in August, 1957.
Same car in the wind tunnel and "cold" room.
A Corsair on the test track.
A Citation 4 door hardtop in a mock showroom.
A Canadian press photo shows a tri-tone Pacer 4 door hardtop. The red/white circle stickers above the rear view mirror and on the back window, allowed this prototype to enter the test track

The same Pacer at the Henry Ford Museum.
A tri-tone Pacer 2 door hardtop. This showboat was loaded with accessories!
Another view of the same car
A Pacer 4 door hardtop.
A Pacer 4 door sedan.
A Pacer convertible.
A Pacer 2 door hardtop.
This Corsair 4 door hardtop is the same car automotive journalist Tom McCahill 
used to test drive the new Edsel for Mechanix Illustrated magazine.
A Corsair 4 door hardtop.
A Citation (top of the line) 2 door hardtop.
Another  Citation 4 door hardtop.
A Citation convertible.
A Roundup Wagon with the proposed front fender/door trim.
The actual 1958 Edsel Roundup Wagon
A Villager Wagon with the proposed front fender/door trim.
The actual 1958 Edsel Villager Wagon
A top-of-the-line Bermuda 4-door Wagon
Images Via Love Fords Forum
1958 Edsel Bermuda 4-door Wagon
Image via Ephemera Now

Spoooky Reading 

Image via Internet Debris

Back to the future!

The Alfa Romeo 156 GTA...

Download Alfa 156 Wallpaper the closest of any modern-day car 
to resemble the 1958-59 Edsels
Image via The Wall Papers

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  1. As an Edsel owner and historian, I congratulate you on a well researched article. Too often I find that articles print things about the Edsel that are either partially true or outright lies. The only error I noticed was that a 4 door hardtop was indeed produced for 1960, 135 of them to be exact. This was a body style that was unique to Edsel in that the Ford Galaxie used a different roofline on their 4 door hardtop.

    1. Thanks for the info about the 1960 4-door hardtop. Good to know.