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The Edsel: wrong car, wrong time

The ill-fated Edsel was like the pretty girl who just couldn't find a date for the prom.
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On the higher end of the price range for the Edsel
was this 1958 Citation Convertible.

We live in a world today where “branding” is considered an important marketing tool. Many modern brands were created in the ’50s. The year 1958 marked the birth of the consumer credit industry when American Express launched its charge card and The Bank of America introduced what became the VISA card. In Wichita, Frank Carney read about the teenage “pizza fad” and borrowed $600 from his mom to open Pizza Hut.
One new brand introduced in 1958 wasn’t successful. The Edsel name was created by Ford Motor Co., but lasted only three model years: 1958, 1959, and 1960.

As an article in The Saturday Evening Post pointed out, “In prosperous times too many Ford customers graduating to bigger cars have been lost to GM, which offers three medium-priced cars and Chrysler, which has two. The Edsel will be Ford’s counterpart, roughly, of the Buick.”

The Edsel was designed to fill a gap between Mercury and Lincoln where Ford owned just a 14.3 percent share of market. The car was officially named as early as November 1956, but didn’t debut until the 1958 model year.

As early as Aug. 7, 1956, Ford established five regional sales offices for its Special Products Division to form the nucleus of a nationwide sales organization. That October, District Sales Managers were appointed to sell the new car in 24 cities.

As “Uncle” Tom McCahill wrote in Mechanix Illustrated, “When I went to Michigan to test this new offering it was like Alumni Day at the Reform School, as I met old friends and acquaintances at every water cooler and desk. In fact, the new Edsel Division was stacked from top to bottom with the cream of former Lincoln, Ford, and Mercury engineers.”

By January 1957, Ford was talking up its “distinctive-from-any-angle” looks and predicting 200,000 first-year sales. Five plants were committed to Edsel production and 1,200 to 1,400 dealers were expected to carry the brand.

“More than a new make of car . . . THE EDSEL is a ¼ billion dollar measure of a company’s faith in the American economy” said a full-page ad signed by chairman of the board Ernie Breech and Ford president Henry Ford II. According to the automaker, it was “…the first time in automotive history that a major manufacturer will set up a large dealer organization prior to the introduction and marketing of a completely new line of automobiles.”

Ford was so sure of the new car’s success it went to market with a full line of 18 models in four different series. From lowest- to highest-priced they were named Ranger, Pacer, Corsair, and Citation. Body style offering included sedans, hardtops, and station wagons in both two- and four-door models, plus convertible coupes. The lower-priced Edsel Rangers and Pacers were based on the 118-inch wheelbase Ford Fairlane and 116-inch wheelbase Ford station wagon bodies. Higher-end Corsair and Citation models, shared part of the Mercury body shell and had a 124-inch wheelbase.

The base series Ranger was $2,300 to $2,446, the only Edsel to come in a two-door sedan model. The Ranger nameplate was on the front fender. They had no bright metal front fender or door moldings or roof rails. Four-door hardtops had triangular rear window pillars with round medallions, while two-door hardtops and all sedans had narrow roof pillars without medallions. Two-door wagons were called Roundup models, while the Ranger-like four-door, six- and nine-passenger wagons were called the Villager. Prices for these 116-inch wheelbase wagons were $2,630 to $2,736.

The one-step-up series was the $2,499 to $2,771 Pacer, identified by Pacer front fender nameplates, bright metal moldings across the front fender and door and bright metal roof trim. Four-door hardtops and sedans were of the same basic design as Rangers, but a convertible replaced the two-door sedan. There was no Pacer two-door wagon and the four-door wagon was the Bermuda, which also came in six- and nine-passenger versions. Prices for these wagons were $2,922 and $2,975.

The junior Edsels were powered by an E-400 362-cid V-8 with a 303-hp (at 4600 rpm) rating. It was part of the FE series of Ford engines introduced in 1958. This solid-lifter motor carried a Holley four-barrel carburetor and had a 10.5:1 compression ratio. It produced 400 foot pounds of torque at 2800 rpm.

Corsairs represented the lower rung of the senior Edsels. The two-door hardtop listed for $3,066 and the four-door hardtop was $3,139. They could be identified by Corsair front fender nameplates. They had no silver aluminum trim inside the accent panels on the sides of the rear fenders. The top-rung Citations were $177 pricier than Corsairs and also offered a $3,489 convertible, the most expensive Edsel. The flagship models could be identified by their Citation front fender nameplates, bullet-shaped silver anodized trim inside the rear accent panels and the use of broad rectangular rear window pillars with medallions (except on the convertible.)

Under the hood of Corsairs and Citations was the E-475 410-cid V-8 that cranked up 345 hp at 4600 rpm and 475 foot pounds of torque at 2900 rpm.

Tom McCahill tested a senior Edsel. “With only myself in the big Corsair with its 410-inch engine, it was impossible on any type of road surface, including ribbed concrete, to give it a full jump start. On ribbed concrete, every time I shot the throttle to the floor quickly, the wheels spun like a gone-wild Waring Blender. This car has enough torque to yank the Empire State Building off its foundations.”

Edsel selling features included a Guard Rail frame, a Control-Center split seat, an inside locking hood, an Angle-Poised ball-joint front suspension, free flow manifolds, controlled pressure lubrication, and self-adjusting brakes. The Teletouch push-button shift for automatic transmission was unusual. Its buttons were mounted in the hub of the steering wheel, where the horn button usually appeared.

This required some special engineering, since the buttons had to stay fixed in position when the wheel was turned. An ingenious gearing system permitted the outside of the wheel to turn while the center hub, with its buttons and wires, remained stationary. With this system, after the transmission was put in park, it was locked and couldn’t be taken out of park until the ignition was turned on again.

The Edsel bowed to the public on Sept. 4, 1957 and it was quickly obvious the sales goal of 200,000 units wouldn’t be hit. Buyers seemed to have problems understanding where the car fit. Its “Alfa Romeo” type grille and richer trim didn’t hide its obvious link to contemporary Fords and Mercurys. There were so many models and such a wide range of prices, it was difficult for the average buyer to form a clear image of the Edsel.

Only 60,000 cars were sold. Model-year production of 63,110 cars was only 1.5 percent of total industry output. The number for calendar-year 1958 was only 26,563 cars for a .62 percent market share. There was no backlog after the initial inventory was moved out.

By mid-January 1958, Ford combined the operations of Mercury, Edsel, Lincoln, and English Ford into a new M-E-L Division. The Edsel survived a bit longer, though the handwriting was on the wall.

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