Monday, March 26, 2018

Edsel's Three Model Years

Seated in the newly introduced 1958 Edsel are Benson Ford, William Clay Ford and Henry Ford II, the sons of Henry Ford's son Edsel, for whom the brand was named.  It became a famous marketing disaster for Ford Motor Company.

American automobile branding was far more structured from the late 1920s into the 1960s than it is today.  Almost all cars were based on what are now called "platforms" of fairly similar size.  For example, all Fords shared the same platform, the variation being amongst 4-door sedans and hardtops, 2-door coupes/sedans and hardtops, convertibles, and station wagons.  Nowadays, a single brand might market standard-size 4-door sedans, coupes and station wagons, compact sedans, compact coupes and hatchbacks, minivans, and crossover SUVs.

Today's proliferation of brand platforms leads to dilution of price/prestige hierarchies.  For example, aside from Minis, BMW cars range from moderate-price small cars to luxury sedans and high-performance sports cars.  But during that 1920s-60s period in America, brands were hierarchical in terms of price/prestige with some overlapping.

In 1955 Ford Motor Company marketed only three brands: Ford, Mercury and Lincoln (listed from low to high hierarchically).  Chrysler Corporation, smaller than Ford, had Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler and Imperial.  Dominant General Motors brands were Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac.  So Ford management decided to add another brand to their portfolio to help cover the then fast-growing mid-price field.

That brand became Edsel.  I won't go into all the reasons why the Edsel failed so quickly: some of that is mentioned here and here.  An even deeper analysis can be found in Thomas Bonsall's book "Disaster in Dearborn" that includes Ford management infighting as a factor.

For the purposes of this post, I will cite three considerations.  First, Edsel's target mid-price market suddenly hit the skids thanks to a recession that began around the time Edsels were introduced to the public.

Second, Edsels did not form a part of a coherent brand hierarchy.  Edsel and Mercury pricing for 1958 overlapped almost completely, if Mercury's top-of-the-line Park Lane models are ignored.  Thus the justification for adding a new brand to For's lineup was defeated.

Third, Edsel styling was controversial, particularly its vertical central grille element.  This was contrary to the current fashion for horizontal grille orientations.  The reasoning for the Edsel design was that the cars should be so visually distinctive that they could easily be identified at a distance.  (I should note that the Studebaker Hawk model, introduced for 1956, featured a square grille format that the public seemed to find acceptable.  However, Edsel's narrow version was too extreme and invited derision.)

Apparently Edsel management quickly realized that the grille theme had backfired.  So the grille design for 1959 was a subdued version of the original requiring minimal body retooling investment.

Edsel staggered into the 1960 model year being based on Ford bodies (as shown below, early Edsels made use of both Ford and Mercury bodies).  Production lasted only about two months before the brand was killed.


Edsel Corsair 2-door hardtop for 1958, RM Sotheby's photo.  The top Edsel models, Corsair and Citation, used Mercury bodies.

This is a "for sale" 1958 Mercury Monterey Phaeton Coupe using the same basic body as the Edsel in the previous image.

Edsel Pacer 4-door hardtop; Pacer and Ranger models used Ford bodies.

"For sale" photo of a 1958 Ford Fairlane 500 2-door hardtop.

Rear view of 1958 Edsel Corsair featuring a three-tone paint scheme.

For 1959, the vertical element of Edsel's grille design was made less distinctive.  This was accomplished by dropping the headlights into the grille ensemble and adding horizontal bars to the vertical element to echo the horizontal bar theme of the main grille areas.

Edsel Corsair 2-door hardtop.  Tail lights were lowered from the horizontal fins to the vertical aft panel.  Side trim was restyled in various ways on all Edsels, considerably changing the brand's character here.

Rear view of a '59 Edsel Ranger in a Barrett-Jackson photo showing in better detail the tail light redesign.

Here is a 1960 Edsel Ranger offered for sale.  The grille suggests the now-iconic two-element Pontiac grille introduced for 1959 (except Pontiac abandoned the theme for 1960 and then ran with it again starting in 1961).

Rear view of the same car.  A nice touch is the vertical tail lights and backup lights that harken to the original Edsel grille theme.

A 1960 Ford whose body was used by Edsel, having dropped all connections with Mercury that model year.


Greg Prosmushkin said...
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Unknown said...

I've always loved the Edsel styling for it's quirkiness and individuality, even if the basic structure was far from unique. Roy Brown, I believe, was "exiled" to Ford UK where he styled the Consul Classic range, another favourite of mine.

Digressing slightly, the 1960 Ford styling has always struck me as being very attractive and quite a bit more "modern" looking than the 1961 facelift, I'me sure there's an interesting story behind that.