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Chapter 2 The Fate of the Edsel
RISE AND FLOWERINGIN the calendar of American economic life, 1955 was the Yearof the Automobile. That year, American automobile makers soldover seven million passenger cars, or over a million more thanthey had sold in any previous year. That year, General Motorseasily sold the public $325 million worth of new common stock,and the stock market as a whole, led by the motors, gyratedupward so frantically that Congress investigated it. And thatyear, too, the Ford Motor Company decided to produce a newautomobile in what was quaintly called the medium-pricerange—roughly, from $2,400 to $4,000—and went ahead anddesigned it more or less in conformity with the fashion of theday, which was for cars that were long, wide, low, lavishlydecorated with chrome, liberally supplied with gadgets, andequipped with engines of a power just barely insufficient tosend them into orbit. Two years later, in September, 1957, theFord Company put its new car, the Edsel, on the market, tothe accompaniment of more fanfare than had attended thearrival of any other new car since the same company’s ModelA, brought out thirty years earlier. The total amount spent onthe Edsel before the first specimen went on sale wasannounced as a quarter of a billion dollars; its launching—asBusiness Week declared and nobody cared to deny—was morecostly than that of any other consumer product in history. Asa starter toward getting its investment back, Ford counted onselling at least 200,000 Edsels the first year.
There may be an aborigine somewhere in a remote rainforest who hasn’t yet heard that things failed to turn out thatway. To be precise, two years two months and fifteen dayslater Ford had sold only 109,466 Edsels, and, beyond a doubt,many hundreds, if not several thousands, of those were boughtby Ford executives, dealers, salesmen, advertising men,assembly-line workers, and others who had a personal interestin seeing the car succeed. The 109,466 amounted toconsiderably less than one per cent of the passenger cars soldin the United States during that period, and on November 19,1959, having lost, according to some outside estimates, around$350 million on the Edsel, the Ford Company permanentlydiscontinued its production.
How could this have happened? How could a company somightily endowed with money, experience, and, presumably,brains have been guilty of such a monumental mistake? Evenbefore the Edsel was dropped, some of the more articulatemembers of the car-minded public had come forward with ananswer—an answer so simple and so seemingly reasonable that,though it was not the only one advanced, it became widelyaccepted as the truth. The Edsel, these people argued, wasdesigned, named, advertised, and promoted with a slavishadherence to the results of public-opinion polls and of theiryounger cousin, motivational research, and they concluded thatwhen the public is wooed in an excessively calculated manner,it tends to turn away in favor of some gruffer but morespontaneously attentive suitor. Several years ago, in the face ofan understandable reticence on the part of the Ford MotorCompany, which enjoys documenting its boners no more thananyone else, I set out to learn what I could about the Edseldebacle, and my investigations have led me to believe that whatwe have here is less than the whole truth.
For, although the Edsel was supposed to be advertised, andotherwise promoted, strictly on the basis of preferencesexpressed in polls, some old-fashioned snake-oil-selling methods,intuitive rather than scientific, crept in. Although it wassupposed to have been named in much the same way, sciencewas curtly discarded at the last minute and the Edsel wasnamed for the father of the company’s president, like anineteenth-century brand of cough drops or saddle soap. Asfor the design, it was arrived at without even a pretense ofconsulting the polls, and by the method that has been standardfor years in the designing of automobiles—that of simply poolingthe hunches of sundry company committees. The commonexplanation of the Edsel’s downfall, then, under scrutiny, turnsout to be largely a myth, in the colloquial sense of that term.
But the facts of the case may live to become a myth of asymbolic sort—a modern American antisuccess story.
THE origins of the Edsel go back to the fall of 1948, sevenyears before the year of decision, when Henry Ford II, whohad been president and undisputed boss of the company sincethe death of his grandfather, the original Henry, a year earlier,proposed to the company’s executive committee, which includedErnest R. Breech, the executive vice-president, that studies beundertaken concerning the wisdom of putting on the market anew and wholly different medium-priced car. The studies wereundertaken. There appeared to be good reason for them. Itwas a well-known practice at the time for low-income ownersof Fords, Plymouths, and Chevrolets to turn in their symbols ofinferior caste as soon as their earnings rose above fivethousand dollars a year, and “trade up” to a medium-pricedcar. From Ford’s point of view, this would have been all welland good except that, for some reason, Ford owners usuallytraded up not to Mercury, the company’s only medium-pricedcar, but to one or another of the medium-priced cars put outby its big rivals—Oldsmobile, Buick, and Pontiac, among theGeneral Motors products, and, to a lesser extent, Dodge andDe Soto, the Chrysler candidates. Lewis D. Crusoe, then avice-president of the Ford Motor Company, was not overstatingthe case when he said, “We have been growing customers forGeneral Motors.”
The outbreak of the Korean War, in 1950, meant that Fordhad no choice but to go on growing customers for itscompetitors, since introducing a new car at such a time wasout of the question. The company’s executive committee putaside the studies proposed by President Ford, and therematters rested for two years. Late in 1952, however, the end ofthe war appeared sufficiently imminent for the company to pickup where it had left off, and the studies were energeticallyresumed by a group called the Forward Product PlanningCommittee, which turned over much of the detailed work tothe Lincoln-Mercury Division, under the direction of RichardKrafve (pronounced Kraffy), the division’s assistant generalmanager. Krafve, a forceful, rather saturnine man with ahabitually puzzled look, was then in his middle forties. The sonof a printer on a small farm journal in Minnesota, he hadbeen a sales engineer and management consultant beforejoining Ford, in 1947, and although he could not have knownit in 1952, he was to have reason to look puzzled. As the mandirectly responsible for the Edsel and its fortunes, enjoying itsbrief glory and attending it in its mortal agonies, he had arendezvous with destiny.
IN December, 1954, after two years’ work, the Forward ProductPlanning Committee submitted to the executive committee asix-volume blockbuster of a report summarizing its findings.
Supported by copious statistics, the report predicted the arrivalof the American millennium, or something a lot like it, in 1965.
By that time, the Forward Product Planning Committeeestimated, the gross national product would be $535 billion ayear—up more than $135 billion in a decade. (As a matter offact, this part of the millennium arrived much sooner than theForward Planners estimated. The G. N. P. passed $535 billionin 1962, and for 1965 was $681 billion.) The number of carsin operation would be seventy million—up twenty million. Morethan half the families in the nation would have incomes of overfive thousand dollars a year, and more than 40 percent of allthe cars sold would be in the medium-price range or better.
The report’s picture of America in 1965, presented in crushingdetail, was of a country after Detroit’s own heart—its banksoozing money, its streets and highways choked with huge,dazzling medium-priced cars, its newly rich, “upwardly mobile”
citizens racked with longings for more of them. The moral wasclear. If by that time Ford had not come out with a secondmedium-priced car—not just a new model, but a newmake—and made it a favorite in its field, the company wouldmiss out on its share of the national boodle.
On the other hand, the Ford bosses were well aware of theenormous risks connected with putting a new car on themarket. They knew, for example, that of the 2,900 Americanmakes that had been introduced since the beginning of theAutomobile Age—the Black Crow (1905), the Averageman’s Car(1906), the Bug-mobile (1907), the Dan Patch (1911), and theLone Star (1920) among them—only about twenty were stillaround. They knew all about the automotive casualties that hadfollowed the Second World War—among them Crosley, whichhad given up altogether, and Kaiser Motors, which, though stillalive in 1954, was breathing its last. (The members of theForward Product Planning Committee must have glanced ateach other uneasily when, a year later, Henry J. Kaiser wrote,in a valediction to his car business, “We expected to toss fiftymillion dollars into the automobile pond, but we didn’t expect itto disappear without a ripple.”) The Ford men also knew thatneither of the other members of the industry’s powerful andwell-heeled Big Three—General Motors and Chrysler—hadventured to bring out a new standard-size make since theformer’s La Salle in 1927, and the latter’s Plymouth, in 1928,and that Ford itself had not attempted to turn the trick since1938, when it launched the Mercury.
Nevertheless, the Ford men felt bullish—so remarkably bullishthat they resolved to toss into the automobile pond five timesthe sum that Kaiser had. In April, 1955, Henry Ford II,Breech, and the other members of the executive committeeofficially approved the Forward Product Planning Committee’sfindings, and, to implement them, set up another agency, calledthe Special Products Division, with the star-crossed Krafve as itshead. Thus the company gave its formal sanction to the effortsof its designers, who, having divined the trend of events, hadalready been doodling for several months on plans for a newcar. Since neither they nor the newly organized Krafve outfit,when it took over, had an inkling of what the thing on theirdrawing boards might be called, it became known to everybodyat Ford, and even in the company’s press releases, as theE-Car—the “E,” it was explained, standing for “Experimental.”
The man directly in charge of the E-Car’s design—or, to usethe gruesome trade word, “styling”—was a Canadian, then notyet forty, named Roy A. Brown, who, before taking on theE-Car (and after studying industrial design at the Detroit ArtAcademy), had had a hand in the designing of radios, motorcruisers, colored-glass products, Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles, andLincolns.* Brown recently recalled his aspirations as he went towork on the new project. “Our goal was to create a vehiclewhich would be unique in the sense that it would be readilyrecognizable in styling theme from the nineteen other makes ofcars on the road at that time,” he wrote from England, whereat the time of his writing he was employed as chief stylist forthe Ford Motor Company, Ltd., manufacturers of trucks,tractors, and small cars. “We went to the extent of makingphotographic studies from some distance of all nineteen ofthese cars, and it became obvious that at a distance of a fewhundred feet the similarity was so great that it was practicallyimpossible to distinguish one make from the others.… Theywere all ‘peas in a pod.’ We decided to select [a style that]
would be ‘new’ in the sense that it was unique, and yet at thesame time be familiar.”
While the E-Car was on the drawing boards in Ford’s stylingstudio—situated, like its administrative offices, in the company’sbarony of Dearborn, just outside Detroit—work on it progressedunder the conditions of melodramatic, if ineffectual, secrecy thatinvariably attend such operations in the automobile business:
locks on the studio doors that could be changed in fifteenminutes if a key should fall into enemy hands; a security forcestanding round-the-clock guard over the establishment; and atelescope to be trained at intervals on nearby high points ofthe terrain where peekers might be roosting. (All suchprecautions, however inspired, are doomed to fail, because noneof them provide a defense against Detroit’s version of theTrojan horse—the job-jumping stylist, whose cheerful treacherymakes it relatively easy for the rival companies to keep tabs onwhat the competition is up to. No one, of course, is betteraware of this than the rivals themselves, but thecloak-and-dagger stuff is thought to pay for itself in publicityvalue.) Twice a week or so, Krafve—head down, and sticking tolow ground—made the journey to the styling studio, where hewould confer with Brown, check up on the work as itproceeded, and offer advice and encouragement. Krafve wasnot the kind of man to envision his objective in a singlerevelatory flash; instead, he anatomized the styling of the E-Carinto a series of laboriously minute decisions—how to shape thefenders, what pattern to use with the chrome, what kind ofdoor handles to put on, and so on and on. If Michelangeloever added the number of decisions that went into theexecution of, say, his “David,” he kept it to himself, but Krafve,an orderly-minded man in an era of orderly-functioningcomputers, later calculated that in styling the E-Car he and hisassociates had to make up their minds on no fewer than fourthousand occasions. He reasoned at the time that if theyarrived at the right yes-or-no choice on every one of thoseoccasions, they ought, in the end, to come up with a stylisticallyperfect car—or at least a car that would be unique and at thesame time familiar. But Krafve concedes today that he found itdifficult thus to bend the creative process to the yoke ofsystem, principally because many of the four thousand decisionshe made wouldn’t stay put. “Once you get a general theme,you begin narrowing down,” he says. “You keep modifying, andthen modifying your modifications. Finally, you have to settle onsomething, because there isn’t any more time. If it weren’t forthe deadline you’d probably go on modifying indefinitely.”
Except for later, minor modifications of the modifiedmodifications, the E-Car had been fully styled by midsummer of1955. As the world was to learn two years later, its moststriking aspect was a novel, horse-collar-shaped radiator grille,set vertically in the center of a conventionally low, wide frontend—a blend of the unique and the familiar that was there forall to see, though certainly not for all to admire. In twoprominent respects, however, Brown or Krafve, or both, lostsight entirely of the familiar, specifying a unique rear end,marked by widespread horizontal wings that were in boldcontrast to the huge longitudinal tail fins then captivating themarket, and a unique cluster of automatic-transmission pushbuttons on the hub of the steering wheel. In a speech to thepublic delivered a while before the public had its first look atthe car, Krafve let fall a hint or two about its styling, which, hesaid, made it so “distinctive” that, externally, it was “immediatelyrecognizable from front, side, and rear,” and, internally, it was“the epitome of the push-button era without wild-blue-yonderBuck Rogers concepts.” At last came the day when the men inthe highest stratum of the Ford Hierarchy were given their firstglimpse of the car. It produced an effect that was little short ofapocalyptic. On August 15, 1955, in the ceremonial secrecy ofthe styling center, while Krafve, Brown, and their aides stoodby smiling nervously and washing their hands in air, themembers of the Forward Product Planning Committee, includingHenry Ford II and Breech, watched critically as a curtain waslifted to reveal the first full-size model of the E-Car—a clay one,with tinfoil simulating aluminum and chrome. According toeyewitnesses, the audience sat in utter silence for what seemedlike a full minute, and then, as one man, burst into a round ofapplause. Nothing of the kind had ever happened at anintracompany first showing at Ford since 1896, when old Henryhad bolted together his first horseless carriage.
ONE of the most persuasive and most frequently citedexplanations of the Edsel’s failure is that it was a victim of thetime lag between the decision to produce it and the act ofputting it on the market. It was easy to see a few years later,when smaller and less powerful cars, euphemistically called“compacts,” had become so popular as to turn the oldautomobile status-ladder upside down, that the Edsel was agiant step in the wrong direction, but it was far from easy tosee that in fat, tail-finny 1955. American ingenuity—which hasproduced the electric light, the flying machine, the tin Lizzie, theatomic bomb, and even a tax system that permits a man,under certain circumstances, to clear a profit by making acharitable donation *—has not yet found a way of getting anautomobile on the market within a reasonable time after itcomes off the drawing board; the making of steel dies, thealerting of retail dealers, the preparation of advertising andpromotion campaigns, the gaining of executive approval for eachsuccessive move, and the various other gavotte-like routines thatare considered as vital as breathing in Detroit and its environsusually consume about two years. Guessing future tastes ishard enough for those charged with planning the customaryannual changes in models of established makes; it is far harderto bring out an altogether new creation, like the E-Car, forwhich several intricate new steps must be worked into thedance pattern, such as endowing the product with a personalityand selecting a suitable name for it, to say nothing ofconsulting various oracles in an effort to determine whether, bythe time of the unveiling, the state of the national economy willmake bringing out any new car seem like a good idea.
Faithfully executing the prescribed routine, the Special ProductsDivision called upon its director of planning for marketresearch, David Wallace, to see what he could do aboutimparting a personality to the E-Car and giving it a name.
Wallace, a lean, craggy-jawed pipe puffer with a soft, slow,thoughtful way of speaking, gave the impression of being thePlatonic idea of the college professor—the very steel die fromwhich the breed is cut—although, in point of fact, hisbackground was not strongly academic. Before going to Ford,in 1955, he had worked his way through Westminster College,in Pennsylvania, ridden out the depression as a constructionlaborer in New York City, and then spent ten years in marketresearch at Time. Still, impressions are what count, andWallace has admitted that during his tenure with Ford heconsciously stressed his professorial air for the sake of theadvantage it gave him in dealing with the bluff, practical men ofDearborn. “Our department came to be regarded as asemi-Brain Trust,” he says, with a certain satisfaction. Heinsisted, typically, on living in Ann Arbor, where he could baskin the scholarly aura of the University of Michigan, rather thanin Dearborn or Detroit, both of which he declared wereintolerable after business hours. Whatever the degree of hissuccess in projecting the image of the E-Car, he seems, by hissmall eccentricities, to have done splendidly at projecting theimage of Wallace. “I don’t think Dave’s motivation for being atFord was basically economic,” his old boss, Krafve, says. “Daveis the scholarly type, and I think he considered the job aninteresting challenge.” One could scarcely ask for better evidenceof image projection than that.
Wallace clearly recalls the reasoning—candid enough—thatguided him and his assistants as they sought just the rightpersonality for the E-Car. “We said to ourselves, ‘Let’s faceit—there is no great difference in basic mechanism between atwo-thousand-dollar Chevrolet and a six-thousand-dollarCadillac,’” he says. “‘Forget about all the ballyhoo,’ we said, ‘andyou’ll see that they are really pretty much the same thing.
Nevertheless, there’s something—there’s got to be something—inthe makeup of a certain number of people that gives them ayen for a Cadillac, in spite of its high price, or maybe becauseof it.’ We concluded that cars are the means to a sort ofdream fulfillment. There’s some irrational factor in people thatmakes them want one kind of car rather thananother—something that has nothing to do with the mechanismat all but with the car’s personality, as the customer imaginesit. What we wanted to do, naturally, was to give the E-Car thepersonality that would make the greatest number of peoplewant it. We figured we had a big advantage over the othermanufacturers of medium-priced cars, because we didn’t haveto worry about changing a pre-existent, perhaps somewhatobnoxious personality. All we had to do was create the exactone we wanted—from scratch.”
As the first step in determining what the E-Car’s exactpersonality should be, Wallace decided to assess the personalitiesof the medium-priced cars already on the market, and those ofthe so-called low-priced cars as well, since the cost of some ofthe cheap cars’ 1955 models had risen well up into themedium-price range. To this end, he engaged the ColumbiaUniversity Bureau of Applied Social Research to interview eighthundred recent car buyers in Peoria, Illinois, and another eighthundred in San Bernardino, California, on the mental imagesthey had of the various automobile makes concerned. (Inundertaking this commercial enterprise, Columbia maintained itsacademic independence by reserving the right to publish itsfindings.) “Our idea was to get the reaction in cities, amongclusters of people,” Wallace says. “We didn’t want a crosssection. What we wanted was something that would showinterpersonal factors. We picked Peoria as a place that isMidwestern, stereotyped, and not loaded with extraneousfactors—like a General Motors glass plant, say. We picked SanBernardino because the West Coast is very important in theautomobile business, and because the market there is quitedifferent—people tend to buy flashier cars.”
The questions that the Columbia researchers fared forth toask in Peoria and San Bernardino dealt exhaustively withpractically everything having to do with automobiles except suchmatters as how much they cost, how safe they were, andwhether they ran. In particular, Wallace wanted to know therespondents’ impressions of each of the existing makes. Who, intheir opinion, would naturally own a Chevrolet or a Buick orwhatever? People of what age? Of which sex? Of what socialstatus? From the answers, Wallace found it easy to puttogether a personality portrait of each make. The image of theFord came into focus as that of a very fast, strongly masculinecar, of no particular social pretensions, that mightcharacteristically be driven by a rancher or an automobilemechanic. In contrast, Chevrolet emerged as older, wiser,slower, a bit less rampantly masculine, and slightly moredistingué—a clergyman’s car. Buick jelled into a middle-agedlady—or, at least, more of a lady than Ford, sex in cars havingproved to be relative—with a bit of the devil still in her, whosemost felicitous mate would be a lawyer, a doctor, or adance-band leader. As for the Mercury, it came out as virtuallya hot rod, best suited to a young-buck racing driver; thus,despite its higher price tag, it was associated with personshaving incomes no higher than the average Ford owner’s, sono wonder Ford owners had not been trading up to it. Thisodd discrepancy between image and fact, coupled with thecircumstance that, in sober truth all four makes looked verymuch alike and had almost the same horsepower under theirhoods, only served to bear out Wallace’s premise that theautomobile fancier, like a young man in love, is incapable ofsizing up the object of his affections in anything resembling arational manner.
By the time the researchers closed the books on Peoria andSan Bernardino, they had elicited replies not only to thesequestions but to others, several of which, it would appear, onlythe most abstruse sociological thinker could relate tomedium-priced cars. “Frankly, we dabbled,” Wallace says. “Itwas a dragnet operation.” Among the odds and ends that thedragnet dredged up were some that, when pieced together, ledthe researchers to report:
By looking at those respondents whose annual incomes range from $4,000to $11,000, we can make an … observation. A considerable percentage ofthese respondents [to a question about their ability to mix cocktails] are inthe “somewhat” category on ability to mix cocktails.… Evidently, they do nothave much confidence in their cocktail-mixing ability. We may infer thatthese respondents are aware of the fact that they are in the learningprocess. They may be able to mix Martinis or Manhattans, but beyondthese popular drinks they don’t have much of a repertoire.
Wallace, dreaming of an ideally lovable E-Car, was delighted asreturns like these came pouring into his Dearborn office. Butwhen the time for a final decision drew near, it became clearto him that he must put aside peripheral issues likecocktail-mixing prowess and address himself once more to theold problem of the image. And here, it seemed to him, thegreatest pitfall was the temptation to aim, in accordance withwhat he took to be the trend of the times, for extremes ofmasculinity, youthfulness, and speed; indeed, the followingpassage from one of the Columbia reports, as he interpreted it,contained a specific warning against such folly.
Offhand we might conjecture that women who drive cars probably work,and are more mobile than non-owners, and get gratifications out ofmastering a traditionally male role. But … there is no doubt that whatevergratifications women get out of their cars, and whatever social imagery theyattach to their automobiles, they do want to appear as women. Perhapsmore worldly women, but women.
Early in 1956, Wallace set about summing up all of hisdepartment’s findings in a report to his superiors in the SpecialProducts Division. Entitled “The Market and PersonalityObjectives of the E-Car” and weighty with facts andstatistics—though generously interspersed with terse sections initalics or capitals from which a hard-pressed executive could getthe gist of the thing in a matter of seconds—the report firstindulged in some airy, skippable philosophizing and then gotdown to conclusions:
What happens when an owner sees his make as a car which a womanmight buy, but is himself a man? Does this apparent inconsistency of carimage and the buyer’s own characteristics affect his trading plans? Theanswer quite definitely is Yes. When there is a conflict between ownercharacteristics and make image, there is greater planning to switch toanother make. In other words, when the buyer is a different kind ofperson from the person he thinks would own his make, he wants tochange to a make in which he, inwardly, will be more comfortable.
It should be noted that “conflict,” as used here, can be of two kinds.
Should a make have a strong and well-defined image, it is obvious that anowner with strong opposing characteristics would be in conflict. But conflictalso can occur when the make image is diffuse or weakly defined. In thiscase, the owner is in an equally frustrating position of not being able toget a satisfactory identification from his make.
The question, then, was how to steer between the Scylla of atoo definite car personality and the Charybdis of a too weakpersonality. To this the report replied, “Capitalize on imageryweakness of competition,” and went on to urge that in thematter of age the E-Car should take an imagery positionneither too young nor too old but right alongside that of themiddling Olds-mobile; that in the matter of social class, not tomince matters, “the E-Car might well take a status position justbelow Buick and Oldsmobile”; and that in the delicate matter ofsex it should try to straddle the fence, again along with theprotean Olds. In sum (and in Wallace typography):
The most advantageous personality for the E-Car might well be THESMART CAR FOR THE YOUNGER EXECUTIVE OR PROFESSIONALFAMILY ON ITS WAY UP.
Smart car: recognition by others of the owner’s good style and taste.
Younger: appealing to spirited but responsible adventurers.
Executive or professional: millions pretend to this status, whether they canattain it or not.
Family: not exclusively masculine; a wholesome “good” role.
On Its Way Up: “The E-Car has faith in you, son; we’ll help you makeit!”
Before spirited but responsible adventurers could have faith inthe E-Car, however, it had to have a name. Very early in itshistory, Krafve had suggested to members of the Ford familythat the new car be named for Edsel Ford, who was the onlyson of old Henry; the president of the Ford Motor Companyfrom 1918 until his death, in 1943; and the father of the newgeneration of Fords—Henry II, Benson, and William Clay. Thethree brothers had let Krafve know that their father might nothave cared to have his name spinning on a million hubcaps,and they had consequently suggested that the Special ProductsDivision start looking around for a substitute. This it did, with azeal no less emphatic than it displayed in the personalitycrusade. In the late summer and early fall of 1955, Wallacehired the services of several research outfits, which sentinterviewers, armed with a list of two thousand possible names,to canvass sidewalk crowds in New York, Chicago, Willow Run,and Ann Arbor. The interviewers did not ask simply what therespondent thought of some such name as Mars, Jupiter,Rover, Ariel, Arrow, Dart, or Ovation. They asked what freeassociations each name brought to mind, and having got ananswer to this one, they asked what word or words wasconsidered the opposite of each name, on the theory that,subliminally speaking, the opposite is as much a part of aname as the tail is of a penny. The results of all this, theSpecial Products Division eventually decided, were inconclusive.
Meanwhile, Krafve and his men held repeated sessions in adarkened room, staring, with the aid of a spotlight, at a seriesof cardboard signs, each bearing a name, as, one after another,they were flipped over for their consideration. One of the menthus engaged spoke up for the name Phoenix, because of itsconnotations of ascendancy, and another favored Altair, on theground that it would lead practically all alphabetical lists of carsand thus enjoy an advantage analogous to that enjoyed in theanimal kingdom by the aardvark. At a certain drowsy point inone session, somebody suddenly called a halt to thecard-flipping and asked, in an incredulous tone, “Didn’t I see‘Buick’ go by two or three cards back?” Everybody looked atWallace, the impresario of the sessions. He puffed on his pipe,smiled an academic smile, and nodded.
THE card-flipping sessions proved to be as fruitless as thesidewalk interviews, and it was at this stage of the game thatWallace, resolving to try and wring from genius what thecommon mind had failed to yield, entered into the celebratedcar-naming correspondence with the poet Marianne Moore,which was later published in The New Yorker and still later, inbook form, by the Morgan Library. “We should like this name… to convey, through association or other conjuration, somevisceral feeling of elegance, fleetness, advanced features anddesign,” Wallace wrote to Miss Moore, achieving a certainfeeling of elegance himself. If it is asked who among the godsof Dearborn had the inspired and inspiriting idea of enlistingMiss Moore’s services in this cause, the answer, according toWallace, is that it was no god but the wife of one of his juniorassistants—a young lady who had recently graduated fromMount Holyoke, where she had heard Miss Moore lecture. Hadher husband’s superiors gone a step further and actuallyadopted one of Miss Moore’s many suggestions—IntelligentBullet, for instance, or Utopian Turtletop, or Bullet Cloisonné, orPastelogram, or Mongoose Civique, or Andante con Moto(“Description of a good motor?” Miss Moore queried in regardto this last)—there is no telling to what heights the E-Car mighthave risen, but the fact is that they didn’t. Dissatisfied withboth the poet’s ideas and their own, the executives in theSpecial Products Division next called in Foote, Cone & Belding,the advertising agency that had lately been signed up to handlethe E-Car account. With characteristic Madison Avenue vigor,Foote, Cone & Belding organized a competition among theemployees of its New York, London, and Chicago offices,offering nothing less than one of the brand-new cars as a prizeto whoever thought up an acceptable name. In no time at all,Foote, Cone & Belding had eighteen thousand names in hand,including Zoom, Zip, Benson, Henry, and Drof (if in doubt,spell it backward). Suspecting that the bosses of the SpecialProducts Division might regard this list as a trifle unwieldy, theagency got to work and cut it down to six thousand names,which it presented to them in executive session. “There youare,” a Foote, Cone man said triumphantly, flopping a sheaf ofpapers on the table. “Six thousand names, all alphabetized andcross-referenced.”
A gasp escaped Krafve. “But we don’t want six thousandnames,” he said. “We only want one.”
The situation was critical, because the making of dies for thenew car was about to begin and some of them would have tobear its name. On a Thursday, Foote, Cone & Belding canceledall leaves and instituted what is called a crash program,instructing its New York and Chicago offices to set aboutindependently cutting down the list of six thousand names toten and to have the job done by the end of the weekend.
Before the weekend was over, the two Foote, Cone officespresented their separate lists of ten to the Special ProductsDivision, and by an almost incredible coincidence, which allhands insist was a coincidence, four of the names on the twolists were the same; Corsair, Citation, Pacer, and Ranger hadmiraculously survived the dual scrutiny. “Corsair seemed to behead and shoulders above everything else,” Wallace says. “Alongwith other factors in its favor, it had done splendidly in thesidewalk interviews. The free associations with Corsair wererather romantic—‘pirate,’ ‘swashbuckler,’ things like that. For itsopposite, we got ‘princess,’ or something else attractive on thatorder. Just what we wanted.”
Corsair or no Corsair, the E-Car was named the Edsel in theearly spring of 1956, though the public was not informed untilthe following autumn. The epochal decision was reached at ameeting of the Ford executive committee held at a time when,as it happened, all three Ford brothers were away. In PresidentFord’s absence, the meeting was conducted by Breech, whohad become chairman of the board in 1955, and his mood thatday was brusque, and not one to linger long overswashbucklers and princesses. After hearing the final choices, hesaid, “I don’t like any of them. Let’s take another look at someof the others.” So they took another look at the favoredrejects, among them the name Edsel, which, in spite of thethree Ford brothers’ expressed interpretation of their father’sprobable wishes, had been retained as a sort of anchor towindward. Breech led his associates in a patient scrutiny of thelist until they came to “Edsel.” “Let’s call it that,” Breech saidwith calm finality. There were to be four main models of theE-Car, with variations on each one, and Breech soothed someof his colleagues by adding that the magic four—Corsair,Citation, Pacer, and Ranger—might be used, if anybody felt soinclined, as the subnames for the models. A telephone call wasput through to Henry II, who was vacationing in Nassau. Hesaid that if Edsel was the choice of the executive committee, hewould abide by its decision, provided he could get the approvalof the rest of his family. Within a few days, he got it.
As Wallace wrote to Miss Moore a while later: “We havechosen a name.… It fails somewhat of the resonance, gaiety,and zest we were seeking. But it has a personal dignity andmeaning to many of us here. Our name, dear Miss Moore,is—Edsel. I hope you will understand.”
IT may be assumed that word of the naming of the E-Carspread a certain amount of despair among the Foote, Cone &Belding backers of more metaphorical names, none of whomwon a free car—a despair heightened by the fact that thename “Edsel” had been ruled out of the competition from thefirst. But their sense of disappointment was as nothingcompared to the gloom that enveloped many employees of theSpecial Products Division. Some felt that the name of a formerpresident of the company, who had sired its current president,bore dynastic connotations that were alien to the Americantemper; others, who, with Wallace, had put their trust in thequirks of the mass unconscious, believed that “Edsel” was adisastrously unfortunate combination of syllables. What were itsfree associations? Pretzel, diesel, hard sell. What was itsopposite? It didn’t seem to have any. Still, the matter wassettled, and there was nothing to do but put the best possibleface on it. Besides, the anguish in the Special Products Divisionwas by no means unanimous, and Krafve himself, of course,was among those who had no objection to the name. He stillhas none, declining to go along with those who contend thatthe decline and fall of the Edsel may be dated from themoment of its christening.
Krafve, in fact, was so well pleased with the way matters hadturned out that when, at eleven o’clock on the morning ofNovember 19, 1956, after a long summer of thoughtful silence,the Ford Company released to the world the glad tidings thatthe E-Car had been named the Edsel, he accompanied theannouncement with a few dramatic flourishes of his own. Onthe very stroke of that hour on that day, the telephoneoperators in Krafve’s domain began greeting callers with “EdselDivision” instead of “Special Products Division”; all stationerybearing the obsolete letterhead of the division vanished and wasreplaced by sheaves of paper headed “Edsel Division”; andoutside the building a huge stainless-steel sign reading “EDSELDIVISION” rose ceremoniously to the rooftop. Krafve himselfmanaged to remain earthbound, though he had his ownreasons for feeling buoyant; in recognition of his leadership ofthe E-Car project up to that point, he was given the augusttitle of Vice-President of the Ford Motor Company and GeneralManager, Edsel Division.
From the administrative point of view, thisoff-with-the-old-on-with-the-new effect was merely harmlesswindow dressing. In the strict secrecy of the Dearborn testtrack, vibrant, almost full-fledged Edsels, with their name gravenon their superstructures, were already being road-tested; Brownand his fellow stylists were already well along with their designsfor the next year’s Edsel; recruits were already being signed upfor an entirely new organization of retail dealers to sell theEdsel to the public; and Foote, Cone & Belding, having beenrelieved of the burden of staging crash programs to collectnames and crash programs to get rid of them again, wasalready deep in schemes for advertising the Edsel, under thepersonal direction of a no less substantial pillar of his tradethan Fairfax M. Cone, the agency’s head man. In planning hiscampaign, Cone relied heavily on what had come to be calledthe “Wallace prescription”; that is, the formula for the Edsel’spersonality as set forth by Wallace back in the days before thebig naming bee—“The smart car for the younger executive orprofessional family on its way up.” So enthusiastic was Coneabout the prescription that he accepted it with only onerevision—the substitution of “middle-income” family for “youngerexecutive,” his hunch being that there were more middle-incomefamilies around than young executives, or even people whothought they were young executives. In an expansive mood,possibly induced by his having landed an account that wasexpected to bring billings of well over ten million dollars a year,Cone described to reporters on several occasions the kind ofcampaign he was plotting for the Edsel—quiet, self-assured, andavoiding as much as possible the use of the adjective “new,”
which, though it had an obvious application to the product, heconsidered rather lacking in cachet. Above all, the campaignwas to be classic in its calmness. “We think it would be awfulfor the advertising to compete with the car,” Cone told thepress. “We hope that no one will ever ask, ‘Say, did you seethat Edsel ad?’ in any newspaper or magazine or on television,but, instead, that hundreds of thousands of people will say, andsay again, ‘Man, did you read about that Edsel?’ or ‘Did yousee that car?’ This is the difference between advertising andselling.” Evidently enough, Cone felt confident about thecampaign and the Edsel. Like a chess master who has nodoubt that he will win, he could afford to explicate the brillianceof his moves even as he made them.
Automobile men still talk, with admiration for the virtuositydisplayed and a shudder at the ultimate outcome, of the EdselDivision’s drive to round up retail dealers. Ordinarily, anestablished manufacturer launches a new car through dealerswho are already handling his other makes and who, to beginwith, take on the upstart as a sort of sideline. Not so in thecase of the Edsel; Krafve received authorization from on highto go all out and build up a retail-dealer organization bymaking raids on dealers who had contracts with othermanufacturers, or even with the other Ford Companydivisions—Ford and Lincoln-Mercury. (Although the Ford dealersthus corralled were not obliged to cancel their old contracts, allthe emphasis was on signing up retail outlets exclusivelydedicated to the selling of Edsels.) The goal set for IntroductionDay—which, after a great deal of soul-searching, was finallyestablished as September 4, 1957—was twelve hundred Edseldealers from coast to coast. They were not to be just anydealers, either; Krafve made it clear that Edsel was interested insigning up only dealers whose records showed that they had amarked ability to sell cars without resorting to the high-pressuretricks of borderline legality that had lately been giving theautomobile business a bad name. “We simply have to havequality dealers with quality service facilities,” Krafve said. “Acustomer who gets poor service on an established brandblames the dealer. On an Edsel, he will blame the car.” Thegoal of twelve hundred was a high one, for no dealer, qualityor not, can afford to switch makes lightly. The average dealerhas at least a hundred thousand dollars tied up in his agency,and in large cities the investment is much higher. He must hiresalesmen, mechanics, and office help; buy his own tools,technical literature, and signs, the latter costing as much as fivethousand dollars a set; and pay the factory spot cash for thecars he receives from it.
The man charged with mobilizing an Edsel sales force alongthese exacting lines was J. C. (Larry) Doyle, who, as generalsales-and-marketing manager of the division, ranked second toKrafve himself. A veteran of forty years with the FordCompany, who had started with it as an office boy in KansasCity and had spent the intervening time mainly selling, Doylewas a maverick in his field. On the one hand, he had an airof kindness and consideration that made him the very antithesisof the glib, brash denizens of a thousand automobile rowsacross the continent, and, on the other, he did not trouble toconceal an old-time salesman’s skepticism about such things asanalyzing the sex and status of automobiles, a pursuit hecharacterized by saying, “When I play pool, I like to keep onefoot on the floor.” Still, he knew how to sell cars, and that waswhat the Edsel Division needed. Recalling how he and his salesstaff brought off the unlikely trick of persuading substantial andreputable men who had already achieved success in one of thetoughest of all businesses to tear up profitable franchises infavor of a risky new one, Doyle said not long ago, “As soon asthe first few new Edsels came through, early in 1957, we put acouple of them in each of our five regional sales offices.
Needless to say, we kept those offices locked and the blindsdrawn. Dealers in every make for miles around wanted to seethe car, if only out of curiosity, and that gave us the leveragewe needed. We let it be known that we would show the caronly to dealers who were really interested in coming with us,and then we sent our regional field managers out tosurrounding towns to try to line up the No. 1 dealer in eachto see the cars. If we couldn’t get No. 1, we’d try for No. 2.
Anyway, we set things up so that no one got in to see theEdsel without listening to a complete one-hour pitch on thewhole situation by a member of our sales force. It worked verywell.” It worked so well that by midsummer, 1957, it was clearthat Edsel was going to have a lot of quality dealers onIntroduction Day. (In fact, it missed the goal of twelve hundredby a couple of dozen.) Indeed, some dealers in other makeswere apparently so confident of the Edsel’s success, or sobemused by the Doyle staff’s pitch, that they were entirelywilling to sign up after hardly more than a glance at the Edselitself. Doyle’s people urged them to study the car closely, andkept reciting the litany of its virtues, but the prospective Edseldealers would wave such protestations aside and demand acontract without further ado. In retrospect, it would seem thatDoyle could have given lessons to the Pied Piper.
Now that the Edsel was no longer the exclusive concern ofDearborn, the Ford Company was irrevocably committed togoing ahead. “Until Doyle went into action, the whole programcould have been quietly dropped at any time at a word fromtop management, but once the dealers had been signed up,there was the matter of honoring your contract to put out acar,” Krafve has explained. The matter was attended to withdispatch. Early in June, 1957, the company announced that ofthe $250 million it had set aside to defray the advance costs ofthe Edsel, $150 million was being spent on basic facilities,including the conversion of various Ford and Mercury plants tothe needs of producing the new cars; $50 million on specialEdsel tooling; and $50 million on initial advertising andpromotion. In June, too, an Edsel destined to be the star of atelevision commercial for future release was stealthily transportedin a closed van to Hollywood, where, on a locked sound stagepatrolled by security guards, it was exposed to the cameras inthe admiring presence of a few carefully chosen actors whohad sworn that their lips would be sealed from then untilIntroduction Day. For this delicate photographic operation theEdsel Division cannily enlisted the services of Cascade Pictures,which also worked for the Atomic Energy Commission, and, asfar as is known, there were no unintentional leaks. “We tookall the same precautions we take for our A.E.C. films,” a grimCascade official has since said.
Within a few weeks, the Edsel Division had eighteen hundredsalaried employees and was rapidly filling some fifteen thousandfactory jobs in the newly converted plants. On July 15th, Edselsbegan rolling off assembly lines at Somerville, Massachusetts;Mahwah, New Jersey; Louisville, Kentucky; and San Jose,California. The same day, Doyle scored an important coup bysigning up Charles Kreisler, a Manhattan dealer regarded asone of the country’s foremost practitioners in his field, who hadrepresented Oldsmobile—one of Edsel’s self-designatedrivals—before heeding the siren song from Dearborn. On July22nd, the first advertisement for the Edsel appeared—in Life. Atwo-page spread in plain black-and-white, it was impeccablyclassic and calm, showing a car whooshing down a countryhighway at such high speed that it was an indistinguishableblur. “Lately, some mysterious automobiles have been seen onthe roads,” the accompanying text was headed. It went on tosay that the blur was an Edsel being road-tested, andconcluded with the assurance “The Edsel is on its way.” Twoweeks later, a second ad appeared in Life, this one showing aghostly-looking car, covered with a white sheet, standing at theentrance to the Ford styling center. This time the headline read,“A man in your town recently made a decision that will changehis life.” The decision, it was explained, was to become anEdsel dealer. Whoever wrote the ad cannot have known howtruly he spoke.
DURING the tense summer of 1957, the man of the hour atEdsel was C. Gayle Warnock, director of public relations, whoseduty was not so much to generate public interest in theforthcoming product, there being an abundance of that, as tokeep the interest at white heat, and readily convertible into adesire to buy one of the new cars on or after IntroductionDay—or, as the company came to call it, Edsel Day. Warnock,a dapper, affable man with a tiny mustache, is a native ofConverse, Indiana, who, long before Krafve drafted him fromthe Ford office in Chicago, did a spot of publicity work forcounty fairs—a background that has enabled him to spice thehoneyed smoothness of the modern public-relations man with atouch of the old carnival pitchman’s uninhibited spirit. Recallinghis summons to Dearborn, Warnock says, “When Dick Krafvehired me, back in the fall of 1955, he told me, ‘I want you toprogram the E-Car publicity from now to Introduction Day.’ Isaid, ‘Frankly, Dick, what do you mean by “program”?’ He saidhe meant to sort of space it out, starting at the end andworking backward. This was something new to me—I was usedto taking what breaks I could get when I could get them—butI soon found out how right Dick was. It was almost too easyto get publicity for the Edsel. Early in 1956, when it was stillcalled the E-Car, Krafve gave a little talk about it out inPortland, Oregon. We didn’t try for anything more than a playin the local press, but the wire services picked the story upand it went out all over the country. Clippings came in by thebushel. Right then I realized the trouble we might be headedfor. The public was getting to be hysterical to see our car,figuring it was going to be some kind of dream car—likenothing they’d ever seen. I said to Krafve, ‘When they find outit’s got four wheels and one engine, just like the next car,they’re liable to be disappointed.’”
It was agreed that the safest way to tread the tightropebetween overplaying and underplaying the Edsel would be tosay nothing about the car as a whole but to reveal itsindividual charms a little at a time—a sort of automotive striptease (a phrase that Warnock couldn’t with proper dignity usehimself but was happy to see the New York Times use forhim). The policy was later violated now and then, purposely orinadvertently. For one thing, as the pre-Edsel Day summerwore on, reporters prevailed upon Krafve to authorize Warnockto show the Edsel to them, one at a time, on what Warnockcalled a “peekaboo,” or “you’ve-seen-it-now-forget-it,” basis. And,for another, Edsels loaded on vans for delivery to dealers wereappearing on the highways in ever-increasing numbers, coveredfore and aft with canvas flaps that, as if to whet the desire ofthe motoring public, were forever blowing loose. That summer,too, was a time of speechmaking by an Edsel foursomeconsisting of Krafve, Doyle, J. Emmet Judge, who was Edsel’sdirector of merchandise and product planning, and Robert F.
G. Copeland, its assistant general sales manager for advertising,sales promotion, and training. Ranging separately up and downand across the nation, the four orators moved around so fastand so tirelessly that Warnock, lest he lose track of them, tookto indicating their whereabouts with colored pins on a map inhis office. “Let’s see, Krafve goes from Atlanta to New Orleans,Doyle from Council Bluffs to Salt Lake City,” Warnock wouldmuse of a morning in Dearborn, sipping his second cup ofcoffee and then getting up to yank the pins out and jab themin again.
Although most of Krafve’s audiences consisted of bankers andrepresentatives of finance companies who it was hoped wouldlend money to Edsel dealers, his speeches that summer, farfrom echoing the general hoopla, were almost statesmanlike intheir cautious—even somber—references to the new car’sprospects. And well they might have been, for developments inthe general economic outlook of the nation were making moresanguine men than Krafve look puzzled. In July, 1957, thestock market went into a nose dive, marking the beginning ofwhat is recalled as the recession of 1958. Then, early inAugust, a decline in the sales of medium-priced 1957 cars of allmakes set in, and the general situation worsened so rapidlythat, before the month was out, Automotive News reportedthat dealers in all makes were ending their season with thesecond-largest number of unsold new cars in history. If Krafve,on his lonely rounds, ever considered retreating to Dearbornfor consolation, he was forced to put that notion out of hismind when, also in August, Mercury, Edsel’s own stablemate,served notice that it was going to make things as tough aspossible for the newcomer by undertaking a million-dollar,thirty-day advertising drive aimed especially at “price-consciousbuyers”—a clear reference to the fact that the 1957 Mercury,which was then being sold at a discount by most dealers, costless than the new Edsel was expected to. Meanwhile, sales ofthe Rambler, which was the only American-made small car thenin production, were beginning to rise ominously. In the face ofall these evil portents, Krafve fell into the habit of ending hisspeeches with a rather downbeat anecdote about the boardchairman of an unsuccessful dog-food company who said to hisfellow directors, “Gentlemen, let’s face facts—dogs don’t like ourproduct.” “As far as we’re concerned,” Krafve added on atleast one occasion, driving home the moral with admirableclarity, “a lot will depend on whether people like our car ornot.”
But most of the other Edsel men were unimpressed byKrafve’s misgivings. Perhaps the least impressed of all wasJudge, who, while doing his bit as an itinerant speaker,specialized in community and civic groups. Undismayed by thelimitations of the strip-tease policy, Judge brightened up hislectures by showing such a bewildering array of animatedgraphs, cartoons, charts, and pictures of parts of the car—allflashed on a CinemaScope screen—that his listeners usually gothalfway home before they realized that he hadn’t shown theman Edsel. He wandered restlessly around the auditorium as hespoke, shifting the kaleidoscopic images on the screen at willwith the aid of an automatic slide changer—a trick madepossible by a crew of electricians who laced the place inadvance with a maze of wires linking the device to dozens offloor switches, which, scattered about the hall, responded whenhe kicked them. Each of the “Judge spectaculars,” as theseperformances came to be known, cost the Edsel Division fivethousand dollars—a sum that included the pay and expenses ofthe technical crew, who would arrive on the scene a day or soahead of time to set up the electrical rig. At the last moment,Judge would descend melodramatically on the town by plane,hasten to the hall, and go into his act. “One of the greatestaspects of this whole Edsel program is the philosophy ofproduct and merchandising behind it,” Judge might start off,with a desultory kick at a switch here, a switch there. “All ofus who have been a part of it are real proud of thisbackground and we are anxiously awaiting its success when thecar is introduced this fall.… Never again will we be associatedwith anything as gigantic and full of meaning as this particularprogram.… Here is a glimpse of the car which will be beforethe American public on September 4, 1957 [at this point, Judgewould show a provocative slide of a hubcap or section offender].… It is a different car in every respect, yet it has anelement of conservatism which will give it maximum appeal.…The distinctiveness of the frontal styling integrates with thesculptured patterns of the side treatment.…” And on and onJudge would rhapsodize, rolling out such awesome phrases as“sculptured sheet metal,” “highlight character,” and “graceful,flowing lines.” At last would come the ringing peroration. “Weare proud of the Edsel!” he would cry, kicking switches rightand left. “When it is introduced this fall, it will take its place onthe streets and highways of America, bringing new greatness tothe Ford Motor Company. This is the Edsel story.”
THE drum-roll climax of the strip tease was a three-day presspreview of the Edsel, undraped from pinched-in snout to flaringrear, that was held in Detroit and Dearborn on August 26th,27th, and 28th, with 250 reporters from all over the country inattendance. It differed from previous automotive jamborees ofits kind in that the journalists were invited to bring their wivesalong—and many of them did. Before it was over, it had costthe Ford Company ninety thousand dollars. Grand as it was,the conventionality of its setting was a disappointment toWarnock, who had proposed, and seen rejected, three localesthat he thought would provide a more offbeat ambiance—asteamer on the Detroit River (“wrong symbolism”); Edsel,Kentucky (“inaccessible by road”); and Haiti (“just turned downflat”). Thus hobbled, Warnock could do no better for thereporters and their wives when they converged on the Detroitscene on Sunday evening, August 25th, than to put them upat the discouragingly named Sheraton-Cadillac Hotel and toarrange for them to spend Monday afternoon hearing andreading about the long-awaited details of the entire crop ofEdsels—eighteen varieties available, in four main lines (Corsair,Citation, Pacer, and Ranger), differing mainly in their size,power, and trim. The next morning, specimens of the modelsthemselves were revealed to the reporters in the styling center’srotunda, and Henry II offered a few words of tribute to hisfather. “The wives were not asked to the unveiling,” a Foote,Cone man who helped plan the affair recalls. “It was toosolemn and businesslike an event for that. It went over fine.
There was excitement even among the hardenednewspapermen.” (The import of the stories that most of theexcited newspapermen filed was that the Edsel seemed to be agood car, though not so radical as its billing had suggested.)In the afternoon, the reporters were whisked out to the testtrack to see a team of stunt drivers put the Edsel through itspaces. This event, calculated to be thrilling, turned out to behair-raising, and even, for some, a little unstringing. Enjoinednot to talk too much about speed and horsepower, since onlya few months previously the whole automobile industry hadnobly resolved to concentrate on making cars instead ofdelayed-action bombs, Warnock had decided to emphasize theEdsel’s liveliness through deeds rather than words, and toaccomplish this he had hired a team of stunt drivers. Edselsran over two-foot ramps on two wheels, bounced from higherramps on all four wheels, were driven in crisscross patterns,grazing each other, at sixty or seventy miles per hour, andskidded into complete turns at fifty. For comic relief, there wasa clown driver parodying the daredevil stuff. All the while, thevoice of Neil L. Blume, Edsel’s engineering chief, could be heardon a loudspeaker, purring about “the capabilities, the safety, theruggedness, the maneuverability and performance of these newcars,” and skirting the words “speed” and “horsepower” asdelicately as a sandpiper skirts a wave. At one point, when anEdsel leaping a high ramp just missed turning over, Krafve’sface took on a ghastly pallor; he later reported that he hadnot known the daredevil stunts were going to be so extreme,and was concerned both for the good name of the Edsel andthe lives of the drivers. Warnock, noticing his boss’s distress,went over and asked Krafve if he was enjoying the show.
Krafve replied tersely that he would answer when it was overand all hands safe. But everyone else seemed to be having agrand time. The Foote, Cone man said, “You looked over thisgreen Michigan hill, and there were those glorious Edsels,performing gloriously in unison. It was beautiful. It was like theRockettes. It was exciting. Morale was high.”
Warnock’s high spirits had carried him to even wilderextremes of fancy. The stunt driving, like the unveiling, wasconsidered too rich for the blood of the wives, but theresourceful Warnock was ready for them with a fashion showthat he hoped they would find at least equally diverting. Heneed not have worried. The star of the show, who wasintroduced by Brown, the Edsel stylist, as a Paris couturière,both beautiful and talented, turned out at the final curtain tobe a female impersonator—a fact of which Warnock, toheighten the verisimilitude of the act, had given Brown noadvance warning. Things were never again quite the same sincebetween Brown and Warnock, but the wives were able to givetheir husbands an extra paragraph or two for their stories.
That evening, there was a big gala for one and all at thestyling center, which was itself styled as a night club for theoccasion, complete with a fountain that danced in time with themusic of Ray McKinley’s band, whose emblem, the letters“GM”—a holdover from the days of its founder, the late GlennMiller—was emblazoned, as usual, on the music stand of eachmusician, very nearly ruining the evening for Warnock. Thenext morning, at a windup press conference held by Fordofficials. Breech declared of the Edsel, “It’s a husky youngster,and, like most other new parents, we’re proud enough to popour buttons.” Then seventy-one of the reporters took thewheels of as many Edsels and set out for home—not to drivethe cars into their garages but to deliver them to theshowrooms of their local Edsel dealers. Let Warnock describethe highlights of this final flourish: “There were severalunfortunate occurrences. One guy simply miscalculated andcracked up his car running into something. No fault of theEdsel there. One car lost its oil pan, so naturally the motorfroze. It can happen to the best of cars. Fortunately, at thetime of this malfunction the driver was going through abeautiful-sounding town—Paradise, Kansas, I think it was—andthat gave the news reports about it a nice little positive touch.
The nearest dealer gave the reporter a new Edsel, and hedrove on home, climbing Pikes Peak on the way. Then one carcrashed through a tollgate when the brakes failed. That wasbad. It’s funny, but the thing we were most worriedabout—other drivers being so eager to get a look at the Edselsthat they’d crowd our cars off the road—happened only once.
That was on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. One of our reporterswas tooling along—no problems—when a Plymouth driver pulledup alongside to rubberneck, and edged so close that the Edselgot sideswiped. Minor damage.”
LATE in 1959, immediately after the demise of the Edsel,Business Week stated that at the big press preview a Fordexecutive had said to a reporter, “If the company weren’t in sodeep, we never would have brought it out now.” However,since Business Week neglected to publish this patentlysensational statement for over two years, and since to this dayall the former ranking Edsel executives (Krafve included,notwithstanding his preoccupation with the luckless dog-foodcompany) firmly maintained that right up to Edsel Day andeven for a short time thereafter they expected the Edsel tosucceed, it would seem that the quotation should be regardedas a highly suspect archaeological find. Indeed, during theperiod between the press preview and Edsel Day the spirit ofeverybody associated with the venture seems to have been oneof wild optimism. “Oldsmobile, Goodbye!” ran the headline onan ad, in the Detroit Free Press, for an agency that wasswitching from Olds to Edsel. A dealer in Portland, Oregon,reported that he had already sold two Edsels, sight unseen.
Warnock dug up a fireworks company in Japan willing tomake him, at nine dollars apiece, five thousand rockets that,exploding in mid-air, would release nine-foot scale-model Edselsmade of rice paper that would inflate and descend likeparachutes; his head reeling with visions of filling America’sskies as well as its highways with Edsels on Edsel Day,Warnock was about to dash off an order when Krafve, lookingsomething more than puzzled, shook his head.
On September 3rd—E Day-minus-one—the prices of thevarious Edsel models were announced; for cars delivered toNew York they ran from just under $2,800 to just over$4,100. On E Day, the Edsel arrived. In Cambridge, a band leda gleaming motorcade of the new cars up MassachusettsAvenue; flying out of Richmond, California, a helicopter hired byone of the most jubilant of the dealers lassoed by Doyle spreada giant Edsel sign above San Francisco Bay; and all over thenation, from the Louisiana bayous to the peak of MountRainier to the Maine woods, one needed only a radio or atelevision set to know that the very air, despite Warnock’ssetback on the rockets, was quivering with the presence of theEdsel. The tone for Edsel Day’s blizzard of publicity was set byan ad, published in newspapers all over the country, in whichthe Edsel shared the spotlight with the Ford Company’sPresident Ford and Chairman Breech. In the ad, Ford lookedlike a dignified young father, Breech like a dignified gentlemanholding a full house against a possible straight, the Edsel justlooked like an Edsel. The accompanying text declared that thedecision to produce the car had been “based on what weknew, guessed, felt, believed, suspected—about you,” and added,“YOU are the reason behind the Edsel.” The tone was calmand confident. There did not seem to be much room for doubtabout the reality of that full house.
Before sundown, it was estimated, 2,850,000 people had seenthe new car in dealers’ showrooms. Three days later, in NorthPhiladelphia, an Edsel was stolen. It can reasonably be arguedthat the crime marked the high-water mark of publicacceptance of the Edsel; only a few months later, any but theleast fastidious of car thieves might not have bothered.
DECLINE AND FALLTHE most striking physical characteristic of the Edsel was, ofcourse, its radiator grille. This, in contrast to the wide andhorizontal grilles of all nineteen other American makes of thetime, was slender and vertical. Of chromium-plated steel, andshaped something like an egg, it sat in the middle of the car’sfront end, and was embellished by the word “EDSEL” inaluminum letters running down its length. It was intended tosuggest the front end of practically any car of twenty or thirtyyears ago and of most contemporary European cars, and thusto look at once seasoned and sophisticated. The trouble wasthat whereas the front ends of the antiques and the Europeancars were themselves high and narrow—consisting, indeed, oflittle more than the radiator grilles—the front end of the Edselwas broad and low, just like the front ends of all its Americancompetitors. Consequently, there were wide areas on either sideof the grille that had to be filled in with something, and filledin they were—with twin panels of entirely conventional horizontalchrome grillwork. The effect was that of an Oldsmobile with theprow of a Pierce-Arrow implanted in its front end, or, moremetaphorically, of the charwoman trying on the duchess’
necklace. The attempt at sophistication was so transparent as tobe endearing.
But if the grille of the Edsel appealed through guilelessness,the rear end was another matter. Here, too, there was amarked departure from the conventional design of the day.
Instead of the notorious tail fin, the car had what looked to itsfanciers like wings and to others, less ethereal-minded, likeeyebrows. The lines of the trunk lid and the rear fenders,swooping upward and outward, did somewhat resemble thewings of a gull in flight, but the resemblance was marred bytwo long, narrow tail lights, set partly in the trunk lid andpartly in the fenders, which followed those lines and created thestartling illusion, especially at night, of a slant-eyed grin. Fromthe front, the Edsel seemed, above all, anxious to please, evenat the cost of being clownish; from the rear it looked crafty,Oriental, smug, one-up—maybe a little cynical andcontemptuous, too. It was as if, somewhere between grille andrear fenders, a sinister personality change had taken place.
In other respects, the exterior styling of the Edsel was not farout of the ordinary. Its sides were festooned with a bit lessthan the average amount of chrome, and distinguished by agouged-out bullet-shaped groove extending forward from therear fender for about half the length of the car. Midway alongthis groove, the word “EDSEL” was displayed in chrome letters,and just below the rear window was a small grille-likedecoration, on which was spelled out—of all things—“EDSEL.”
(After all, hadn’t Stylist Brown declared his intention to create avehicle that would be “readily recognizable”?) In its interior, theEdsel strove mightily to live up to the prediction of GeneralManager Krafve that the car would be “the epitome of thepush-button era.” The push-button era in medium-priced carsbeing what it was, Krafve’s had been a rash prophecy indeed,but the Edsel rose to it with a devilish assemblage of gadgetssuch as had seldom, if ever, been seen before. On or near theEdsel’s dashboard were a push button that popped the trunklid open; a lever that popped the hood open; a lever thatreleased the parking brake; a speedometer that glowed redwhen the driver exceeded his chosen maximum speed; asingle-dial control for both heating and cooling; a tachometer, inthe best racing-car style; buttons to operate or regulate thelights, the height of the radio antenna, the heater-blower, thewindshield wiper, and the cigarette lighter; and a row of eightred lights to wink warnings that the engine was too hot, that itwasn’t hot enough, that the generator was on the blink, thatthe parking brake was on, that a door was open, that the oilpressure was low, that the oil level was low, and that thegasoline level was low, the last of which the skeptical drivercould confirm by consulting the gas gauge, mounted a fewinches away. Epitomizing this epitome, theautomatic-transmission control box—arrestingly situated on top ofthe steering post, in the center of the wheel—sprouted a galaxyof five push buttons so light to the touch that, as Edsel mencould hardly be restrained from demonstrating, they could bedepressed with a toothpick.
Of the four lines of Edsels, both of the two larger and moreexpensive ones—the Corsair and the Citation—were 219 incheslong, or two inches longer than the biggest of the Oldsmobiles;both were eighty inches wide, or about as wide as passengercars ever get; and the height of both was only fifty-seveninches, as low as any other medium-priced car. The Rangerand the Pacer, the smaller Edsels, were six inches shorter, aninch narrower, and an inch lower than the Corsair and theCitation. The Corsair and the Citation were equipped with345-horsepower engines, making them more powerful than anyother American car at the time of their debut, and the Rangerand the Pacer were good for 303 horsepower, near the top intheir class. At the touch of a toothpick to the “Drive” button,an idling Corsair or Citation sedan (more than two tons of car,in either case) could, if properly skippered, take off with suchabruptness that in ten and three-tenths seconds it would bedoing a mile a minute, and in seventeen and a half seconds itwould be a quarter of a mile down the road. If anything oranybody happened to be in the way when the toothpicktouched the push button, so much the worse.
WHEN the wraps were taken off the Edsel, it received what isknown in the theatrical business as a mixed press. Theautomotive editors of the daily newspapers stuck mostly tostraight descriptions of the car, with only here and there aphrase or two of appraisal, some of it ambiguous (“Thedifference in style is spectacular,” noted Joseph C. Ingraham inthe New York Times) and some of it openly favorable (“Ahandsome and hard-punching newcomer,” said Fred Olmstead,in the Detroit Free Press). Magazine criticism was generallymore exhaustive and occasionally more severe. Motor Trend,the largest monthly devoted to ordinary automobiles, as distinctfrom hot rods, devoted eight pages of its October, 1957, issueto an analysis and critique of the Edsel by Joe H. Wherry, itsDetroit editor. Wherry liked the car’s appearance, its interiorcomfort, and its gadgets, although he did not always make itclear just why; in paying his respects to the transmissionbuttons on the steering post, he wrote, “You need not takeyour eyes off the road for an instant.” He conceded that therewere “untold opportunities for more … unique approaches,” buthe summed up his opinion in a sentence that fairly pepperedthe Edsel with honorific adverbs: “The Edsel performs fine,rides well, and handles good.” Tom McCahill, of MechanixIllustrated, generally admired the “bolt bag,” as heaffectionately called the Edsel, but he had some reservations,which, incidentally, throw some interesting light on anautomobile critic’s equivalent of an aisle seat. “On ribbedconcrete,” he reported, “every time I shot the throttle to thefloor quickly, the wheels spun like a gone-wild WaringBlendor.… At high speeds, especially through rough corners, Ifound the suspension a little too horsebacky.… I couldn’t helpbut wonder what this salami would really do if it had enoughroad adhesion.”
By far the most downright—and very likely the mostdamaging—panning that the Edsel got during its first monthsappeared in the January, 1958, issue of the Consumers unionmonthly, Consumer Reports, whose 800,000 subscribersprobably included more potential Edsel buyers than have everturned the pages of Motor Trend or Mechanix Illustrated.
After having put a Corsair through a series of road tests,Consumer Reports declared:
The Edsel has no important basic advantages over other brands. The caris almost entirely conventional in construction.… The amount of shakepresent in this Corsair body on rough roads—which wasn’t long in makingitself heard as squeaks and rattles—went well beyond any acceptable limit.…The Corsair’s handling qualities—sluggish, over-slow steering, sway and leanon turns, and a general detached-from-the-road feel—are, to put it mildly,without distinction. As a matter of, simple fact, combined with the car’stendency to shake like jelly, Edsel handling represents retrogression ratherthan progress.… Stepping on the gas in traffic, or in passing cars, or justto feel the pleasurable surge of power, will cause those big cylinders reallyto lap up fuel.… The center of the steering wheel is not, in CU’s opinion,a good pushbutton location.… To look at the Edsel buttons pulls thedriver’s eyes clear down off the road. [Pace Mr. Wherry.] The“luxury-loaded” Edsel—as one magazine cover described it—will certainlyplease anyone who confuses gadgetry with true luxury.
Three months later, in a roundup of all the 1958-model cars,Consumer Reports went at the Edsel again, calling it “moreuselessly overpowered … more gadget bedecked, more hungwith expensive accessories than any car in its price class,” andgiving the Corsair and the Citation the bottom position in itscompetitive ratings. Like Krafve, Consumer Reports consideredthe Edsel an epitome; unlike Krafve, the magazine concludedthat the car seemed to “epitomize the many excesses” withwhich Detroit manufacturers were “repulsing more and morepotential car buyers.”
AND yet, in a way, the Edsel wasn’t so bad. It embodied muchof the spirit of its time—or at least of the time when it wasdesigned, early in 1955. It was clumsy, powerful, dowdy, gauche,well-meaning—a de Kooning woman. Few people, apart fromemployees of Foote, Cone & Belding, who were paid to do so,have adequately hymned its ability, at its best, to coax and jollythe harried owner into a sense of well-being. Furthermore, thedesigners of several rival makes, including Chevrolet, Buick, andFord, Edsel’s own stablemate, later flattered Brown’s styling byimitating at least one feature of the car’s much reviledlines—the rear-end wing theme. The Edsel was obviously jinxed,but to say that it was jinxed by its design alone would be anoversimplification, as it would be to say that it was jinxed byan excess of motivational research. The fact is that in the short,unhappy life of the Edsel a number of other factors contributedto its commercial downfall. One of these was the scarcelybelievable circumstance that many of the very first Edsels—thoseobviously destined for the most glaring public limelight—weredramatically imperfect. By its preliminary program of promotionand advertising, the Ford Company had built up anoverwhelming head of public interest in the Edsel, causing itsarrival to be anticipated and the car itself to be gawked at withmore eagerness than had ever greeted any automobile beforeit. After all that, it seemed, the car didn’t quite work. Within afew weeks after the Edsel was introduced, its pratfalls were thetalk of the land. Edsels were delivered with oil leaks, stickinghoods, trunks that wouldn’t open, and push buttons that, farfrom yielding to a toothpick, couldn’t be budged with ahammer. An obviously distraught man staggered into a bar upthe Hudson River, demanding a double shot without delay andexclaiming that the dashboard of his new Edsel had just burstinto flame. Automotive News reported that in general theearliest Edsels suffered from poor paint, inferior sheet metal,and faulty accessories, and quoted the lament of a dealer aboutone of the first Edsel convertibles he received: “The top wasbadly set, doors cockeyed, the header bar trimmed at thewrong angle, and the front springs sagged.” The FordCompany had the particular bad luck to sell to Consumersunion—which buys its test cars in the open market, as aprecaution against being favored with specially doctoredsamples—an Edsel in which the axle ratio was wrong, anexpansion plug in the cooling system blew out, thepower-steering pump leaked, the rear-axle gears were noisy,and the heater emitted blasts of hot air when it was turnedoff. A former executive of the Edsel Division has estimated thatonly about half of the first Edsels really performed properly.
A layman cannot help wondering how the Ford Company, inall its power and glory, could have been guilty of such a MackSennett routine of buildup and anticlimax. The wan,hard-working Krafve explains gamely that when a companybrings out a new model of any make—even an old and testedone—the first cars often have bugs in them. A more startlingtheory—though only a theory—is that there may have beensabotage in some of the four plants that assembled the Edsel,all but one of which had previously been, and currently alsowere, assembling Fords or Mercurys. In marketing the Edsel,the Ford Company took a leaf out of the book of GeneralMotors, which for years had successfully been permitting, andeven encouraging, the makers and sellers of its Oldsmobiles,Buicks, Pontiacs, and the higher-priced models of its Chevroletto fight for customers with no quarter given; faced with thesame sort of intramural competition, some members of theFord and Lincoln-Mercury Divisions of the Ford Companyopenly hoped from the start for the Edsel’s downfall. (Krafve,realizing what might happen, had asked that the Edsel beassembled in plants of its own, but his superiors turned himdown.) However, Doyle, speaking with the authority of aveteran of the automobile business as well as with that ofKrafve’s second-in-command, pooh-poohs the notion that theEdsel was the victim of dirty work at the plants. “Of course theFord and Lincoln-Mercury Divisions didn’t want to see anotherFord Company car in the field,” he says, “but as far as Iknow, anything they did at the executive and plant levels wasin competitive good taste. On the other hand, at the distributionand dealer level, you got some rough infighting in terms ofwhispering and propaganda. If I’d been in one of the otherdivisions, I’d have done the same thing.” No proud defeatedgeneral of the old school ever spoke more nobly.
It is a tribute of sorts to the men who gave the Edsel its bigbuildup that although cars tending to rattle, balk, and fall apartinto shiny heaps of junk kept coming off the assembly lines,things didn’t go badly at first. Doyle says that on Edsel Daymore than 6,500 Edsels were either ordered by or actuallydelivered to customers. That was a good showing, but therewere isolated signs of resistance. For instance, a New Englanddealer selling Edsels in one showroom and Buicks in anotherreported that two prospects walked into the Edsel showroom,took a look at the Edsel, and placed orders for Buicks on thespot.
In the next few days, sales dropped sharply, but that was tobe expected once the bloom was off. Automobile deliveries todealers—one of the important indicators in the trade—arecustomarily measured in ten-day periods, and during the firstten days of September, on only six of which the Edsel was onsale, it racked up 4,095; this was lower than Doyle’s first-dayfigure because many of the initial purchases were of modelsand color combinations not in stock, which had to befactory-assembled to order. The delivery total for the secondten-day period was off slightly, and that for the third wasdown to just under 3,600. For the first ten days of October,nine of which were business days, there were only 2,751deliveries—an average of just over three hundred cars a day.
In order to sell the 200,000 cars per year that would makethe Edsel operation profitable the Ford Company would have tomove an average of between six and seven hundred eachbusiness day—a good many more than three hundred a day.
On the night of Sunday, October 13th, Ford put on amammoth television spectacular for Edsel, pre-empting the timeordinarily allotted to the Ed Sullivan show, but though theprogram cost $400,000 and starred Bing Crosby and FrankSinatra, it failed to cause any sharp spurt in sales. Now it wasobvious that things were not going at all well.
Among the former executives of the Edsel Division, opinionsdiffer as to the exact moment when the portents of doombecame unmistakable. Krafve feels that the moment did notarrive until sometime late in October. Wallace, in his capacity asEdsel’s pipe-smoking semi-Brain Truster, goes a step further bypinning the start of the disaster to a specific date—October 4th,the day the first Soviet sputnik went into orbit, shattering themyth of American technical pre-eminence and precipitating apublic revulsion against Detroit’s fancier baubles. Public RelationsDirector Warnock maintains that his barometric sensitivity to thepublic temper enabled him to call the turn as early asmid-September; contrariwise, Doyle says he maintained hisoptimism until mid-November, by which time he was about theonly man in the division who had not concluded it would takea miracle to save the Edsel. “In November,” says Wallace,sociologically, “there was panic, and its concomitant—mobaction.” The mob action took the form of a concerted tendencyto blame the design of the car for the whole debacle; Edselmen who had previously had nothing but lavish praise for theradiator grille and rear end now went around muttering thatany fool could see they were ludicrous. The obvious sacrificialvictim was Brown, whose stock had gone through the roof atthe time of the regally accoladed debut of his design, in August,1955. Now, without having done anything further, for eitherbetter or worse, the poor fellow became the companyscapegoat. “Beginning in November, nobody talked to Roy,”
Wallace says. On November 27th, as if things weren’t badenough, Charles Kreisler, who as the only Edsel dealer inManhattan provided its prize showcase, announced that he wasturning in his franchise because of poor sales, and it wasrumored that he added, “The Ford Motor Company has laidan egg.” He thereupon signed up with American Motors to sellits Rambler, which, as the only domestic small car then on themarket, was already the possessor of a zooming sales curve.
Doyle grimly commented that the Edsel Division was “notconcerned” about Kreisler’s defection.
By December, the panic at Edsel had abated to the pointwhere its sponsors could pull themselves together and begincasting about for ways to get sales moving again. Henry FordII, manifesting himself to Edsel dealers on closed-circuittelevision, urged them to remain calm, promised that thecompany would back them to the limit, and said flatly, “TheEdsel is here to stay.” A million and a half letters went outover Krafve’s signature to owners of medium-priced cars, askingthem to drop around at their local dealers and test-ride theEdsel; everyone doing so, Krafve promised, would be given aneight-inch plastic scale model of the car, whether he bought afull-size one or not. The Edsel Division picked up the check forthe scale models—a symptom of desperation indeed, for undernormal circumstances no automobile manufacturer would makeeven a move to outfumble its dealers for such a tab. (Up tothat time, the dealers had paid for everything, as is customary.)The division also began offering its dealers what it called “salesbonuses,” which meant that the dealers could knock anythingfrom one hundred to three hundred dollars off the price ofeach car without reducing their profit margin. Krafve told areporter that sales up to then were about what he hadexpected them to be, although not what he had hoped theywould be; in his zeal not to seem unpleasantly surprised, heappeared to be saying that he had expected the Edsel to fail.
The Edsel’s advertising campaign, which had started withstudied dignity, began to sound a note of stridency. “Everyonewho has seen it knows—with us—that the Edsel is a success,”
a magazine ad declared, and in a later ad this phrase wastwice repeated, like an incantation: “The Edsel is a success. Itis a new idea—a YOU idea—on the American Road.… The Edselis a success.” Soon the even less high-toned but moredependable advertising themes of price and social status beganto intrude, in such sentences as “They’ll know you’ve arrivedwhen you drive up in an Edsel” and “The one that’s reallynew is the lowest-priced, too!” In the more rarefied sectors ofMadison Avenue, a resort to rhymed slogans is usuallyregarded as an indication of artistic depravity induced bycommercial necessity.
From the frantic and costly measures the Edsel Division tookin December, it garnered one tiny crumb: for the first ten-dayperiod of 1958, it was able to report, sales were up 18.6percent over those of the last ten days of 1957. The catch, asthe Wall Street Journal alertly noted, was that the latterperiod embraced one more selling day than the earlier one, so,for practical purposes, there had scarcely been a gain at all. Inany case, that early-January word of meretricious cheer turnedout to be the Edsel Division’s last gesture. On January 14,1958, the Ford Motor Company announced that it wasconsolidating the Edsel Division with the Lincoln-MercuryDivision to form a Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln Division, under themanagement of James J. Nance, who had been runningLincoln-Mercury. It was the first time that one of the majorautomobile companies had lumped three divisions into one sinceGeneral Motors’ merger of Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac backin the depression, and to the people of the expunged EdselDivision the meaning of the administrative move was all tooclear. “With that much competition in a division, the Edselwasn’t going anywhere,” Doyle says. “It became a stepchild.”
FOR the last year and ten months of its existence, the Edselwas very much a stepchild—generally neglected, little advertised,and kept alive only to avoid publicizing a boner any more thannecessary and in the forlorn hope that it might go somewhereafter all. What advertising it did get strove quixotically to assurethe automobile trade that everything was dandy; inmid-February an ad in Automotive News had Nance saying,Since the formation of the new M-E-L Division at Ford Motor Company,we have analyzed with keen interest the sales progress of the Edsel. Wethink it is quite significant that during the five months since the Edsel wasintroduced, Edsel sales have been greater than the first five months’ salesfor any other new make of car ever introduced on the American Road.…Edsel’s steady progress can be a source of satisfaction and a greatincentive to all of us.
Nance’s comparison, however, was almost meaningless, no newmake ever having been introduced anything like so grandiosely,and the note of confidence could not help ringing hollow.
It is quite possible that Nance’s attention was never called toan article by S. I. Hayakawa, the semanticist, that waspublished in the spring of 1958 in ETC: A Review of GeneralSemantics, a quarterly magazine, under the title, “Why theEdsel Laid an Egg.” Hayakawa, who was both the founder andthe editor of ETC, explained in an introductory note that heconsidered the subject within the purview of general semanticsbecause automobiles, like words, are “important … symbols inAmerican culture,” and went on to argue that the Edsel’s flopcould be attributed to Ford Company executives who had been“listening too long to the motivation-research people” and who,in their efforts to turn out a car that would satisfy customers’
sexual fantasies and the like, had failed to supply reasonableand practical transportation, thereby neglecting “the realityprinciple.” “What the motivation researchers failed to tell theirclients … is that only the psychotic and the gravely neuroticact out their irrationalities and their compensatory fantasies,”
Hayakawa admonished Detroit briskly, and added, “The troublewith selling symbolic gratification via such expensive items as …the Edsel Hermaphrodite … is the competition offered by muchcheaper forms of symbolic gratification, such as Playboy (fiftycents a copy), Astounding Science Fiction (thirty-five cents acopy), and television (free).”
Notwithstanding the competition from Playboy, or possiblybecause the symbol-motivated public included people who couldafford both, the Edsel kept rolling—but just barely. The carmoved, as salesmen say, though hardly at the touch of atoothpick. In fact, as a stepchild it sold about as well as it hadsold as a favorite son, suggesting that all the hoopla, whetherabout symbolic gratification or mere horsepower, had had littleeffect one way or the other. The new Edsels that wereregistered with the motor-vehicle bureaus of the various statesduring 1958 numbered 34,481—considerably fewer than newcars of any competing make, and less than one-fifth of the200,000 a year necessary if the Edsel was to show a profit,but still representing an investment by motorists of over ahundred million dollars. The picture actually brightened inNovember, 1958, with the advent of the Edsel’s second-yearmodels. Shorter by up to eight inches, lighter by up to fivehundred pounds, and with engines less potent by as much as158 horsepower, they had a price range running from fivehundred to eight hundred dollars less than that of theirpredecessors. The vertical grille and the slant-eyed rear endwere still there, but the modest power and proportionspersuaded Consumer Reports to relent and say, “The FordMotor Company, after giving last year’s initial Edsel model ablack eye, has made a respectable and even likable automobileof it.” Quite a number of motorists seemed to agree; about twothousand more Edsels were sold in the first half of 1959 thanhad been sold in the first half of 1958, and by the earlysummer of 1959 the car was moving at the rate of aroundfour thousand a month. Here, at last, was progress; sales wereat almost a quarter of the minimum profitable rate, instead of amere fifth.
On July 1, 1959, there were 83,849 Edsels on the country’sroads. The largest number (8,344) were in California, which isperennially beset with far and away the largest number of carsof practically all makes, and the smallest number were inAlaska, Vermont, and Hawaii (122, 119, and 110, respectively).
All in all, the Edsel seemed to have found a niche for itself asan amusingly eccentric curiosity. Although the Ford Company,with its stockholders’ money still disappearing week after weekinto the Edsel, and with small cars now clearly the order of theday, could scarcely affect a sentimental approach to the subject,it nonetheless took an outside chance and, in mid-October of1959, brought out a third series of annual models. The 1960Edsel appeared a little more than a month after the Falcon,Ford’s first—and instantly successful—venture into the small-carfield, and was scarcely an Edsel at all; gone were both thevertical grille and the horizontal rear end, and what remainedlooked like a cross between a Ford Fairlane and a Pontiac. Itsinitial sales were abysmal; by the middle of November only oneplant—in Louisville, Kentucky—was still turning out Edsels, and itwas turning out only about twenty a day. On November 19th,the Ford Foundation, which was planning to sell a block of itsvast holdings of stock in the Ford Motor Company, issued theprospectus that is required by law under such circumstances,and stated therein, in a footnote to a section describing thecompany’s products, that the Edsel had been “introduced inSeptember 1957 and discontinued in November 1959.” Thesame day, this mumbled admission was confirmed and amplifiedby a Ford Company spokesman, who did some mumbling ofhis own. “If we knew the reason people aren’t buying theEdsel, we’d probably have done something about it,” he said.
The final quantitative box score shows that from the beginningright up to November 19th, 110,810 Edsels were produced and109,466 were sold. (The remaining 1,344, almost all of them1960 models, were disposed of in short order with the help ofdrastic price cuts.) All told, only 2,846 of the 1960 Edsels wereever produced, making models of that year a potentialcollector’s item. To be sure, it will be generations before 1960Edsels are as scarce as the Type 41 Bugatti, of which no morethan eleven specimens were made, back in the late twenties, tobe sold only to bona-fide kings, and the 1960 Edsel’s reasonsfor being a rarity are not exactly as acceptable, socially orcommercially, as the Type 41 Bugatti’s. Still, a 1960-EdselOwners’ Club may yet appear.
The final fiscal box score on the Edsel fiasco will probablynever be known, because the Ford Motor Company’s publicreports do not include breakdowns of gains and losses withinthe individual divisions. Financial buffs estimate, however, thatthe company lost something like $200 million on the Edselafter it appeared; add to this the officially announcedexpenditure of $250 million before it appeared, subtract about ahundred million invested in plant and equipment that weresalvageable for other uses, and the net loss is $350 million. Ifthese estimates are right, every Edsel the companymanufactured cost it in lost money about $3,200, or about theprice of another one. In other, harsher words, the companywould have saved itself money if, back in 1955, it had decidednot to produce the Edsel at all but simply to give away 110,810specimens of its comparably priced car, the Mercury.
THE end of the Edsel set off an orgy of hindsight in the press.
Time declared, “The Edsel was a classic case of the wrong carfor the wrong market at the wrong time. It was also a primeexample of the limitations of market research, with its ‘depthinterviews’ and ‘motivational’ mumbo-jumbo.” Business Week,which shortly before the Edsel made its bow had described itwith patent solemnity and apparent approval, now pronouncedit “a nightmare” and appended a few pointedly critical remarksabout Wallace’s research, which was rapidly achieving ascapegoat status equal to that of Brown’s design. (Jumping upand down on motivational research was, and is, splendid sport,but, of course, the implication that it dictated, or eveninfluenced, the Edsel’s design is entirely false, since the research,being intended only to provide a theme for advertising andpromotion, was not undertaken until after Brown hadcompleted his design.) The Wall Street Journal’s obituary ofthe Edsel made a point that was probably sounder, andcertainly more original.
Large corporations are often accused of rigging markets, administeringprices, and otherwise dictating to the consumer [it observed]. And yesterdayFord Motor Company announced its two-year experiment with themedium-priced Edsel has come to an end … for want of buyers. All this isquite a ways from auto makers being able to rig markets or forceconsumers to take what they want them to take.… And the reason, simply,is that there is no accounting for tastes.… When it comes to dictating, theconsumer is the dictator without peer.
The tone of the piece was friendly and sympathetic; the FordCompany, it seemed, had endeared itself to the Journal byplaying the great American situation-comedy role of Daddy theBungler.
As for the post-mortem explanations of the debacle that havebeen offered by former Edsel executives, they are notable fortheir reflective tone—something like that of a knocked-out prizefighter opening his eyes to find an announcer’s microphonepushed into his face. In fact, Krafve, like many a flattenedpugilist, blames his own bad timing; he contends that if he hadbeen able to thwart the apparently immutable mechanics andeconomics of Detroit, and had somehow been able to bring outthe Edsel in 1955, or even 1956, when the stock market andthe medium-priced-car market were riding high, the car wouldhave done well and would still be doing well. That is to say, ifhe had seen the punch coming, he would have ducked. Krafverefuses to go along with a sizable group of laymen who tendto attribute the collapse to the company’s decision to call thecar the Edsel instead of giving it a brisker, more singablename, reducible to a nickname other than “Ed” or “Eddie,” andnot freighted with dynastic connotations. As far as he can see,Krafve still says, the Edsel’s name did not affect its fortunesone way or the other.
Brown agrees with Krafve that bad timing was the chiefmistake. “I frankly feel that the styling of the automobile hadvery little, if anything, to do with its failure,” he said later, andhis frankness may pretty safely be left unchallenged. “The Edselprogram, like any other project planned for future markets, wasbased on the best information available at the time in whichdecisions were made. The road to Hell is paved with goodintentions!”
Doyle, with the born salesman’s intensely personal feelingabout his customers, talks like a man betrayed by a friend—theAmerican public. “It was a buyers’ strike,” he says. “Peopleweren’t in the mood for the Edsel. Why not is a mystery tome. What they’d been buying for several years encouraged theindustry to build exactly this kind of car. We gave it to them,and they wouldn’t take it. Well, they shouldn’t have acted likethat. You can’t just wake up somebody one day and say,‘That’s enough, you’ve been running in the wrong direction.’
Anyway, why did they do it? Golly, how the industry workedand worked over the years—getting rid of gear-shifting,providing interior comfort, providing plus performance for usein emergencies! And now the public wants these little beetles. Idon’t get it!”
Wallace’s sputnik theory provides an answer to Doyle’squestion about why people weren’t in the mood, and,furthermore, it is sufficiently cosmic to befit a semi-BrainTruster. It also leaves Wallace free to defend the validity of hismotivational-research studies as of the time when they wereconducted. “I don’t think we yet know the depths of thepsychological effect that that first orbiting had on us all,” hesays. “Somebody had beaten us to an important gain intechnology, and immediately people started writing articles abouthow crummy Detroit products were, particularly the heavilyornamented and status-symbolic medium-priced cars. In 1958,when none of the small cars were out except the Rambler,Chevy almost ran away with the market, because it had thesimplest car. The American people had put themselves on aself-imposed austerity program. Not buying Edsels was theirhair shirt.”
TO any relics of the sink-or-swim nineteenth-century days ofAmerican industry, it must seem strange that Wallace canafford to puff on his pipe and analyze the holocaust soamiably. The obvious point of the Edsel’s story is the defeat ofa giant motor company, but what is just as surprising is thatthe giant did not come apart, or even get seriously hurt in thefall, and neither did the majority of the people who went downwith him. Owing largely to the success of four of its othercars—the Ford, the Thunderbird, and, later on the small Falconand Comet and then the Mustang—the Ford Company, as aninvestment, survived gloriously. True, it had a bad time of it in1958, when, partly because of the Edsel, net income per shareof its stock fell from $5.40 to $2.12, dividends per share from$2.40 to $2.00, and the market price of its stock from a 1957high of about $60 to a 1958 low of under $40. But all theselosses were more than recouped in 1959, when net income pershare was $8.24, dividends per share were $2.80, and theprice of the stock reached a high of around $90. In 1960 and1961, things went even better. So the 280,000 Fordstockholders listed on the books in 1957 had had little tocomplain about unless they had sold at the height of the panic.
On the other hand, six thousand white-collar workers weresqueezed out of their jobs as a result of theMercury-Edsel-Lincoln consolidation, and the average number ofFord employees fell from 191,759 in 1957 to 142,076 thefollowing year, climbing back to only 159,541 in 1959. And, ofcourse, dealers who gave up profitable franchises in othermakes and then went broke trying to sell Edsels weren’t likelyto be very cheerful about the experience. Under the terms ofthe consolidation of the Lincoln-Mercury and Edsel Divisions,most of the agencies for the three makes were consolidated,too. In the consolidation, some Edsel dealers were squeezedout, and it can have been small comfort to those of them whowent bankrupt to learn later that when the Ford Companyfinally discontinued making the car, it agreed to pay those oftheir former colleagues who had weathered the crisis one-halfof the original cost of their Edsel signs, and was granting themsubstantial rebates on all Edsels in stock at the time ofdiscontinuance. Still, automobile dealers, some of whom work oncredit margins as slim as those of Miami hotel operators,occasionally go broke with even the most popular cars. Andamong those who earn their living in the rough-and-tumbleworld of automobile salesrooms, where Detroit is not alwaysspoken of with affection, many will concede that the FordCompany, once it had found itself stuck with a lemon, did asmuch as it reasonably could to bolster dealers who had casttheir lot with Edsel. A spokesman for the National AutomobileDealers Association has since stated, “So far as we know, theEdsel dealers were generally satisfied with the way they weretreated.”
Foote, Cone & Belding also ended up losing money on theEdsel account, since its advertising commissions did not entirelycompensate for the extraordinary expense it had gone to ofhiring sixty new people and opening up a posh office inDetroit. But its losses were hardly irreparable; the minute therewere no more Edsels to advertise, it was hired to advertiseLincolns, and although that arrangement did not last very long,the firm has happily survived to sing the praises of such clientsas General Foods, Lever Brothers, and Trans World Airways. Arather touching symbol of the loyalty that the agency’semployees have for its former client is the fact that for severalyears after 1959, on every workday its private parking lot inChicago was still dotted with Edsels. These faithful drivers,incidentally, are not unique. If Edsel owners have not found themeans to a dream fulfillment, and if some of them for a whilehad to put up with harrowing mechanical disorders, many ofthem more than a decade later cherish their cars as if theywere Confederate bills, and on Used Car Row the Edsel is ahigh-premium item, with few cars being offered.
By and large, the former Edsel executives did not just landon their feet, they landed in clover. Certainly no one canaccuse the Ford Company of giving vent to its chagrin in theold-fashioned way, by vulgarly causing heads to roll. Krafve wasassigned to assist Robert S. McNamara, at that time a Forddivisional vice-president (and later, of course, Secretary ofDefense), for a couple of months, and then he moved to astaff job in company headquarters, stayed there for about ayear, and left to become a vice-president of the RaytheonCompany, of Waltham, Massachusetts, a leading electronics firm.
In April, 1960, he was made its president. In the middle sixtieshe left to become a high-priced management consultant on theWest Coast. Doyle, too, was offered a staff job with Ford, butafter taking a trip abroad to think it over he decided to retire.
“It was a question of my relationship to my dealers,” heexplains. “I had assured them that the company was fullybehind the Edsel for keeps, and I didn’t feel that I was thefellow to tell them now that it wasn’t.” After his retirement,Doyle remained about as busy as ever, keeping an eye onvarious businesses in which he has set up various friends andrelatives, and conducting a consulting business of his own inDetroit. About a month before Edsel’s consolidation withMercury and Lincoln, Warnock, the publicity man, left thedivision to become director of news services for theInternational Telephone & Telegraph Corp., in New York—aposition he left in June, 1960, to become vice-president ofCommunications Counselors, the public-relations arm ofMcCann-Erickson. From there he went back to Ford, asEastern promotion chief for Lincoln-Mercury—a case of a headthat had not rolled but had instead been anointed. Brown, theembattled stylist, stayed on in Detroit for a while as chief stylistof Ford commercial vehicles and then went with the FordMotor Company, Ltd., of England, where, again as chief stylist,he was assigned to direct the design of Consuls, Anglias, trucks,and tractors. He insisted that this post didn’t represent theFord version of Siberia. “I have found it to be a mostsatisfying experience, and one of the best steps I have evertaken in my … career,” he stated firmly in a letter fromEngland. “We are building a styling office and a styling teamsecond to none in Europe.” Wallace, the semi-Brain Truster,was asked to continue semi-Brain Trusting for Ford, and, sincehe still didn’t like living in Detroit, or near it, was permitted tomove to New York and to spend only two days a week atheadquarters. (“They didn’t seem to care any more where Ioperated from,” he says modestly.) At the end of 1958, he leftFord, and he has since finally achieved his heart’s desire—tobecome a full-time scholar and teacher. He set about getting adoctorate in sociology at Columbia, writing his thesis on socialchange in Westport, Connecticut, which he investigated by busilyquizzing its inhabitants; meanwhile, he taught a course on “TheDynamics of Social Behavior” at the New School for SocialResearch, in Greenwich Village. “I’m through with industry,” hewas heard to declare one day, with evident satisfaction, as heboarded a train for Westport, a bundle of questionnaires underhis arm. Early in 1962, he became Dr. Wallace.
The subsequent euphoria of these former Edsel men did notstem entirely from the fact of their economic survival; theyappear to have been enriched spiritually. They are inclined tospeak of their Edsel experience—except for those still with Ford,who are inclined to speak of it as little as possible—with theverve and garrulity of old comrades-in-arms hashing over theirmost thrilling campaign. Doyle is perhaps the most passionatereminiscer in the group. “It was more fun than I’ve ever hadbefore or since,” he told a caller in 1960. “I suppose that’sbecause I worked the hardest ever. We all did. It was a goodcrew. The people who came with Edsel knew they were takinga chance, and I like people who’ll take chances. Yes, it was awonderful experience, in spite of the unfortunate thing thathappened. And we were on the right track, too! When I wentto Europe just before retiring, I saw how it is there—nothingbut compact cars, yet they’ve still got traffic jams over there,they’ve still got parking problems, they’ve still got accidents. Justtry getting in and out of those low taxicabs without hitting yourhead, or try not to get clipped while you’re walking around theArc de Triomphe. This small-car thing won’t last forever. I can’tsee American drivers being satisfied for long with manualgear-shifting and limited performance. The pendulum will swingback.”
Warnock, like many a public-relations man before him, claimsthat his job gave him an ulcer—his second. “But I got over it,”
he says. “That great Edsel team—I’d just like to see what itcould have done if it had had the right product at the righttime. It could have made millions, that’s what! The whole thingwas two years out of my life that I’ll never forget. It washistory in the making. Doesn’t it all tell you something aboutAmerica in the fifties—high hopes, and less than completefulfillment of them?”
Krafve, the boss of the great team manqué, is entirelyprepared to testify that there is more to his formersubordinates’ talk than just the romantic vaporings of oldsoldiers. “It was a wonderful group to work with,” he said notlong ago. “They really put their hearts and guts into the job.
I’m interested in a crew that’s strongly motivated, and that onewas. When things went bad, the Edsel boys could have criedabout how they’d given up wonderful opportunities to comewith us, but if anybody did, I never heard about it. I’m notsurprised that they’ve mostly come out all right. In industry,you take a bump now and then, but you bounce back as longas you don’t get defeated inside. I like to get together withsomebody once in a while—Gayle Warnock or one of theothers—and go over the humorous incidents, the tragicincidents.…”
Whether the nostalgia of the Edsel boys for the Edsel runs tothe humorous or to the tragic, it is a thought-provokingphenomenon. Maybe it means merely that they miss thelimelight they first basked in and later squirmed in, or maybe itmeans that a time has come when—as in Elizabethan dramabut seldom before in American business—failure can have acertain grandeur that success never knows.
* The word “styling” is a weed deeply embedded in the garden ofautomobilia. In its preferred sense, the verb “to style” means to name; thusthe Special Products Division’s epic efforts to choose a name for the E-Car,which will be chronicled presently, were really the styling program, andwhat Brown and his associates were up to was something else again. In itssecond sense, says Webster, “to style” means “to fashion in … the acceptedstyle”; this was just what Brown, who hoped to achieve originality, wastrying not to do, so Brown’s must have been the antistyling program.
* For details on this product of the national creativity, see Chapter 3.
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