The Edsel – 1958

Even though nobody knows better how to put a positive spin on failure, not even auto manufacturers can blag their way around self-inflicted hubris. The Edsel wasn’t just a car.

It was a whole new division within the Ford Motor Company, created to compete with General Motors’ Oldsmobile. Planned in the mid-1950s’ flash flood of optimistic Consumerism, it was developed behind a screen of blinkered hype. Its details were so secret not even official Edsel dealers were allowed to see it in advance; but the pre-launch marketing blitz promised something revolutionary that Ford just could not deliver.

Bad timing (the USA was entering recession and had no need at all for another set of expensive gas-guzzlers), bad marketing, bad design and bad workmanship invited what business academics call ‘consumer blowback’. The public had been teased into expecting nothing less than a ‘plutonium-powered, pancake-making supercar’. What they got looked like an overpriced, regular Ford Mercury with a front, “horsecollar” grille described by Time magazine as looking ‘like a midwife’s view of labor and delivery’ – and by the motoring press with far greater ribaldry and vulgarity.

Disappointment mushroomed in direct proportion to public anticipation. Post-launch incompetence compounded the fiasco. In the rush to meet launch deadlines, cars were shipped incompletely or wrongly assembled – and with no customer loyalty to fall back on, the brand was born into its own death spiral of recrimination and closed dealerships. Edsel survived just 26 months, and cost the Ford Motor Company $350 million.

More than half a century later, retro-chic appeal has muted the original knee-jerk response to the Edsel name. In 1958, Vice President Richard Nixon rode a convertible Edsel through Lima, Peru: when his motorcade was pelted with eggs, the unlovely man could smirk they were throwing eggs at the car, not me’. Yes, that bad.

When was the Edsel launched: 1958

Where was the Edsel launched: USA

Edsel launch event toll: Edsel Ford’s blameless good name

You should know: The Edsel was intended to honor Henry Ford’s second son. Edsel Ford had been the much loved and appreciated Ford company president up to his death, aged 49, in 1943. He shared his name with thousands of other American boys and men – but following the Edsel disaster, the name has all but vanished from US culture. It’s still considered a laughable synonym for failure.

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