The Edsel

The Edsel: A 50s Design Disaster

Author: Sherril Steele-Carlin

Just about everyone, young and old, remembers the Edsel, a disaster of a car only produced in 1958, 1959, and 1960. Was any one auto before or since the Edsel so misunderstood, criticized, and maligned? The Edsel is a monument to Detroit's misjudgment of America and American tastes, but today, the Edsel in all its forms is a car collector's dream come true. 

Named after Henry Ford's son, Edsel Ford, the Edsel debuted in late 1957 with the 1958 model. Never had so much fanfare, press coverage and hoopla centered on a new car design. Prior to unveiling the design, magazine ads showed the car in soft focus so readers could only imagine what the finished car would look like. The Edsel Company (a separate division of Ford, much like the Saturn division of GM today), even bought a hour of television airtime and pre-empted the Ed Sullivan Show to hype the new car. The publicity worked an estimated 2.5 million Americans rushed to showrooms to view the new car when it arrived on what was dubbed "E-day," but few of them bought. 

The Edsel's design team had incorporated some nifty features in the car. It featured a pushbutton transmission with the buttons located in the center of the steering wheel. It also boasted a combination rear-view mirror/front-view spotlight, and a "floating" speedometer that glowed when the driver reached a pre-set speed. Some of these innovations were flashy, but some of them simply were not high on the list of 50s car buyers. 

In addition to design features that didn't thrill, the Edsel was introduced when the U.S. had entered into a recession, and many people blame the economy as much as the design for the demise of the car. Whatever the reason, Edsel's were only produced during the 1958, 1959, and 1960 design years, and then they disappeared from dealerships. 

During production, there were several different Edsel models produced. Several models the Ranger, Pacer, Villager, Bermuda, and Roundup all had 361 cubic-inch, 303 horsepower V-8 engines. The Villager and Bermuda were both station wagons. The Citation and Corsair models were larger and sported a 410 cubic-inch, 345 horsepower cast iron engine. Unfortunately, all this power did not equate to fast 0-60 cars. Since the cars were so heavy, they still took a long time to reach speed, as much as 10 seconds or more. 

Why was the Edsel such a dismal failure? Many believe the car was too over-designed for Americans. While it resembled other cars of the late 50s, and was priced in about the same range, the features were too "odd" for many, and models languished in showrooms. Edsel had predicted sales of 200,000 units per year, but barely that number sold in the three years the car was produced. 

Today, all the Edsel models are prized by collectors, and many automotive experts have called it one of the best cars of all time. Still, most people see the design as more than a little quirky the miles of chrome, distinctive "horse-collar" grill, and wide stance still require a second or third glance. The Edsel still draws laughs from some, but the car may really have the last laugh. Ahead of its time, more than a few people have even asked if it will ever be produced again. Ford says no, but we all know, you can never say never!

A link to some great images from the Edsel show:

Sherril Steele-Carlin is a freelance writer and researcher in Reno, Nevada. Her work has appeared in numerous national publications including American Profile, Highways, Pool & Spa, and many more. 



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