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The Edsel: A Symbol of Failure

Updated on March 4, 2022

The Edsel's "Horse Collar"


Introducing the Edsel

On September 4th 1957, with a great deal of hoopla, the Ford Motor Company introduced a new line of cars that would compete with Oldsmobile and Buick, and keep Ford in the forefront of automobile manufacturing. The brand new Edsel group was produced to fill a large gap for Ford, and the expectations were tremendous. There was a great deal of excitement over this new line, and Ford had even done motivational research as part of their pre-launch marketing effort. The Edsel was supposed to help guide Ford out of a morass of poor moves and terrible mismanagement that had weakened their position in the market. This line of cars was expected to help ease a management blunder from decades earlier.

Ford had cornered the market on inexpensive cars with it's Model T in the earlier decades, and had ceded the higher end luxury market to other companies such as Packard, and Pierce-Arrow. However after the Great Depression in the 30's, as the people in the U.S. began to acquire more spending money, a new market opened up for a medium level car.

Other companies such as General Motors jumped on the opportunity and prospered, while Henry Ford himself ignored this new lucrative, growing market. A big mistake as it turned out. Over time, the medium sized market became the most lucrative of all, and Ford Motor Co. was on the outside looking in. That error magnified as time went by, and by the mid 1950s Ford was desperate to get a slice of the market. This was the blunder that the Edsel line of cars was supposed to help fix.

An Expensive Launch

Ford Motors expected a huge success at first and poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the line (in 1950s dollars), which included a massive advertising effort to get the Edsel off the ground running. They kept the cars out of sight until the major announcement introducing them to the public, expecting a major financial success from the start.

Little did they realize that their newest creation would go on to become a massive failure, to the point where the name Edsel has entered the English vernacular (but not quite how the Ford management had expected). It became a nightmare of epic proportions that Ford simply couldn't fix.

Ford revealed the Edsel in 1957 with a flurry of advertising and fanfare, and even had it's own special program on television. It had been kept under wraps until the big day to surprise the public, however Ford had neglected to do test marketing of the car in fear that the suspense would be spoiled. Unfortunately that would result in Ford Motors spending many millions of dollars creating a car that was not a sure bet to sell, and that the public might well dislike and reject.

The executives at Ford were so sure they would have a huge hit on their hands that they ignored any possible dark clouds on the horizon. After all, why test market the Edsel when it was obviously going to be a big smash success due to the advertising, and the innovative design.

Edsel Interior


An Unmitigated Disaster

The big roll-out day came and went....and the Edsels sat on the auto lots. Before too long, Ford's upper management began to get the idea that the Edsel might not be the roaring success that they expected it to be. In fact it was quite the contrary. Edsels were shunned from day one, and over the 3 year life of the different Edsel cars they only sold about 11,000 cars which was a utter and complete disaster. People simply didn't like the way the Edsel looked. Many car shoppers disliked the unique grille, which was vertical, and immediately compared it to a toilet seat. Eventually the grille became widely referred to as “the horse-collar”.

The general consensus now is that the cars were so ugly that nobody would buy one, but there were some people then that liked how they looked. There just weren’t enough of them. Edsel models like the Corsair, and the Citation were really not that markedly different from then current Ford models. However Ford mistakenly overpriced the Edsel so that they were competing with the higher end Mercury's (also owned by Ford). This confused consumers who balked at the price for the base model. What it basically came down to was that the Edsel's were considered to be a bit ugly and overpriced, a disastrous combination.

As Ford desperately poured money in to the line to hopefully jump-start sales, the Edsel jokes began and the car started to become more of a punchline that an automobile that anyone wanted to drive. Ford Motors pulled out all the stops to rescue the line, but finally pulled the plug after 3 years in 1960. The amount of money they lost during that time was astronomical.

Edsel Convertible


The Edsel Disaster

With the disaster the Edsel line was it didn't take long for the comparisons to be made to any product that was though to be less than a success. However that was the 1960s, when the cars were still fresh in everyone's mind. As time went by it would be expected that the comparisons to fade, but they still are going strong. Despite the fact that Ford received an even bigger black eye with the somewhat explosive Pinto in the 1970s, the Edsel is still name checked in movies, television shows, and in books, always describing a huge failure.

The business world probably did not see anything quite on the Edsel's level until the 80's when some brilliant marketers at the Coca-Cola company thought it would be a good idea to throw out it's original formula and replace it with a new version called New Coke. With so few models made, it is probably not a surprise that Edsel models have quite a following. if you want a Edsel in good condition today it will set you back about $100,000. Below is a video of Ford executives showing the Edsel to their management and dealers. The begin introducing the cars at about 18:45 into the film. You can imagine the consternation of the dealers upon getting their first look at the new line.

The Edsel Story (1957)


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