Driven to despair

17th June 2005 at 01:00
To see it parked there, hogging two spaces with its go-faster chrome, it might be just another example of American automotive excess. But to collectors and historians alike, the Ford Edsel is a curiosity.

Its story began in 1952, when Ford felt under pressure from its rival, General Motors, to produce medium-priced cars for young executives. By 1954, the company had set up a new division to meet the challenge. But the division, and the cars it would produce, still lacked a name. How to choose? Public polls produced 2,000 suggestions, to which Ford employees added a further 6,000.

This was clearly a job for a poet, and Marianne Moore was given the brief of evoking "elegance, fleetness, advanced features and design". But when she suggested Resilient Bullet, Utopian Turtletop, Pastelogram and Mongoose Civique, indecision turned to despair. Then chair Ernest Breech chose Edsel.

Never mind that people associated it not with speed and sophistication but with weasels and pretzels - it was the name of Henry Ford I's only son.

With such a name to conjure with, it was now time to begin conjuring. Ford engineered a two-year campaign of hype, promoting the Edsel as a revolution in design and technology.

Had the company devoted that effort to engineering the actual cars, things might have been different. Far from breaking new ground, the Edsel range relied heavily on components from other models. And because assembly initially took place on existing lines, mistakes were frequently made. Of the 75 cars earmarked for the big press launch in 1957, seven had to be cannibalised for parts.

If one thing set the Edsel apart, it was its appearance, which unkind motoring journalists likened to an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon, a horse collar and a toilet seat. In 1960, Ford pulled the plug, having sold just 2,846 Edsels in its third and final year. The disaster cost the company more than $300 million, but taught manufacturers everywhere one important lesson: namely, that if a product lacks appeal, then no amount of hype will sell it.

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