Roy Brown Jr., proud designer of the Ford Edsel, dies at 96


Roy Brown Jr., the designer of the Ford Edsel, died Feb. 24 at 96. He is shown here at his 90th birthday in 2006. (Family photo)

Roy Brown Jr., the defiantly proud designer of the Ford Edsel, the chrome-encrusted, big-grilled set of wheels that went down as one of the worst flops in automotive history, died Feb. 24 at a hospice in Ann Arbor, Mich. He was 96.

He had pneumonia and Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, Jeanne Brown.

More than five decades after Mr. Brown’s creation debuted and promptly vanished from dealerships across the United States, the term “Edsel” remains practically synonymous with failure.

Among auto enthusiasts, however, the car generates deep nostalgia for a bygone era of American motoring — and a degree of affection that perhaps has proved Mr. Brown right in the end.

He was a veteran automotive designer in the mid-1950s when the Ford Motor Co. put him in charge of overseeing a new car. It was to be more sophisticated than the standard Ford, less expensive than the Mercury and so distinctive, he once said, as to be recognized “from a block away.”

The new design was named the Edsel in honor of Henry Ford’s late son, and only after executives rejected suggestions solicited from poet Marianne Moore, including Intelligent Whale, Ford Faberge, Mongoose Civique and Utopian Turtletop.

In the era of conspicuous consumption, Mr. Brown did not build a car for the motorist who drove. He made a behemoth for the driver who cruised — with room enough for five friends in tow.

What Mr. Brown’s design lacked in aerodynamics it boasted in flourish. External features included scalloped sides and showy taillights. In a bold departure from the prevailing fashion, he nixed tail fins. “I hated the bloody fins on the Cadillac,” he once said. “They were dangerous, too.”

The Edsel’s most recognizable attribute was its vertical grille, a design throwback. Mr. Brown recalled the applause from company president Henry Ford II — Edsel Ford’s eldest son — when he first saw the design. The company’s enthusiasm proved out of sync with American consumers.

“It’s almost grotesque,” automotive industry analyst Maryann Keller said of the Edsel, citing among the vehicle’s flaws its “hundreds of pounds of unnecessary weight in bumpers.”

“Obviously it was an attempt by Ford to make a statement,” she said, “but I think it was the wrong statement.”

After the car was released in 1957, the grille drew comparisons to an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon, a toilet seat and other cruder images. “There are people that have toilet-seat minds,” Mr. Brown once told the Sun Sentinel in Florida.

Ford had invested $250 million in the venture, according to Automotive News. The original design was altered because of its expense and after engineers warned that the grille might inhibit ventilation.

Marketers were accused of overhyping the car, which sold for $2,300 to $3,800 and which was designed around out-of-date consumer research. By the time Edsels rolled into dealerships, American tastes had shifted and the economy had entered a period of recession.

Ford had hoped to sell 200,000 but ended production by 1960 after the sale of about 118,000. The company lost more than $300,000 a day during the period when the Edsel was in production.

Mr. Brown said he “cried in my beer for two days” but then returned to his work with vigor. He attributed the failure to “bad timing.”

After the Edsel debacle, Ford transferred Mr. Brown to the company’s office in England. He was the chief designer of the Consul and the compact Cortina, which Automotive News described as “one of the company’s most successful products in Europe” and the best-selling car in Britain in the 1970s.

Before his retirement in 1975, he helped design Thunderbirds and Econoline vans. Besides those vehicles, his credits from earlier in his career include a show car that helped inspire the Batmobile.

Roy Abbott Brown Jr. was born Oct. 30, 1916, in Hamilton, Ontario. The son of a Chrysler engineer, he moved to Detroit at 15. Mr. Brown became a U.S. citizen and graduated from an art academy in Detroit before serving in the Army during World War II.

He began his career as a designer in the General Motors Cadillac studio and later oversaw design of the Oldsmobile. He joined Ford in 1953.

His first marriage, to Emily Roberts, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 42 years, Jeanne Feciashko Brown of Brooklyn, Mich.; four children from his first marriage, Jan Byron of Fenton, Mich., Reg Brown of Charleston, S.C., Penny Beesley of Milton, Ga., and Mark Brown of Norcross, Ga.; a sister; five grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and two great-great-grandchildren.

Until the end of his life, Mr. Brown expressed pride in the Edsel. Almost until the end, he drove one, his son said.

He told the Sun Sentinel that in later years, by which time his model had become a collector’s item, people would occasionally ask to buy his car from him.

He would reply, “Where the hell were you in 1958?”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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