The Flop Heard Round the World

Ford's Edsel was the biggest bust in brand history. It didn't live up to the hype of its teaser ads and never gained the glamour of promotions such as this one for the 1958 Edsel Citation.
Ford's Edsel was the biggest bust in brand history. It didn't live up to the hype of its teaser ads and never gained the glamour of promotions such as this one for the 1958 Edsel Citation. (Plan59.com)

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By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Fifty years ago today, Don Mazzella skipped out of school to see the hot new car that everybody was talking about, the hot new car that almost nobody had actually seen.

Ford Motor Co. had proclaimed it "E-Day," and Mazzella and two buddies sneaked out of East Side High School in Newark, N.J., and hiked 13 blocks to Foley Ford so they could cast their gaze upon the much-ballyhooed new car that had been kept secret from the American public until its release that day.

It was called the Edsel.

"The line was around the block," recalls Mazzella, now 66 and an executive in a New Jersey consulting firm. "People were coming from all over to see this car. You couldn't see it from the street. The only way you could see it was to walk into the showroom and look behind a curtain."

Mazzella and his truant friends waited their turn, thrilled to be there. "Back then for teenagers, cars were the be-all and end-all," he explains. They'd read countless articles about the Edsel and seen countless ads that touted it as the car of the future. But they hadn't seen the car. Ford kept it secret, building excitement by coyly withholding it from sight, like a strip-tease dancer.

Finally, Mazzella and his friends reached the showroom. Finally, they were permitted to peek behind the curtain. They saw a cream-colored car with a strange oval grille that looked like a big chrome O.

"We looked at it and said, ' What?' " Mazzella recalls. "It was just a blah car. I remember my friend Joe Grandi, who later became a Newark cop -- he had a gruff voice, and he said, ' This is what we waited all this time for?' We all felt betrayed."

They weren't alone. The rest of America was equally disappointed. The Edsel fizzled. It flopped. It tanked. It became a national joke, the car that launched a million punch lines. By November 1959, when Ford finally mercy-killed the Edsel, it had lost an estimated $250 million -- nearly $2 billion in today's dollars.

Forget New Coke or the Susan B. Anthony dollar or the over-hyped Segway scooter or those pathetic dotcoms that went belly up in the late '90s. The Edsel was the most colossal, stupendous and legendary blunder in the history of American marketing.

"The word 'Edsel' became synonymous with failure," says Marshall Brain, the founder of Howstuffworks.com, who has written extensively about the Edsel.

He's not kidding. Look up Edsel in Webster's dictionary. The first definition is specific: "automobile produced (1957-1959) by the Ford Motor Company." The second is broader: "a product, project, etc. that fails to gain public acceptance despite high expectations, costly promotional efforts, etc."

The story of the Edsel is a farce that might make a good Mel Brooks movie, a tale of human folly, corporate arrogance and vast piles of horse excrement, much of it metaphorical but some of it, alas, all too pungently real.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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