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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)

In June 1957, three months before "E-Day," Newsweek published a story on the Edsel with a cover photo that showed just the right front wheel and a few inches of bumper.

Edsel ads were everywhere, but before E-Day, they never showed the car. One ad pictured a stork holding a birth announcement for the Edsel. Another showed two ancient Fords, one saying, "Everybody's asking -- what's our grandchild going to look like?" and the other replying, "I'm not saying -- but there's never been a car like Edsel."

Meanwhile, Warnock was giving friendly reporters sneak peeks at the car. "I let guys I trusted see the cars," he says. "I'd unlock a couple of doors and take them down dark hallways. It was showmanship, and it worked. They loved the cars and they said so. And the public could hardly wait to see it because I was getting so much publicity."

Looking, Not Buying

On E-Day, nearly 3 million Americans flocked to Ford showrooms to see the Edsel. Unfortunately, very few of them bought the Edsel.

"They'd go in and look at it and leave," says Arnold.

"We couldn't even get people to drive it," says Warnock. "They just didn't like the car. They just didn't like the front end."

That weird oval grille soon became a running gag. Wags joked that it looked like a horse collar or a toilet seat. Time magazine said it made the car look like "an Olds sucking a lemon."

But styling was hardly the worst problem. Oil pans fell off, trunks stuck, paint peeled, doors failed to close and the much-hyped "Teletouch" push-button transmission had a distressing tendency to freeze up. People joked that Edsel stood for "Every day something else leaks."

Another major problem was caused by bad luck: The Edsel was an upscale car launched only a couple of months after a stock market plunge caused a recession. Sales of all premium cars plummeted.

But the Edsel folks did not give up. No way. After months of sluggish sales, the crack PR team gathered to brainstorm ideas for selling Edsels. They were battered and weary and devoid of ideas until an adman named Walter "Tommy" Thomas blurted out a suggestion.

"Let's give away a [bleeping] pony," he said.

Much to Thomas's amazement, his idea was not only accepted, it was expanded. The geniuses at Edsel decided to advertise a promotion in which every Edsel dealer would give away a pony. It worked like this: If you agreed to test-drive an Edsel, your name would be entered into a lottery at the dealership, with the winner getting a pony.


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