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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. (

Ford bought 1,000 ponies and shipped them to Edsel dealers, who displayed them outside their showrooms. Many parents, egged on by their pony-loving children, traipsed in to take a test drive. Unfortunately, many of the lucky winners declined the ponies, opting instead for the alternative -- $200 in cash -- and soon dealers were shipping the beasts back to Detroit.

Now the Edsel folks were not only stuck with a lot of cars they couldn't sell, they were also stuck with a lot of ponies they couldn't give away. The cars were easy enough to store, but the ponies required food. And after they ate the food, they digested the food. And then . . . another fine mess for Edsel.

Before E-Day, Edsel's hypemeisters promised to sell 200,000 cars the first year. Actually, they sold 63,110. And it got worse. Sales dropped below 45,000 the second year. And only 2,846 of the 1960 models sold before Ford pulled the plug.

"The advertising talked about a remarkable new automobile, but it wasn't so remarkable or so new," says Angus MacKenzie, editor in chief of Motor Trend magazine. "The Edsel was just another chrome-laden land yacht of the era. There was nothing new other than the funny-looking grille and the name."

To MacKenzie, there's a lesson in the Edsel debacle: "Market research has never created a great car," he says. "Great cars are the product of passion."

The Collector

Passion? Jim Popp pulses with passion for Edsels. He loves them, restores them, collects them. Popp has so many Edsels he can't count them.

"I don't know the exact number," he says. "I've got half a car here, half a car there. Call it 40-ish."

Popp is 66, retired from a Defense Department job he says he can't talk about, living in Davidsonville. Today, he's wearing a green T-shirt advertising Edsel's 50th anniversary. He points to the sign mounted on his huge multi-car garage. It shows the Edsel's famous oval grille beneath the words, "Shrine of the Holy Grill."

Popp bought his first Edsel on Dec. 14, 1959, about a month after Ford announced the car's demise. He paid $2,300 for it -- the desperate dealer took $1,000 off the list price -- and he drove it for 17 years.

"It was a great car," he says. "Very few problems with it."

He opens the door, steps inside the Shrine of the Holy Grill, flips on the lights. The huge room is packed with vintage cars, most of them Edsels. His first Edsel is there -- a tan 1960 sedan, lovingly restored to its original glory. There's also a red 1960 Edsel convertible. And a turquoise 1958 Edsel convertible. And a brown 1959 Edsel sedan with a white top. They're all spotless and shiny and Popp is eager to show them off. But he's not about to take them out for a drive. No way.

"They've crossed a philosophical line from mode of transportation to work of art," he says. "You wouldn't take the Mona Lisa and write your shopping list on it."

Popp has a point. By strange quirk of financial fate, a restored Edsel is now far too valuable to use as an actual automobile. The car famous for its ugliness is now a rare and valued collector's item, like a Faberge egg.

"First came the jokes, then the oblivion," Popp says, "and now it's resurrected with the collectors. It's one of the most popular cars for collectors."

These days, a fully restored, spiffed-up, mint-condition Edsel can sell for $100,000 . And some of the rarest models, like the 1960 convertible, can sell for $200,000, Popp says.

Ironically, being the most famous flop in history is exactly what makes old Edsels so valuable.

"People say, 'Isn't it a shame the Edsel didn't survive?' " Popp says, smiling. "I say, 'If it survived, it would just be another Ford.' "

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