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The Flop Heard Round the World
That Name. That Grille. Ford Had High Expectations, but When the Edsel Debuted in 1957, It Became America's Most-Hyped Failure.

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.

Gazillions in Research

The idea for the Edsel came from Ford executives who were thinking about market niches when they should have been thinking about cars.

They were worried that Ford owners who prospered in the postwar boom were trading in their cheap Fords for pricier Pontiacs and Buicks. They figured Ford needed a new line of medium-price cars, and they hired a bunch of motivational researchers to probe the psyche of the American car buyer.

The '50s were the glory days of motivational research, and Columbia University's Bureau of Applied Social Research was the mecca of the trade. David Wallace, Ford's director of planning and a man with a PhD in sociology from Columbia, hired the bureau to find out why people bought the cars they bought. The bureau's researchers interviewed 800 people, inquiring about their preferences in everything from cars to cocktails, then produced a report revealing the hidden meaning of cars. Ford symbolized "rugged masculinity." Buick symbolized "upper class solidarity." Plymouth had a "weak image of plain respectability." And so on.

Wallace read the report and concluded that the new Ford should be touted as "the smart car for the younger executive or professional family on its way up."

That sounded reasonable. It was certainly better than touting it as a dumb car for families on the way down.

Next, Wallace dispatched his researchers to find the perfect name for the nonexistent vehicle that Ford had dubbed the "E-car," short for experimental car. The researchers buttonholed random Americans and asked then to blurt out their reactions to scores of possible names: Mars, Jupiter, Rover, Arrow, Dart, Ovation. The responses were tabulated and analyzed and the results were . . . inconclusive. So Wallace gathered a group of Ford executives in a room, turned out the lights and flashed scores of names at them. The results were . . . inconclusive.

After that, Wallace did what any sensible American auto executive would do in such a situation: He wrote to Marianne Moore, America's most famous female poet, and asked her to suggest names. She did. She suggested lots of names -- Intelligent Whale, Intelligent Bullet, Bullet Cloisonne, Ford Faberge, Mongoose Civique and, the pi?ce de r?sistance, Utopian Turtletop.

Wallace sent Moore a bouquet of roses and a card reading, "to our favorite turtletopper," but he did not choose any of her suggestions. Instead, Ford and its advertising agency, Foote, Cone & Belding, asked their employees to suggest names, promising a free "E-car" to the winner. The employees responded with 18,000 names. Among them was Edsel -- a tribute to Edsel Ford, who was the deceased son of Henry Ford, the company's legendary founder, and the father of Henry Ford II, the company's president.

The folks at Foote, Cone & Belding whittled the 18,000-name list down to a mere 6,000 names and presented them to a committee headed by Richard Krafve, the man running the E-car project.

"We don't want 6,000 names," Krafve grumbled. "We only want one."

The Foote, Cone & Belding folks slunk back to their lair and whittled some more. On Nov. 8, 1956, they presented a list of 10 names to a meeting of Ford's Executive Committee. The names included Corsair, Pacer, Ranger and Citation. The Executive Committee hated all of them. They grumbled for a while and finally Ernest Breech, Ford's chairman of the board, made the kind of instantaneous, intuitive decision touted in Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling 2005 book, "Blink."

"Why don't we just call it Edsel?" Breech said.

It sounded like a question, but it was a command. Instantly, a gazillion hours of expensive and absurd motivational research went up in smoke.

Why did Breech want to name the car Edsel?

"He was brown-nosing Mr. Ford," says C. Gayle Warnock, now 91, who was the Edsel's public relations director. Warnock is also the author of the 1980 book "The Edsel Affair" and a forthcoming sequel, "The Rest of the Edsel Affair."

When Warnock heard about Breech's decision, he banged out a one-sentence memo to Krafve: "We have just lost 200,000 sales."

"I knew nobody would like that name," he explains on the phone from his home in Sweetser, Ind. "When they did interviews [about names] and asked about Edsel, people always said, 'Did you say pretzel?' "

Grilled to Imperfection

Of course, a company launching a new car needs more than just an image and a name. It also needs, you know, a car.

The Ford folks were working on that. In fact, they were building not one, not two, but 18 varieties of Edsel, including a convertible and a station wagon. Prices would range from $2,500 to $3,800 -- several hundred dollars more than comparable Fords.

The designers came up with some interesting ideas. They created a push-button transmission and put it in the middle of the steering wheel, where most cars have a horn. And they fiddled with the front end: Where other cars had horizontal chrome grilles, the Edsel would have a vertical chrome oval in its grille. It was new! It was different!

Unfortunately, it didn't work. It couldn't suck in enough air to cool the engine. So they had to make it bigger. And bigger.

"They had to keep opening up that oval to get more air in there," says Jim Arnold, who was a trainee in Edsel's design shop. "And it didn't look as good."

Edsel didn't have its own assembly lines, so the cars were produced in Ford and Mercury plants, which caused problems. Every once in a while, an Edsel would roll past workers who were used to Mercurys or other Fords. Confused, they sometimes failed to install all the parts before the Edsel moved on down the line.

Cars without parts can be a problem, of course, but other aspects of the Edsel juggernaut worked perfectly -- the hype, for instance. Warnock and his PR team touted the glories of the cars, but wouldn't let anybody see them. They wouldn't even show pictures. When they finally released a photo, it turned out to be a picture of . . . the Edsel's hood ornament. And hundreds of publications actually printed it!

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.

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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