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The Edsel turns 40 ... sort of

1958 Edsel

Symbol of automotive failure lasted only 3 years

August 11, 1997
Web posted at: 10:25 p.m. EDT (0225 GMT)

In this story:

DEARBORN, Michigan (CNN) -- The Edsel, a car emblematic of automotive failure, is 40 years old this year -- or would have been, had the Ford Motor Company continued to make it.

The Edsel died after just three model years, but it was introduced with the kind of fanfare that has seldom been seen in the auto industry before or since.

With the car hidden in the shadows in front of a red curtain -- its silhouette only hinting at its singular shape -- an announcer told a national audience in September 1957: "And now for the moment I'm sure you've all been looking forward to, a look at the newest member of the Ford family of fine cars ... the Edsel!"

Bright spotlights revealed a large sedan striped with chrome, its sides scalloped, its front decorated with what came to be known as a "horse-collar" grill.

The car was named for Edsel Ford, the only son of the company's founder, Henry Ford. Its designer, Roy Brown, remembers vividly what he was told the grand new car should look like.

"I was 40 years old and I was told we want a car that is highly recognizable, front, rear or side, and different than anything on the road," he says.

Collector has owned 20 Edsels

Edsel grille

Hence the Ford commercial showing an Edsel approaching a gate up a long driveway, expensive landscaping on either side, and a voice saying, "They'll know you've arrived when you pull up in a '58 Edsel...."

Joe Niedzielski, an Edsel collector, says he never forgot the first Edsel he saw.

"I was 16 in 1972, and my heart beat very swiftly for them," he says. Indeed, it beat so swiftly that Niedzielski has owned at least 20 Edsels and shows no signs of quitting.

"It's kinda something you catch and doesn't go away," he says. "You see 'em and fall in love with the cars."

Edsel Ford II

Unfortunately for Ford, not enough car buyers fell in love with the Edsel. It became, instead, a synonym for failure, and something of a burden to those in the Ford family who bore the name.

"When it was discontinued, I was 10 or 11 years old," says Edsel B. Ford II, the grandson of the original Edsel Ford. "I was in school and you know how kids are, they had a tendency to compare me to the car."

Ford is now a vice president of Ford, president and chief operating officer of Ford Motor Credit Company and a member of Ford's board of directors.

Recession didn't help Edsel's chances

To ask Roy Brown where the car went wrong is to ask the wrong man. "The car never went wrong," he says. "The car is a complete success as far as I'm concerned."

There are some who say the Edsel's demise was simply a case of bad timing.

"Ford had researched the car, planned the car and they were ready to introduce it for the '58 model year," says Henry Ford Museum historian Bob Casey. "What they didn't know, couldn't have known, was that 1958 was gonna be a big recession, economic recession."

For all the criticism of the Edsel's appearance, the car did have some interesting -- if not long-lasting -- technical innovations.

One was a speedometer that rotated on a vertical axis like a roulette wheel and was called the rolling dome. There was also a "teletouch" transmission, a series of buttons set in the center of the steering wheel by which one changed gears.

The ads said that such a light touch was required to push the buttons that you could shift gears with toothpick -- something that apparently did not impress the millions who don't keep toothpicks in their cars.

No comebacks, thank you

Morph of an orginal Edsel and what one might look like today
video icon 196K/6 sec. QuickTime movie

In honor of the Edsel's anniversary, Brown has designed a sporty looking coupe based on the original design that might sell better than some of the cars on the road now. And Larry Shinoda of Wards Auto World used a computer to "morph" the old sedan into a snappy sport utility complete with a stylish horse-collar grill.

But Edsel Ford II says that since the Edsel never quite made it the first time, it's probably best that it not try a comeback.

"No," he says, "I'm just gonna quietly watch it go."

Correspondent Ed Garsten contributed to this report.

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