Cult Cars: The Edsel – A Fashionable Failure

The Ford Edsel was launched on ‘E’ Day, the 4th September, 1957. It was so big, it had its own television special on October 13th, called The Edsel Show, featuring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney and Louis Armstrong. Research and development had gone into overdrive to create the Edsel; this car was jam-packed with modern technology. But production ended on 19th November, 1959. No car has ever been less successful. Only 2,846 of the 1960 model made it off the production line. And The Ford Motor Company lost £350 million (around £2.5 billion in today’s terms).

Theories abound as to why car sales flopped. Some say it was down to technical malfunctions, especially with the push-button gears in the steering wheel. For others, it was the extreme styling: the vulva-shaped radiator grille, and thunder-thigh tail fins. It’s also thought that the name, Edsel, used in honour of Edsel Ford, group president and son of Henry Ford, sounded too much like a tractor named Edson. But perhaps this was simply the wrong car at the wrong time?

Whatever the reason for its failure, the Edsel is more popular today than it ever has been. Fewer than 10,000 Edsels survive, and are now collectors’ items. A mint Citation convertible is likely to fetch over $100,000. What’s more, many of the Edsel’s features, such as transmission lock on ignition, self-adjusting brakes, steering wheel gear selection and multiple colour combinations, which were considered impractical in the late 1950s, are now standard features of modern sports cars.

Tragedy aside, the Edsel’s legacy includes some wonderful old film footage:

The Edsel was advertised as the world’s “easiest car to handle “– if you could switch on a lamp, you could drive it:

The car’s marketing was heaped with souped-up, saccharine advertising-speak: “When they move from the line, who can say what unexpected pleasures they will bring and to whom?” One of the Edsel’s key selling points was that it provided a means to “far-flung travel joy.”  On this note, Ford funded a series of cheesy, travel-inspired advertorial films like this one, where a doctor takes his chocolate munching, ‘seen-and-not-heard’ wife on holiday, via a cattle market, to the Okefenokee Swamp – just start watching, and you’ll soon be hooked…

Episode 2 includes a hillbilly version of Amazing Grace that’s better than anything from the Waltons… though you may need some earplugs.

There’s another fascinating promotional film called West to the Tetons too. I’ll leave you to find that one for yourself…

Of course, the saddest part of the legacy is the Edsel graveyard.

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About Author Profile: Susan Muncey

Trend consultant Susan Muncey, is Editor of Visuology Magazine. In 2008, she founded online curiosity shop, She writes on style and trends for several blogs, including, and The Dabbler. She previously owned cult West London boutique, Fashion Gallery, one of the first concept stores in the world. Susan graduated in geography from Cambridge University and is also an Associate Member of the CFA Institute. She lives in London with her husband.

7 thoughts on “Cult Cars: The Edsel – A Fashionable Failure

    January 14, 2012 at 08:43

    Very well researched and interesting reading Susan!

    I wonder when apple will have its ‘edsel’ moment? (as it inevitably must)

    I’m trying to think of more recent automotive disasters…I think the Chrysler Sebring was fairly atrocious

    January 14, 2012 at 10:17

    Back in the early 70’s I swaggered (my, how swagger becomes shuffle) around Dublin in another Ford that did rather better than the Edsel, a 1966 Thunderbird, a 300hp monster with cruise-o-matic (don’t you love it) transmission, pivoting electric quarter-lights, and six-light indicators at the rear. No motorways in Dublin then, but if you happened to be driving back from the races well oiled-up, and gave it the gun, you could actually see the petrol gauge needle moving toward zero – this at a time when it didn’t matter much….
    This was at the fag-end of an era when people had fun in cars, and you would still go out ‘for a drive’ for no better reason than to feel the wind in your hair (again, another distant memory).

      January 14, 2012 at 12:04

      David Halberstam wrote an excellent book – The Reckoning – in 1986 which is the story of Detroit’s decline as a, let alone the Motor City, and the concomitant rise of Japan. In it, he posits the Edsel, notwithstanding (or perhaps because of) all this wonderful footage, as the moment when the pooch began to get screwed.

    ian russell
    January 14, 2012 at 12:06

    On appearances alone, it looks like the wrong car at any time. Did it inspire, or was it inspired by, that Johnny Cash song?

    January 14, 2012 at 13:12

    Interesting Saturday morning read Susan, interesting jam jar, in the automotive industry of today the politics are frequently of more interest than the product. Back in them thar days the designers were as popular as pop stars, Harley Earl started the ball rolling. ‘No car has ever been less successful’ try asking the boys at Ingolstadt how much they lost on the A2, the answer is invariably a cough, cough, cough.
    The Edsel was a non-runner from the word go, being designed by Roy Brown, nicknamed today Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown. Taken within the context of it’s era the car had a lot of strong competition, this being the probable cause of it’s demise. Ford learned some lessons (which it seems to have forgotten in the mid eighties), by 1962 it had launched the Cortina series in Europe, the model that led to Ford Europe bankrolling Detroit for a number of years. Today it’s designs progress beyond the concept stage only if they use up the existing bits in the parts bin.

    January 14, 2012 at 13:58

    Ford Motor Company first asked Marianne Moore to come up with a name for the car. The correspondence, which began in October 1955 and ended in November 1956, takes up about 10 pages in The Marianne Moore Reader (Viking, 1961). Her suggestions began with “Silver Sword” and culminated in “Utopian Turtletop”. Of them all, I recognize only “chaparral” as ever attaching to a car (a Can-Am racer in the 1970s, I think).

    Back in about 1975 I could have bought an Edsel for $50 from a service station in our neighborhood. That I could have afforded; to keep it running would probably have taken more money than I had.

    Gerald Weinberg, who writes on software development, wrote in one of his books that in his programming days he had something to do with the Edsel project, and later came to imagine that Ford had put all of its most innovative and imaginative staff onto one project, where they could inflict only so much damage, and emerge chastened. The book where I read this was probably Becoming a Technical Leader.

    January 14, 2012 at 14:27

    Apparently “Pastelogram”, “Turcotinga” and “Mongoose Civique” are some of the other names suggested for the car, George.

    Time Magazine produced a 50 Worst Cars of All Time article, Worm. Personally, I don’t think you can get much worse that the Edsel – though I wouldn’t mind owning one in a curiously cool colour – like peppermint green, or coral.

    I expect some people still have fun in cars, Mahlerman – d’you think George Michael has a cruise-o-matic?

    Malty – your knowledge is much appreciated – thanks for putting the car in the context of more recent developments within the industry.

    I’ll check out The Reckoning, thanks, Jonathon. And is this the song you mean, Ian?

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