Ford Motor launched the first Edsel 54 years ago yesterday. Seems you can't go near this topic without a dispute. The ill-fated Edsel might be the JFK assassination of the auto trade, rife with conspiracy theories and fierce arguments about the character of both the car (1958-1960) and Edsel Bryant Ford (1893-1943, the man for whom it was named.
The name is of course synonomous with failure, though it sold briskly in its first year until the 1958 recession set in. That was the year my dad, a Toronto printer, was laid off seven times. I've always had a curious fondness for the car, invariably ridiculed because of its unusual grille and the model's tepid sales despite a then-unprecedented amount of pre-design consumer research. Even the 6,000 suggested names for the vehicle seem indicative of overweening pride in Dearborn, particularly given that these names were ultimately swept aside so that the name of a Ford family member could be attached to it.
The Globe's Peter Cheney adds to the confusion with an Edsel "tribute" Friday asserting that the iconic failure "showed just how far the mighty Ford Motor Co. had strayed from the unerring instincts of its founder." (Alas, I can't link to the brief article since the Globe hasn't posted it.)
Actually, Henry Ford is one of the most over-rated of industrial titans. A fair number of Americans imagine the Michigan farmboy invented cars. (That would be, if anyone, Gotlieb Daimler and Karl Benz three decades earlier). Or at least the assembly line. In fact, assembly lines were commonplace when Ford Motor was born, and it wasn't Henry but the ace industrial engineers he recruited who devised what was indisputably the most robust assembly line of its time.
As for Henry's "unerring instinct," the founder nearly killed his company in the cradle, waiting an unconscionable 18 years before reacting to public and Ford family pressure to replace his beloved Model T with the winsome Model A (1927-1931), which, like the Edsel, had the misfortune of appearing in time for an economic downturn. It was a staggering success, just the same, selling more than four million units in just four years' production at nine plants, including Windsor, Ont. But by that point, GM, with its wider range of power, convenience, styling and color options, had taken a market-share lead over Ford that it would never surrender.
Henry's unerring instinct prompted him to shun electric starters and other conveniences he deemed frivilous but for which the market was clamoring, opening the door to rivals. Henry published an anti-Semitic newspaper with few equals in odiousness. He earned ridicule for a feckless peace mission to Europe in a failed bid to prevent the outbreak of World War I hostilities. Henry insisted that gravely ill son Edsel be fed unpasteurized goat milk, which only accelerated Edsel's death of stomach cancer.
Founder Ford also had to be threatened by FDR with the nationalization of his firm following Pearl Harbor, the stubborn cuss having initially refused to convert to war production. Henry was given to waiting for public occasions to inflict his loud, withering criticisms on Edsel. Th(In fairness, GM wasn't fast off the mark, either, eager to cash in on a long-awaited prosperity after the Depression.)
There's a book for someone to write on the curious ailment of the founder-father whose son must take over the business, and must also be subjected to constant, brutal second-guessing from dad, usually in front of non-family executives. That was the fate also of Forrest Mars Jr. at the M&M's and Snickers maker, and of Thomas Watson Jr. at IBM.
Canvassing for names might have been silly, but honoring Edsel, shown right, was not. It was Edsel, as president under his father's often cruel supervision, who greatly expanded Ford Motor's overseas presence, launched what then was a successful Mercury division to match GM's Pontiac and Chevrolet and Chrysler's Plymouth brands, and counted the Model A, the Mercury Zepher and the Lincoln Continental among his triumphs.
Mostly, though, Edsel was a giant as a philanthropist and enjoyed the widespread affection of Ford Motor employees. Just 14 years after Edsel's tragically early death at 49 in 1943, it was natural that top Ford executives would hold out for honoring a man they had loved working with. It's for them I feel badly when thoughts turn to this car, so well-intentioned (affordable luxury for consumers, a proud flagship meant to celebrate the family firm's greatest leader) but so poorly executed in everything from timing to reading consumer preferences to rushing the glitch-prone vehicle onto showroom lots. A sad irony is that if Edsel had lived, any "Edsel" with which he was involved would most likely have been a commercial and engineering success.